The train pulled into Portland’s Union Station at 11:45 a.m. while police held back a throng of over 2,000 people trying to get a glimpse of Maine’s brightest star, Rudy Vallee. After a moment, the 28-year-old stepped off the train and into his mother’s arms while a local band blared his hit song “Vagabond Lover.”
The crowd went wild.
Vallee and his parents got into a 1930 Packard convertible and led a parade of 50 cars up Congress Street. People lined both sides all the way to Monument Square, where his car hung a left down Elm Street and whisked him away to Westbrook, his hometown.
Once there, Vallee, who left town a pretty good saxophone player and returned a nation-wide radio host, singing sensation and matinee idol, presided over three days of doings in his honor. He was given the key to what was then known as Paper City, because of the mill that employed most of the town. Later, the local Lions Club held a banquet for him and the corner in front of his father’s drug store at Bridge and Main Streets was renamed Rudy Vallee Square.
Newspapers and photographers covered his every move that July in 1930.
“Whistles blew bells rang, women, flappers and children shrieked, ‘Rudy!’” one paper wrote. “Rudy was visibly affected as he called practically everyone by name.”
I first saw pictures of these events, in the form of photo postcards, this past spring, 86 years after the fact. They were hung in a dim display case in Mercy Hospital on State Street. I walked by them every day for a week while visiting my father, who was recovering from surgery.
Rudy Vallee was the first pop crooner. He came along at a time when the microphone had just been invented for recording records. Singers no longer had to shout into a horn to make the needle dig into the wax mold. The microphone did all the hard work. Vallee could coo and sing in a quiet — and for the time — sexy voice. Playing his records was like having him sing next to you on the couch. It was intimate. It was exciting.
Without Rudy Vallee there’d be no Bing Crosby, no Frank Sinatra, no Johnny Hartman.
Of course, he also made the “Maine Stein Song” famous as well.
I made a mental note to come back in July, the anniversary of the events, and find out more about the photos.
A few weeks ago, I walked back into Mercy, but the photos were gone. In their place were other old photo postcards. Above them, a faded sign indicated they were from the collection of a Dr. Bruce Nelson. I asked the lady at the front desk if she knew how to contact him. She pointed to the security office behind her. In there, an officer said I should talk to the public relations office. I asked where that was. He said, “in a secure building.”
I got a phone number instead.
The public relations folks didn’t quite know who Dr. Nelson was, but they thought he might be retired and living in Cape Elizabeth. I found his number in the phone book.
When I called, his wife answered and confirmed he was the man I was looking for, but he was out hunting postcards at a flea market. I left a message. After another message the next day, I got a call from the good doctor. He invited me over to see the cards.
I chatted with the retired surgeon for more than two hours. He was a delight. The postcards, like most in his collection, are real photographs made on photographic paper. They’re not printed with ink, like a lithograph. There’s no writing or post marks on them. They are unsent. Looking at his records, he told me he bought them as a set of eight in October 1994.
“These are real photographic history,” he said.
He’s been putting postcards and other paper ephemera in that display case at the hospital for 25 years, he told me. He has the key to open it himself.
My next stop on the Rudy Vallee hunt was the Westbrook Historical Society, which is only open two mornings a week. They have a nook dedicated to all things Rudy. That’s where I found the contemporary newspaper clippings telling the story of Vallee’s visit home.
“I’m going to eat home-cooked food. The kind of ham and eggs and popovers and cereals with maple sugar powdered over them, that New York never heard of,” Vallee told one reporter about what he was looking forward to at home. “I will drive to Old Orchard Beach where I will get some real bathing in the Maine surf.”
Over the years, Vallee made more than 30 films, starred in broadway shows and often spent summers in western Maine at Kezar Lake. He never forgot Maine or Westbrook. His widow, Eleanor, presided over a rededication of Rudy Vallee Square in 2009, donating a bust of the singer.
Rudy Vallee made his final trip back home in 1986, being laid to rest in the family plot at St. Hyacinth’s Cemetery. After leaving the historical society I stopped at his grave. Small, flat headstones line the grassy area in front of the family marker. Rudy Vallee’s is the only one with flowers. I wished him an early happy birthday — which is today — and sang one of his songs as cars whizzed by on the street.
Then, I put my helmet back on and hummed “Vagabond Lover” all the way home.