Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Battle of the Baritones at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre

This February 12 is a little known anniversary here in Brooklyn. It will be 80 years ago on that day that a young crooner named Bing Crosby first took to the stage at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. Below is an article about Crosby, his fellow crooners Rudy Vallee and Russ Colombo, and their time at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, a building which is still extant, currently used as a gymnasium for Long Island University. The article was submitted to us by Martin McQuade, a singer and Bing Crosby expert. See more about Martin’s bio below this story.

There’s lots of public enemies, but I know only three.
Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.
They’ve made a million married women wish that they were free.
Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.

Those crooning vagabonds are stealing all our blondes,

Now I know what has become of Sally;
And ev’ry time you kiss your girl, who is she thinking of?
Crosby, Columbo and Vallee.

This 1931 song gives a hint of the spell cast by Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo and Rudy Vallee when they performed at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre, one of the major stages where these legendary troubadours pioneered the art of popular singing and minted the template for the musical idol, which has become a mainstay of our popular culture. 

The Brooklyn Paramount, at the corner of Flatbush and Dekalb avenues, opened its doors on Nov. 24, 1928, right at the cusp of a technological revolution. It was at this time that talking pictures were new, and the worlds of broadcasting and recording were transformed by the introduction of the microphone. The Brooklyn Paramount was the first theater expressly equipped for sound. Electronic amplification enabled vocalists to sing intimately and helped usher in the age of the crooner.

Rudy Vallee/AP Photo
One of the early crooners was Rudy Vallee. Vallee at first was hesitant to sing, thinking that his tenor voice was too thin and nasal. He compensated by using a megaphone. But the microphone soon made the megaphone obsolete and Vallee’s sweet, fastidious singing won favor.

In 1929 he appeared throughout New York on the Keith vaudeville circuit. He was a hit throughout the chain, except when his tour ended at The Albee Theater, on Dekalb Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. The singer recalled in his autobiography, “They received us courteously but their fervor was restrained. There are few out-and-out smashes in that borough. Brooklyn (and I say this with great affection) is a country unto itself.”

The situation changed when he was booked in May 1929 for 10 weeks at five shows a day alternating with the first run movies at the New York Paramount. Police were called out to maintain order while flappers mobbed the appearances of the personality known as “the voice with a sob in it.” Vallee was concerned when the management decided to move him to the New York Paramount’s sister theater, the Brooklyn Paramount.

“After six weeks they shifted us (no recriminations) to the Brooklyn Paramount and, remembering the Keith-Albee hauteur, I was a little worried. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, a chance for me to learn the fine art of really running a show. I was to emcee the whole program, which ran approximately an hour, direct the augmented orchestra of twenty pieces, gag with the acts, set the tempos, and then eventually step forward for my own spot.”

Bing Crosby
Vallee returned to the Brooklyn Paramount in December 1929. On December 5 he made headlines when he visited a Brooklyn post office between performances to campaign for early mailing of Christmas gifts and letters. In 1930 Vallee headlined a show at the Brooklyn Paramount called “College Rhythm.” He was joined by Ethel Merman, whose appearance led to George Gershwin casting her in “Girl Crazy.” This launched her fabled Broadway career. 
Rudy Vallee was the first to acknowledge that his heyday was over once he heard the voice of Bing Crosby. In 1926 Crosby joined the band of Paul Whiteman, “The King of Jazz,” where he developed his vocal skills. In 1930 Crosby joined the Gus Arnheim band, headquartered at The Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Los Angeles.

By the time Crosby embarked upon a solo career in 1931 he had shed the tenor range. He understood that the microphone favored baritones. Crosby assimilated many different styles, ranging from classical to jazz, and fused them into a unique sound, which accounted for his meteoric rise.

It must have resembled a ceremonial passing of the torch when Rudy Vallee introduced Crosby at his debut at the New York Paramount Theater on Nov. 6, 1931. He remained there for a record breaking three months, ending on Feb. 11, 1932. Immediately afterward he began an engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount for six weeks at five shows a day, from February 12 until March 24, 1932. He was paid the then staggering salary of $4,000 a week.

This was a prolific time for Crosby in New York. In between his shows in Brooklyn Crosby traveled to Manhattan to wax some of his most classic recordings: “St. Louis Blues” with Duke Ellington and "Shine” with The Mills Brothers; and his signature ballads, “Starlight” and “Paradise.”

 In his autobiography Crosby recalled his time at the Paramount theaters:

“I was used as a master of ceremonies. I sang a song or two, worked in with some of the specialty acts, or did straight for visiting comics. Being an emcee turned out to be rather a merry assignment. I found I could be quite the gabby fellow. I’d always been fascinated with words and their meanings.”

Often Crosby was presented singing off stage or in half darkness or silhouette. There would sometimes be as many as three microphone set-ups so that he could roam the sprawling stage and serenade from different positions.

The theater’s press office enthusiastically heralded his appearances with great ballyhoo: “Brooklyn’s first chance to hear him - Bing Crosby, the Rhythm Boy who made good! An indefinite stay. He’s hot! He’s Torrid! He’s your favorite torch singer of songs you love. Everybody will like Bing, a regular fellow.” 

Thirty-eight Bing Crosby films had exclusive engagements at the Brooklyn Paramount. The first was The Big Broadcast, which featured Arthur Tracy, who headlined at the Brooklyn Paramount the week of Sept. 27, 1932.

Crosby was known as “The King of the Crooners” but one singer posed a threat to his throne. His name was Russ Columbo.
Columbo was used as a standby vocalist when Crosby was unable to perform. When Columbo became the band’s permanent singer, he began to model himself after his predecessor.

The zealous agent Con Conrad persuaded Columbo that perhaps he could rival Crosby’s ascendancy. He arranged for his client to sign recording and radio contracts with Crosby’s competitors. A publicity bonanza was fueled, and “The Battle of the Baritones” began.

The crooners’ combat intensified when Bob Weitman, manager of both Paramount theaters, booked Columbo into the Brooklyn Paramount. This clever maneuver deliberately coincided with Crosby’s engagement at the New York Paramount. Columbo opened at the Brooklyn Paramount on Nov. 26, 1931, and played there for 10 weeks, until Feb. 10, 1932. The newspaper ads touted the initial program as “a gala anniversary show crowning the achievements of three years as Brooklyn’s leading theater.” Sharing the bill during his run were Frances Faye, The Boswell Sisters, The Mills Brothers, and George Burns and Gracie Allen.

There was great hoopla for Columbo: “There’s Only One Place To See Him; Heralding Greater Entertainment than Ever Before; The Romeo of Song Back by Popular Demand.
The bill of fare for Christmas week 1931 included an eight-member female dance troupe, which had just shared the bill with Crosby at the New York Paramount. One of these was Grace Bradley, a well-known movie actress in the ’30s and the widow of William Boyd, better known as “Hopalong Cassidy.”

Bradley remembered of her time at the Brooklyn Paramount: “The audience reaction was always very good. I don’t remember any tearing of clothes or anything like that. The crowds weren’t riotous like the bobbysoxers later on. Russ was so good looking, with a great voice. He was much more a romantic type, but Bing was the one I was crazy about.”
She also recalled the grind of playing vaudeville in her native Brooklyn. “I was doing so many shows that I was losing two pounds a day. It was a matter of life and death! There wasn’t much relaxation. You didn’t even have time to eat. When you start in the morning and work until midnight – it gets to where you don’t have any personal life. You just exist!”

As soon as his Brooklyn Paramount engagement ended, Columbo replaced Crosby at the New York Paramount, just as Crosby began his stay at the Brooklyn Paramount.
Taking advantage of their overlapping engagements at both theaters, the two singers occasionally swapped appearances, rushing on the train to substitute for each other to the delight of their respective fans. This arrangement gained Crosby the title, “The Subway Crooner.”

Soon the mock feud ceased as the careers of the two singers diverged. Columbo’s life came to an end on Sept. 2, 1934, when he succumbed to a wound from a bullet accidentally fired from an antique pistol. He was 26 years old. Crosby, who was one of his pallbearers, went on to dominate the popular culture for successive generations.

When the Brooklyn Paramount opened it was at an historic juncture, as the twilight of vaudeville turned into the dawn of mass media culture. These trailblazing stars rose to the occasion at this landmark in the heart of Brooklyn’s old theater district where for the price of a quarter, Depression-ravaged audiences could find fleeting sanctuary from the turbulent times and enjoy the frivolity and majesty within its hallowed walls.   

Martin McQuade is a consultant for Bing Crosby Enterprises. In 2002, he served as guest curator for Hofstra University’s conference, “Bing! And American Culture.” From 2003-2008 he assisted Crosby's widow Kathryn Crosby in the organization of several tributes honoring her husband, including the 2004 New York Public Library series, “Celebrating the Crosbys,” and  the 2005 Film Society of Lincoln Center 14-film review, “What a Swell Party.” Martin McQuade’s mother was among the audience members during Bing Crosby’s first engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount in February 1932.

The above article is based on a presentation Mr. McQuade made at a June 2006 conference at Long Island University about the history of the Brooklyn Paramount. 

As a singer, Mr. McQuade regularly performs at the Greenhouse Cafe in Bay Ridge (7717 Third Ave.), and will be performing there this Sunday, Feb. 12, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., in honor of the 80th anniversary of Bing Crosby's debut at the Brooklyn Paramount.

1 comment:

Tommy Coca said...

Is the author of this article, Martin McQuade, the same gentleman from Xaverian's Class of 1970?