Today is the birthday of Russ Columbo (Ruggiero Eugienio di Rodolpho Colombo, 1908-1934). One of 12 children born to Italian immigrants in Camden, New Jersey, Columbo was already playing violin professionally in bands in vaudeville houses and nightclubs by the age of 13 (1921).
By the late twenties, he was a member of Gus Arnheim’s orchestra, one of the top dance bands in the country, and taking the occasional lead vocal. He can be seen with Arnheim’s band in two early Vitaphone films, released in 1927 and 1928. Interestingly he can also be seen (but not heard) in the 1929 silent film The Wolf Song, with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez.
Columbo’s career truly took off when songwriter Con Conrad became his manager. Conrad landed Columbo his own nationwide radio show at NBC in 1931, and his crooning made him one of the top heart throbs of the day, usually mentioned in the same breath with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. His theme song was “You Call it Madness, But I Call it Love”. He is also associated with two songs he co-wrote with Conrad, “Prisoner of Love” and “Too Beautiful for Words”. As the 30s rolled on, Columbo was having success in Hollywood as well. Often he played himself in nightclub scenes, but he also has a role in the all-star Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933), and had top billing in the 1934 film Wake Up and Dream, his last, with a familiar plot about a love triangle amongst vaudevillians.
Unfortunately it was all cut short in 1934, by what seems to have been a freak accident…but sounds awfully suspicious to me! He was visiting a friend named Lansing Brown, when Brown claims to have lit a match too near an old fashioned dueling pistol, which discharged, shooting Columbo, who was across the room, in the forehead. It may well be true — but if I were a juror at this trial, I would definitely be scowling.
There is a “James Dean” aspect to Columbo’s sad death. He was so young (26) and was really at the top, with higher heights about to happen. He was slated to star in a film adaptation of the musical Show Boat next, and his current girlfriend was Carole Lombard.
But, no, no you go ahead and keep your guns! I can see why you want to play with them! Hours of enjoyment!
I found a terrific, much fuller blogpost about Columbo’s life and career (and death) at CemeteryGuide.com: read it here.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.