Succeeding, Despite Close Calls
Born 116 years ago today, Rudy Vallée (1901-1986) had already enjoyed an amazing entertainment career run as a sweetly voiced, seductive crooner, bandleader and radio and recording superstar in the nascent era of mass media. His musical fame paved the way into movie roles in which he started out as a somewhat stiff but still appealing lead in musicals, and later evolved into a nimble comedy player, particularly for Preston Sturges as the scatterbrained millionaire J.D. Hackensacker III in The Palm Beach Story (1942) and dithery brother-in-law August Henschler in Unfaithfully Yours (1948), and also earning high marks and laughs as self-righteous DA Tommy Chamberlain in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947). He thrived on live performance, whether for crowds of thousands in packed auditoriums or in swank nightclubs for the easy-listening, nostalgic smart set. A one-time scriptwriter for Vallée’s radio shows had evolved into a bit of a show-biz icon himself: Abe Burrows, who wrote the book for the classic Broadway musical Guys and Dolls and was reteaming with that show’s composer-lyricist Frank Loesser on a new Main Stem project, sought out Vallée for one of its leads: World Wide Wicket conglomerate chairman J.B. Biggley in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. At first he was reluctant, but after finally being allowed to read a draft of the first act, Vallée signed on to return to Broadway after a 16-year absence. But before the triumphant conclusion of a 1,417-performance Pulitzer Prize-winning, seven-time Tony®-winning run for which the veteran performer never missed a show, there was a period of uncertainty during early rehearsals. The legend’s fourth and final wife Eleanor Vallée recalled in her 1996 My Vagabond Lover: An Intimate Biography of Rudy Vallée (written with Jill Amadio) a certain evening rehearsal break when author-director Burrows took Vallée out for coffee: “Once seated, Abe got down to business. ‘You’re fired. Frank wants you out of the show.’ ‘What’s wrong?’ Rudy told me later his heart was pounding like a sledgehammer. ‘It’s your voice. You’re not projecting.’ When you tell a veteran entertainer who made millions with his vocal talent that his voice is at fault, it’s not surprising to hear an instant reaction. In Rudy’s case, his face turned purple but he couldn’t utter a word! ‘Ellie, I finally spluttered I wanted to prove something to them, but only if we went next door to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater.’ Rudy knew that if he read and sang his part in a theater instead of the cramped rehearsal rooms, Frank would change his mind. ‘I used to fill the Paramount Theater with 5,000 people packed in and, even without the megaphone or a microphone, everyone could hear me. When you listen to me tomorrow, sit at the back, gentlemen. You’ll learn something,’ Rudy instructed. As usual, I called Rudy at 1 AM from California. Totally unprepared for his devastating news, I choked up with tears. How could this happen? I was heartbroken at the pain I could hear behind my husband’s words as he related the events. At the end of the call we were both crying and wishing we were together for this crisis. Then Rudy assured me there was no way he was going to leave the show and that he’d call me after the Lunt-Fontanne theater tryout the following morning. It worked. Rudy kept his part.”
Tony® winner Robert Morse and Vallée would take the production successfully on tour after closing on Broadway, but as the ways of Hollywood movie adaptations usually portend, nothing is certain. The astonishingly faithful and yet cinematically playful Mirisch Company-produced film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) would be no exception. Eleanor Vallée recounted: “It was not without a few heart-stopping moments for Rudy, even before the cameras rolled. Rumors flew that Bing Crosby, then Mickey Rooney, were being considered to play the part of J.B. Biggley. After several sleepless nights, Rudy received a phone call from producer/director David Swift: ‘Rudy, I’ve told United Artists that if they want me for this film, they’ll have to sign you, too.’ Rudy got the part.” She added: “In a 1977 letter to Rudy, Abe Burrows wrote: ‘Anything unpleasant that happened…on How to Succeed was part of the general hysteria that happens on all Broadway shows. Crazy things happen…a sort of fright. The main thing is that you were sensational. The critics thought so, the audience thought so, and I thought so. No one who played Biggley after you could even approach your performance.’ Burrows also confessed in the same latter that he always had a sense of awe working with Rudy.” So, while also marveling at the able artistry of Morse, Michele Lee, Anthony Teague, Maureen Arthur, songwriter Loesser and original musical stager Bob Fosse, we raise a birthday toast to the grand old man who made Grand Old Ivy a rouser to remember thousands of times on stage and one most memorable occasion on the Panavision screen via the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/33017/HOW-TO-SUCCEED-IN-BUSINESS-WITHOUT-REALLY-TRYING-1967/.