Friday, September 2, 2016

THE TRAGEDY OF RUSS COLUMBO: 82 YEARS LATER

In the 1930s, Bing Crosby was considered the "king" of the crooners and rightfully so. There did not seem to be much competition to unseat Bing in those years. Bing had replaced matinee idol but nasally singer Rudy Vallee as the most popular singer in America. If I had to pick a singer that could have possibly rivaled Bing was Russ Coulmbo. Unfortunately, his life was cut short 82 years ago.

While Columbo's fledging movie career temporarily stalled, new opportunities arose in other venues. He was offered a new NBC prime-time radio series early in 1934. Emanating "deep in the heart of Hollywood," in the words of presenter Cecil Underwood, the program aired every Sunday night. Introduced as "the Romeo of songs, here with songs to delight your ears and heart," Columbo would open with the greeting "Good evening, my friends," followed by his theme, "You Call It Madness," which would also return as his closing number. His song selection featured a blend of hit recordings and plugs for material from current films, including "With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming" from Shoot the Works, "I’ve Had My Moments" from Hollywood Party, and "Rolling In Love" from The Old Fashioned Way.

At the same time, Columbo signed a new recording contract with Brunswick (once again filling the void left by the departure of Crosby to another label, in this case, Decca). Despite the absence of precise sales figures, his releases from that period reputedly sold exceedingly well. According to Robert Deal, he was reportedly earning more than $500,000 a year from all sources—a vast sum at the time.

These developments appear to have spurred Universal Pictures to select him for a major part (as Gaylord Ravenal) in the heavily-publicized film version of the Kern-Hammerstein musical, Showboat. When that project was temporarily put on hold due to production problems, Columbo was assigned an interim lead in Wake Up and Dream, a low-budget, standard backstage musical also starring June Knight, Wini Shaw, and Roger Pryor.

Public interest in Columbo was further hyped by his romance with actress Carole Lombard. In the fall of 1933, a short time after her divorce from actor William Powell, Lombard fell in love with the singer. For his part, Columbo responded favorably to her zany behavior as well as accepting her salty language, something which had offended a number of her male friends in the past. Although marriage seemed a distinct possibility, Lombard’s close associates doubted that the affair would come to that. According to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, "the couple’s relationship was based on many things – but not sex." Hopper cited a number of traits which caused her question Columbo’s masculinity, including the considerable trouble he spent on his hair and sun-tanning treatments as well as his habit of carrying around a pocket-mirror produced on occasion to gaze at himself in public. It is indisputable, however, that Lombard was devoted to him and made every effort to help further his film career. She invited Columbo onto film sets to observe the filmmaking process and to pick up pointers on acting. He repaid this favor by coaching her in the two songs she was designated to sing in the movie White Woman.


By September 1934 it was clear that Crosby’s career had thus far been more successful than his own. Columbo had appeared in only four films during 1933-1934, two of which he did not star in. Crosby on the other hand had starred in six features during the same time span. Furthermore, the material he had been given to sing in films trailed far behind that provided Crosby with regard to both quality and sheer quantity. While Crosby’s film music played a significant role in propelling him to stardom, Columbo’s song hits were for-the-most-part limited to recordings and radio broadcasts. Deal states "he had the greater romantic appeal but very little chance to demonstrate any versatility and it seems likely that there were more sides of him to be seen on film than his presenters had up to that time revealed to the cinema audiences."

Columbo and Lombard continued to date up to his death; they could be seen dining and dancing at the Cocoanut Grove most Wednesday nights. His last recording session took place on August 31, 1934; he concluded with the Allie Wrubel and Mort Dixon composition, "I See Two Lovers."

On September 2, just hours before his regular Sunday evening radio program, Columbo stopped by to see his life-long friend, Lansing V. Brown, Jr., who lived with his parents at 584 Lillian Way in Beverly Hills. He was going to have some publicity shots taken by Brown, who was highly respected as still camera man and much in demand as a portrait photographer. After the photos has been taken, they talked about a common interest, antique pistol collecting. Brown then produced a pair of duelling pistols which dated from the Civil War, part of his own collection of curios. He placed the head of a match under the rusty hammer of one of the pistols with a flourish, then pulled the trigger to ignite the match in order to light a cigarette. The pistol, which evidently hadn’t been used for over sixty-five years, still housed a charge of powder and an old bullet. The chick of the hammer caused the charge to explode and the corroded bullet struck the top of a table located between the two friends, ricocheted, striking Columbo in the left eye, then entering his brain.


Rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital, it was discovered that the bullet, after piercing the center of the brain, had fractured the rear wall of the skull. A brain specialist summoned to the scene, Dr. George Paterson, counseled against the delicate operation being considered unless Columbo’s rapidly waning strength could be restored. The singer lingered in agony for six hours before dying; the doctors were amazed that he hadn’t been killed instantly. Bedside mourners included members of his family and former girlfriend, Sally Blane. Those outside in the hospital corridor included Lombard, who had heard of the tragedy by telephone at Lake Arrowhead where Columbo was to have joined her to vacation the following week, film producer Carl Laemmle, and other film celebrities.

A crowd of 3000 persons attended funeral services at the Sunset Boulevard Catholic Church in Hollywood. The pallbearers were Bing Crosby, Gilbert Roland, Walter Lang, Stuart Peters, Lowell Sherman, and Sheldon Keate Callaway.


Columbo’s seven surviving brothers and sisters conspired to keep news about the death from their mother. Having suffered a heart attack two days prior to Columbo’s accident, they were concerned that the shock of hearing about his death would kill her. A story was concocted about Columbo agreeing to a five-year tour abroad. While money from his life insurance policy was used to support her, the deception was maintained for a decade until she died. The family employed a variety of strategems during this period including sending letters, allegedly written by the singer, which contained newsy accounts, tender sentiments, and reports of his many successes. Warren Hall noted, in the October 8, 1944 issue of The American Weekly (a Sunday supplement distributed in the Hearst syndicated newspapers), that they took the further precaution of imprinting each envelope with a rubber stamp to simulate a London postmark. The same stamp was conspicuous on the wrappings of the Christmas and birthday gifts which arrived "from your loving son."

The family also played records in order to simulate his radio program. The only radio shows actually heard in the Columbo household were those that made no mention of bandleaders. Even though his mother was almost totally blind, all newspapers coming into the house were carefully censored. Lombard assisted by corresponding with Mrs. Columbo, explaining that her son was unable to visit because he was performing in the major cities of Europe. All visitors were warned to speak as though Russ were still alive and more popular than ever. According to Hall, when Mrs. Columbo died in 1944 at the age of 78, her last words were: "Tell Russ…I am so proud…and happy."

Many music historians have openly questioned whether the "Battle of the Baritones" would have turned out differently if Columbo’s life hadn’t been tragically ended...

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