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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

A Crooner's Interrupted Melody

May 06, 1996|Cecilia Rasmussen

At the height of Hollywood's Golden Age he was one of the town's most sought-after bachelors. He was a crooner and Valentino look-alike with flashing eyes and a smile that could charm a sphinx. His composition, "Prisoner of Love," became his vocal trademark. He was taller than his principal competitor--Bing Crosby--and most Hollywood insiders considered him more handsome, better dressed and more formidable at the microphone.

But whatever his virtues, Russ Columbo lacked something Crosby had in abundance--time. And even today, his untimely death in 1934 remains shrouded in the sort of tantalizing mystery that so frequently obscures the tragedies of the rich and famous.

Born Ruggiero Eugenio de Rodolfo Columbo in San Francisco in 1908, he was the 12th son of a 12th son. After moving to Los Angeles with his family, he attended Belmont High School, where he became a violinist with the school orchestra. Before he dropped out of high school, Columbo was earning money as a musician, playing in theaters for silent films. He was soon hired to play "emotion" music for silent film vamp Pola Negri's love scenes.

Negri was instrumental in helping Columbo get bit parts in films and later played a major part in publicizing his career.

In the late 1920s, shortly after Rudy Vallee made "crooning" and dancing cheek-to-cheek a national craze, Columbo burst onto the national scene as the new pop style's prime exponent.

And when he wasn't singing, he was swinging on his violin with other leading performers, such as George Eckhart's orchestra, which performed at the Mayfair Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, Slim Martin's band at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood and Professor Moore's orchestra at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

In 1928, when Columbo joined the Gus Arnheim Orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove as a violinist, he would croon tunes with the band's talented young vocalist, Crosby. After Crosby left the act, Columbo took over.

Columbo received skyrocketing profits from early talkies in which he co-starred, "Wolf Song" (1929), "Street Girl" (1929), "Dynamite" (1929) and "Moulin Rouge" (1930).

While he continued making movies, Columbo organized his own band, rented a garage on Santa Monica Boulevard and opened a nightclub called Club Pyramid.

By the early 1930s, Columbo was in the middle of "the battle of the baritones," with Crosby singing on CBS radio and Columbo on NBC's Blue Network. (Crosby was indirectly responsible for launching Columbo's radio career. Columbo and his agent were broke and needed to get back to New York for Columbo's broadcast debut. The agent scraped up the money by selling Crosby an old car.)

Columbo was billed as "Radio's Valentino" and the "Romeo of Song." The combination of his sensuous voice and good looks created a magnetism that few women could resist. There was a long list of romantic "interests," as the era's popular fan magazines described them, including Constance Bennett, Sally Blane, Dorothy Dell and Carole Lombard.

As his career took off with his radio show, nightclub, theater appearances, films, orchestra and composing, Columbo was making as much as $7,500 a week. He spent many hours singing and writing about the powers and pitfalls of love, including "You Call it Madness (But I Call It Love)."

Then, at the height of his career, tragedy came suddenly.

Sept. 2, 1934, was to have been a big day for the 26-year-old Columbo, who was to have announced his engagement to Carole Lombard that afternoon. But shortly after lunch, he went to visit his best friend, portrait photographer Lansing Brown, who lived on Lillian Way in the Wilshire district. As they were looking at Brown's Civil War era dueling pistols, Brown's went off, ricocheting off the top of a mahogany desk, piercing Columbo's left eye and piercing his brain.

The star's pallbearers included such movie greats as Crosby, Gilbert Roland, Walter Lang, Stuart Peters, Lowell Sherman and Sheldon Keate Callaway.

Columbo's aging mother had suffered a heart attack and had been hospitalized just two days before his death. Fearing the news of her son's death would kill her, family and friends kept it from her.

For more than a decade after Columbo's death, his mother remained in poor health and partially blind. Family members faked letters and telegrams each month from London, where they said her son was working. A monthly check arrived for $398, supposedly sent from his earnings. The payments were actually from a double indemnity $25,000 life insurance policy.

At the end, that was all that remained of Russ Columbo's short-lived but frenetic plunge into music, glamour and romance.

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