On May 30, 1923, film star Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926), in the midst of a personal appearance tour that took him to all parts of the country, arrives for his only known visit to Seattle. The actor gives a dance exhibition, thrilling local audiences with a glimpse of his famous Argentine tango, and lends his movie star persona to Children’s Orthopedic Hospital on behalf of their annual fundraising effort.
Born on May 10, 1895, in Castellaneta, Italy, Rodolpho Gugliemi did not seem to be destined for big things. As a young man, he flunked out of an Italian military academy and, after briefly entertaining thoughts of farming, left home and fell into the easygoing café life of Paris. Seemingly without ambition, Rodolpho's relocation to Paris was a brief and unpromising period, in which the young man often lived hand-to-mouth. In December 1913, looking for new opportunities, he took leave of Paris for New York City.
Once in America, he took several odd jobs -- for a short time he is known to have been a gardener on Long Island -- and may have dabbled in petty crime. Eventually, however, he returned to the world of bohemia, this time in New York. There he had the opportunity to show off his dancing skills, particularly the tango. It was a talent which eventually landed him a job as a dancing partner for Bonnie Glass, a headline dance attraction at Maxim's, one of Manhattan's trendiest nightclubs.
Though a friendship with actress Alla Nazimova, Rodolpho Gugliemi was eventually (in the late teens) able to secure his first stage work. Shortly thereafter he was introduced to the film business, moving to California and accepting several small supporting roles. Even so, he earned little recognition for his work.
The Big Break
However, one person who did notice was scenarist June Mathis (1892-1927), at the time working on the script for the World War I epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Metro, 1921). After seeing him onscreen, she felt the actor would be ideal for the central role of Julio. Director Rex Ingram (1893-1950) took a chance on the young man, and after the picture’s overwhelming popular success, Rudolph Valentino -- the actor changed his name shortly before arriving in California -- was a star of considerable magnitude. With the release of The Sheik later that year, Valentino’s reputation as an exotic screen lover was set.
Trouble in Paradise
During his 1923 Seattle visit, Rudolph Valentino was in the midst of a dispute with his studio, Lasky-Paramount. Battles over power and control were being waged behind-the-scenes, but publicly the actor claimed to be protesting the cheap program films to which he had been assigned, as well as the practice of block booking. In an era when popular movie stars routinely appeared in three or four new film releases a year, Valentino resisted the studio’s demand that he work. (Block booking was an early distribution practice whereby a studio would tie the releases of major stars to less ambitious efforts. Exhibitors wishing to screen "marquee" pictures had to sign exclusive agreements that forced them to also show the studio's third-rate potboilers. Exhibitors strongly protested this arrangement.)
For failure to work, Lasky-Paramount eventually suspended Rudolph Valentino, and went as far as to obtain a court injunction preventing the actor from appearing onscreen until after his Paramount contract expired on February 7, 1924.
The studio felt they had called Valentino's bluff, since he and second wife, Natacha Rambova (formerly Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy) were heavily in debt. But the pair countered by mounting a personal appearance tour organized by George Ullman (later Valentino's business manager), and sponsored by Minerlava, a beauty clay company. For 17 weeks, the couple gave dance exhibitions across the United States for a reported $7,000 per week, keeping Rudolph Valentino in the public eye and, based on their commercial pitches for Minerlava, providing the company with valuable exposure. The tour began in the spring of 1923 in Wichita, Kansas, where public schools closed on the day of his appearance.
“The Sheik” Comes to Seattle
Despite the excitement that Rudolph Valentino brought to almost every stop on his itinerary, the star's arrival in Seattle was relatively low-key. The Valentinos were expected at 9:40 in the evening on May 30, 1923, traveling from Spokane in the star's private rail car. From the train station, they were to be whisked to the Hippodrome at 5th Avenue and University Street, where Valentino was slated to help judge a combination dance contest/beauty pageant at 10:00 p.m. According to publicity for the event, the pageant served as a national search to help find the star's next leading lady (a role which eventually went to veteran Paramount actress Bebe Daniels).
Unfortunately, their train arrived much later than expected, and the Valentinos entered the Hippodrome well after the dancing competition. The actor then sat with other judges behind a curtain for the remainder of the beauty pageant, which concealed him from the audience, most of whom had come solely for the opportunity to see the motion picture star in person.
When all was said and done, Rudolph Valentino personally selected Katherine Cuddy, a local stenographer, as the beauty contest winner, turning down the half-hearted challenge of Seattle Mayor and fellow judge Edwin J. Brown (1864-1941) on behalf of another contestant. It is hoped that Brown’s candidate did not know that the Mayor was championing her cause, for the next day it was widely reported that Valentino rejected her for having bad teeth. (Ironically, Brown -- who was a prominent Seattle dentist as well as a doctor, lawyer, and politician -- did not notice this defect.)
The Valentinos followed the beauty judging with an electrifying demonstration of their famous Argentine tango, recreating the dance scene from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Both were dressed for the part; as one account put it:
"It is in Rodolph's [sic] blood to wear black velvet pantaloons and stamp his black patent leather boots and click castanets. His manner was quite Argentine; his hair quite brilliantine" (Dean).
Natasha Rambova was also clad in black velvet, offset with a red Carmen-like shawl. "[She] is very brave to put on a ten-dollar pair of black silk stockings so close to her partner's three-inch silver spurs,” noted Times reporter Dora Dean.
The Private Valentino
Dean managed to sneak backstage after the exhibition and take a spot in Rudolph Valentino's dressing room, where she found the actor quite blunt about all the attention his appearances had been garnering. The moment he arrived at the Hippodrome, for instance, a large crowd of girls -- "starving for romance," the actor noted with some disdain -- surged toward the stage. Adoration of this sort wore on Valentino, for it overshadowed his attempts to be taken seriously as a performer.
"`From persons who saw the Four Horsemen I have received intelligent letters of appreciation,’ [Valentino] said. `I like them better than the adoring notes from little girls who want me for their sheik.’
“`But what are you going to do, when all those darling girls want to see you ride [in] the desert and gnash your teeth?’ he was asked.
“`Ah, they should stay at home with their husbands,’ said the slick-haired actor” (Dean).
Wanda Von Kettler, writing for the Star, also managed to get herself into Rudolph Valentino's dressing room at the Hippodrome. It must have been a crowded place: Mayor Brown and Washington's Lieutenant Governor William Jennings "Wee" Coyle (1888-1977) also fought for space amongst a crowd of reporters and fans. According to Kettler:
“Beside Rodolph [sic] sat Mrs. Valentino, his tall and slender brown-eyed wife, in her Argentine dancing costume ...
“He surveyed his guests. Then told them that he wasn't a `sheik.’
“`Of course,’ he declared, with a somewhat resigned laugh, `I've gotten considerable publicity because of the name. But I don't know if it's been the right kind of publicity. The very sentimental girls think I'm all right. They like me. But what about the intelligent women -- and the men? Don't they think I'm a mollycoddle? They do. When I go back in pictures, after the fight with the movie concern is over, I'm going to prove that I'm not the type they think I am ...’
“Valentino plans to write a book. He confided so to some of us Wednesday night.
“`It's going to be a book on the tango,’ he declared. `I'm going to teach all America to dance that dance. Everybody seems to like it, so why not help them learn it.'
"'Dancing,’ he added, `is the greatest stimulant of the day, and is more and more being recognized as such. Since the event of prohibition it has increased 50 per cent.’
“Valentino doesn't `mind’ the letters he receives from admiring ladies.
“`I'm very glad to know,’ he explained Wednesday night, `that I'm being appreciated. I like to hear the opinion of the public, whether it's for or against me. But I know the ladies aren't `in love' with me. They're in love with an `ideal' and they sometimes write to me as a result.’
“As for Mrs. Valentino - being a sheik's wife doesn't bother her at all. When asked about her stand on the matter, she laughed and replied, `I want him to be popular. The more popular he is, the better I like it’" (Kettler).
The Pound Party
Following the Hippodrome appearance, the Valentinos traveled northward for scheduled engagements in Vancouver, British Columbia. They returned to Seattle on June 1, 1923, for a visit to Children's Orthopedic Hospital, where they were guests of honor at the institution's Pound Party.
An annual charity event, the benefit took its name directly from its open request: In lieu of donations, the Hospital accepted a pound of anything -- food, clothing, etc. -- which could be used to help those in need.
The Valentinos were the hit of the function, which a spokesman later declared the most successful in the history of Children's Orthopedic. In total, the event netted a record amount of food and clothing and almost $400 in donations, $10 of which came from the actor himself.
Credit for the success was given solely to Rudolph Valentino's appearance, which garnered much more public interest than past charity drives. It also attracted hundreds of fans to the front lawn of the Hospital, mostly young women hoping to catch a glimpse of the actor as he came and went from the gathering. Thankfully, the throng outside conducted itself in an orderly fashion and the party went off without a hitch.
After partaking in an afternoon tea and reception, the Valentinos went from bed to bed throughout the Hospital, visiting nearly every child and showing a sincere concern for their well being. "A few of the sheik's queries concerning child culture demonstrated a decided lack of knowledge on the subject but a willingness to learn," the Post-Intelligencer got several nurses to admit afterward. "He was quite exercised over the lack of teeth in the mouth of one baby, age eight days" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 2, 1923).
After the Pound Party concluded, the Valentinos slipped quietly out of the city, making their way first to Tacoma, then back down the coast toward Hollywood.
The last word on Rudolph Valentino's 1923 Seattle appearance fell to the Star, which produced a column entitled "Letters from Chief Seattle" after the city's Indian namesake:
“I have met many movie stars, and most of them were painfully conceited. I am glad to see that egotism plays but little part in your character. It is more or less evident that you have been grossly caricatured by envious persons. Come back to Seattle soon and stay longer.
CHIEF SEATTLE” ("Letters to Chief Seattle").
From Man to Myth
Some six weeks after his Seattle visit, the actor came to an agreement with Lasky-Paramount, which allowed him to return for an additional two films at $7,500 per week. More importantly, the agreement gave the Valentinos complete creative control over both projects.
But the triumph was short-lived. After finishing his Lasky-Paramount contract, Rudolph Valentino jumped to United Artists, where studio executives were adamant that Natasha Rambova — who exercized tremendous influence on her husband’s career — not interfere with their pictures. Valentino agreed to this stipulation, but it led to conflict within the marriage and helped bring about its demise.
Still, the United Artists period was a successful one for the actor professionally. He made two of his better films with the studio, The Eagle (1925) and The Son of the Sheik (1926), a semi-sequel to his 1921 monster hit.
But then, in August 1926, at the age of 31, Rudolph Valentino was rushed to a New York hospital suffering from a perforated ulcer. Unexpectedly, in the midst of a fairly routine operation, the actor died.
His death, coming at the height of his popularity, created a hysteria of legendary proportions. Crowds swarmed the streets of New York on the day of his funeral, and there were unconfirmed reports that several young women had committed suicide purely out of grief. Since then, the Valentino legend has continued to grow, although his films are rarely seen today and, to modern audiences, his performances sometimes appear ludicrous -- it's hard to imagine the actor as a romantic archetype as he seduces love interests with bulging eyes and flaring nostrils.
Rudolph Valentino's sustained popularity has led commentators to wonder what would have happened had the actor lived, particularly with respect to the coming of sound film, then only a few years away. Author Kalton Lahue reflects:
“There's little doubt in my mind that the Great Lover would have faced the same fate that awaited Jack Gilbert, who lived to see his own career slowly dissipate beneath his capable feet as the vogue that had swept him to the top disappeared. Rudy might well have pushed into the sound era, but changing public tastes would certainly have ended his reign, regardless of the quality of his voice. And which is the greater burden to carry -- death at the peak of a career that insures immortality among the greats of the screen, or the living death of a career which crumbles about the feet of its creator, rendering him a pitiful impotent remnant of a legend destroyed and an era passed by?” (Lahue).
Whether or not Rudolph Valentino would have made the transition to sound, and regardless of his actual on-screen talent, his mystique as an exotic lover lives on, well known even to those who have never seen his films. His popular screen persona has become much larger than any one of his motion pictures. As such, Rudolph Valentino has remained a popular figure -- an icon of the 1920s and of early Hollywood.