Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Rudy and Rich: The Bijou's Connection to the Golden Era

While Matinee at the Bijou hasn’t been seen nationally for almost a quarter of a century, we at the Bijou still get comments from readers about the show’s memorable theme song.

How did a multifaceted megastar with a six-decade-long career end up crooning a tune for a low-budget show on PBS? And who was the composer who wove history and rhyme into such a memorable musical snapshot? Reality unfolded like a movie script when the original producers of the show forged a link with one of the enduring legends of Hollywood’s Golden Era.

They write that the crooning voice is hauntingly familiar—“I know he sang in the movies, but I can’t think of his name!” And they all remember snatches of the lyrics—“America was standing on breadlines/I don’t remember this next line!/but down at the Bijou people said lines/ like ‘Boop Boop Be-doop! Boop Boop Be-doop!” According to comments by our viewers and readers, the original Matinee at the Bijou theme song—sung by Rudy Vallee, composed by Rich Mendoza—is as much a part of their Bijou experience as the films we presented in the original series.

Composer Rich Mendoza has had a long affiliation with Matinee at the Bijou. He wrote and produced the theme song for the original series back in 1979, and is part of the Bijou Team today as Executive Producer.

Rich received a degree in theatre from Union College, and was a member of the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop studying with Lehman Engel. He is a former part-time member of the faculty of The New School, and he has also taught songwriting as a volunteer at Sing Sing Correction Facility in Ossining, NY, creating the songwriting program at the prison.

Rich began his advertising life as a traffic manager/copy trainee on the American Airlines account at Doyle Dane Bernbach. He left DDB to become a copywriter and sometime radio producer for Blaine/Thompson, the once iconic Broadway theatre ad agency. Among the accounts for which he wrote print, radio and TV ads were Grease, Master Harold and The Boys, Same Time Next Year, Hair, Amadeus, Avalon-Hill Games and the Star Wars Fan Club.

From Blaine/Thompson he went to Grey Advertising as VP/Associate Music Director. During his tenure he wrote and produced musical campaigns for virtually all of Grey’s clients. Among the accounts on which he was most active were Canon Camera, Mitsubishi, Goodrich, Kool-Aid, Dannon Yogurt, Post Cereals, Slimfast, Hess, Kenner/Hasbro, Ivory and Dairy Queen. His work won awards from virtually every major advertising award show.

Rich recalls, “When I composed ‘At The Bijou’ for the original show, I wanted to write not about the movies as mere entertainment, but as a reflection of the national psyche. That movies of the 30s were largely gaudy, fantasy-filled escapes from our shattered economy and ominous shadows of war, is not an original notion, but writing a song that directly contrasted what was going on in the headlines with what was going on onscreen gave me the chance to have great fun with lines like ‘There was no bank panic at Tarzan’s branch.’ My premise was summed up in the couplet ‘At The Bijou bitter gall became as sweet as brandy, and humble pie turned into cotton candy.’"

Rich left Grey Worldwide in 1999 after serving 20 years as VP/Associate Music Director to open the music and audio production company Amazing Tunes, whose client list includes the Muhammad Ali Center, Absolut Vodka, John Malkovich’s Mrs. Mudd clothing line, and the Port Authority of NY/NJ. The studios have recorded several audio books for Random House and Simon and Schuster, including the Grammy nominated “War Letters”.

In addition to advertising work, Rich is very active in the field of children’s television. He’s written songs for “Schoolhouse Rock” (ABC), “PB&J Otter” (Disney Channel), “The Book of Pooh” (Disney Channel) “The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss” (Nickelodeon), and countless others.

When Rich wrote At The Bijou, he felt Rudy Vallee would be the perfect person to sing it. It seemed like a long shot to get Rudy to agree, however, as the show’s budget was long since spent, and there was very little left to offer in terms of financial inducement.

The legendary entertainer was in the final stages of a career that began in the 1920’s when he was approached about singing the theme song to the original Matinee at the Bijou. What gave Rich the idea that there might be a chance was the fact that he was (and is) good friends since college days with Bill Vallee, Rudy’s nephew. He approached Bill for Rudy’s phone number, and to see if Bill thought Rudy might be receptive.

Rudy Vallee was born in 1901 and developed a love of music very early in his childhood. While attending college at Yale, he formed a group called the Yale Collegians, and made his singing debut at the Heigh Ho Club in New York City.

He made his first two records in 1921, and a star was born. But Rudy’s career took a number of different paths over the years. In fact, a pretty solid argument could be made that his trajectory came in three distinct phases:

Rudy was enormous as a singer, radio personality and romantic figure in the 20s and early 30s. It’s hard to fathom the level of charisma or sex appeal he had in his early years.

Apparently he had the girls screaming and lining up outside the Paramount Theatre, long before the same could be said of Frank Sinatra - or later Elvis and the Beatles.

Rudy began his film career in 1929 with a short subject and the starring role in The Vagabond Lover, and would eventually shed his radio idol skin and establish himself as a great comic movie actor, with his role in the 1942 film The Palm Beach Story perhaps representing the pinnacle of this incarnation.

In the 1960s Broadway came calling. Rudy starred in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), which at the time was the hottest ticket on Broadway. Then, in a true case of coming full circle, he appeared in the movie version of the play seven years later.

So when Rich called Bill Vallee it seemed like a long shot indeed, but Bill said the timing and the situation were perfect—Rudy had just created a one-man show that he was trying to get booked in small venues around the country, Rich was Associate Music Director of Grey Advertising and Rudy apparently was eager to get into commercials (he’d never done one), and most importantly, Rudy had just been kicked off a TV morning show for insulting the hostess and was suffering from a combination of remorse and fear that he’d never work again. So as it turns out, he was extremely receptive.

Rich still has some very distinct memories of his experiences with Rudy Vallee. Here are some of his thoughts, more than a quarter-century later:

“When I first phoned Rudy to introduce myself, he’d recently been invited OFF a mid-day talk show on WGBH/Boston. He was touring the provinces with his one-man show and the TV appearance was part of his P.R. efforts. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the first singing telegram, which had been sent to him from Boston to New York. The talk show producers outdid themselves to welcome him. Before bringing him out as a guest they had a small group of dancers and singers perform a medley of some of the songs he made famous, decked out as Western Union delivery boys and carrying megaphones.

No doubt Rudy should have been honored, but apparently he was not in a sunny mood. As soon as he was seated the hostess asked ‘So... how did you come to be identified with the megaphone?’ Rudy scowled, then snapped ‘How come EVERYONE ALWAYS asks me the same STUPID question?’ The hostess looked at the camera and ad libbed ‘We’ll be right back.’ After the commercial break, Rudy was gone.

“This may have been a lucky break for me and the rest of the Bijou gang, as Rudy was feeling quite sheepish about the whole thing and was as eager and cooperative as I could have ever hoped. A few weeks later, the tracks to At the Bijou recorded, I was ready to fly to LA to meet him and record his vocals.

In our conversations he’d mentioned that the thing he missed most about NYC was the cheesecake. When I pulled in to Silvertip, high atop Rue De Vallee (known to the hoi polloi as Pyramid Place) to introduce myself in person, I had with me a pineapple cheesecake from Balducci’s that I’d brought across the country with me. He was enormously pleased and thus began a thoroughly enjoyable relationship which lasted until his death in 1986.

“He was a world of fun, a gracious host and extremely professional in the recording studio. That’s not to say that I never got to see the legendary Rudy Vallee temper, but his explosions were hardly worth taking personally as they were as short-lived and empty of intent as they were colorful.
“Bob Campbell, one of the original Bijou producers, and I were invited to the Vallee manse that week for dinner. After dinner, Rudy honored us with a private performance of his one-man show, in which he reminisced about his fascinating life. This was an extraordinary production as Rudy, busy as a one-armed paperhanger, ran the slide projector, the video playback, the cassette player and the sound system, just as he did when performing the show in public.

“Bob, thinking about a future TV project, inquired whether Rudy would be interested in having his life story produced for television. HBO and Showtime were very new networks at the time and did not have a lot of experience yet in creating original content. Perhaps they’d be open to the proposal. Well, the fuse was lit. Rudy, obviously annoyed and getting more so every second, had already given much thought to such a prospect and he made it clear that his life story wouldn’t be on cable, it would be on CBS and Robert Redford would play the lead. (Rudy, to my knowledge, was never accused of having a problem with self-esteem.

In fact, his tennis court was on top of a building devoted entirely to a museum to himself. (Reportedly, after seeing it, Frank Sinatra quipped: ‘Gee, I wonder who lives here?’) Bob, trying to dig his way out, but only getting in deeper, offered that the timing might be right for such a project as nostalgia seemed to be experiencing a surge of popularity. ‘F*** nostalgia!’ explained Rudy. ‘F*** NOSTALGIA! F*** NOSTALGIA!’ he continued, further clarifying his earlier point.

“While Rudy may not have been particularly frightening when he was angry, he proved to be absolutely terrifying when in a good mood. The next night Bob and I, and Rudy and his wife Eleanor, were going to have dinner at a local Chinese restaurant before heading to the recording studio. Rudy was in high spirits and he insisted we take one of his two Connecticut police wagons to the restaurant, Rudy not only driving, but also being in charge of the lights and sirens. Somehow we survived a journey that at times made Space Mountain seem tame, but Bob remembers vividly drinking in every detail of Los Angeles as it flew by, thinking that he meant to experience life to the fullest if these were to be his last few minutes on earth.

“To say that Rudy was the most colorful character I ever met would amount to damning him with faint praise."

Once funding is in place, Rich will be writing the theme song for the sequel series of Matinee at the Bijou, a tune that will be sung by the incomparable Debbie Reynolds. We asked Rich for his thoughts on the new song:

“When I discovered that the new show would also include films of the 1950s post-WWII years, it occurred to me that movies of that era played a very different role in the national consciousness. With the world safe for democracy, God on our side, and unheard of affluence, the American Dream, whatever that might be, was within reach. But what would The American Dream look like? Whether in films with a social conscience or the fluffiest of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies, I think something serious was going on. Blueprints were being drawn, maps filled in, an ongoing dialogue was engaged in, for designing our evolving Utopia. Perhaps even an attempt to preserve the fruits of our labors before the worm could corrupt them.

“I want to write a ballad that reflects some of that transition while at the same time sounding like we might have found a song that was written in the 50s (maybe was the flip side of Tammy) ...a song which might have had one meaning then, but takes on a layer of irony 50 years later."

Producers are confident that 2011 will at long last mark the debut of the Matinee at the Bijou sequel series. Meanwhile, watch for the original PBS series to debut soon on DVD - with unedited content, upgraded film prints and bonus films. And of course, Rudy Vallee will once again be performing Rich Mendoza’s timeless theme song on the DVD soundtrack. Stay tuned for the release date!

The complete music and lyrics to At The Bijou can be seen here, and you can check out some of Rich Mendoza's other musical creations, as well as his graphic and web design work at richmendozaportfolio.

Many of Rudy Vallee's films and his non-film appearances are available for purchase at Movies Unlimited. Rudy's 1975 autobiography Let the Chips Fall can be purchased at Amazon, and Rudy's wife, Eleanor Vallee (with Jill Amadio), has written a memoir called My Vagabond Lover reflecting on her life with the remarkable Rudy.

Here you can watch the original Matinee at the Bijou opening sequence featuring Rudy Vallee  performing At the Bijou.

No comments: