My Interview with Musician, Teacher Rudy Render 1929-2014

Debbie Reynolds with Rudy Render.

Debbie Reynolds with Rudy Render.

Earlier this year, as a friend of his family, I had the opportunity to meet musician and teacher Rudy Render, who died September 11, 2014, in West Hollywood, California, at the age of 85. I wanted to meet the man whose career in show business included a stint as musical director for film legend Debbie Reynolds and an appearance in a Joan Crawford movie, and whose career as a piano player and singer had landed him at number 2 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1949. I wanted to learn why Render eventually left the entertainment industry behind in favor of a second career as an elementary school teacher.

I interviewed Rudy Render in his home January 15, 2015, and we chatted about his Hollywood career. Already quite ill and unable to speak in anything but a gravelly whisper, “Uncle Rudy,” as his family called him, was still gracious and generous with his time, reciting in a sort of stream of consciousness stories about the many friends and acquaintances he remembered from the old days in show biz. Beneath his shock of white hair, a boyish smile lit up his face as he spoke about those heady times when his home and his life were filled with more stars than the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Born Rudolph Valentino Render on July 1, 1929, in Terre Haute, Indiana, a son of Bernard (also a musician) and Lester Render, young Rudy seemed destined for Hollywood from birth, named as he was after a silent film star. A self-taught piano player from the age of 3, he also studied piano in college. He served in the U.S. Army from 1950 to 1952. His first professional break came when he began playing in a small whites-only nightclub in Terre Haute while attending college.

Crediting Terre Haute natives Jenny and Bill Hays (son of the founder of the Hays Code for film censorship) with bringing him to Hollywood, Render said, “They watched me perform in the Flamingo Room on 9th and Wabash in Terre Haute.” They liked what they saw.

I pressed him to talk about the racism he encountered in those days. “There was no mixture of musicians at all, no Caucasians. It was a very prejudiced town.” Render said he had built a bit of a reputation as a musician while he was in college, and he was the first black performer at the Flamingo Room. After him, they hired “another group called Jerry and His Crazy Cats; they were very popular and I stayed with them until I came out here, singing and playing.” After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1949, Render moved to California to pursue a career in show business at the urging of the Hayses, who were well connected in Hollywood.

That same year, Render’s first break came along–an offer from London Records to record “Sneakin’ Around,” written by Jessie Mae Robinson. After the record made number 2 on the Billboard R&B chart, it became something of a standard in R&B circles, and was subsequently recorded by a number of artists including B.B. King and Canned Heat. “Ted Tollis was the one who introduced me to London Records,” Render recalled, at the time they only had a few singers—Teresa Brewer, Joyce Bryant. The studio was on Santa Monica Boulevard near Sunset. As soon as they paid for a session, they said you would get royalties. I never got any. Then the Army got me and that was the end of my career. I was just getting started. Nobody knew who I was when I came out, and the agent I had couldn’t book me right.

While stationed at Fort Ord, California, Render was befriended by Bill Reynolds and later his sister, film star Debbie Reynolds, who both remained his lifelong friends. “It’s because of her brother that I met Debbie. Bill was one of my best friends in the army, and when she came up he introduced her to all the guys and she took us to dinner. He saved me from going crazy. He and his wife had a baby and I could go there and feel normal, and when I got out of the Army we continued the friendship. I didn’t like the army.” Render was first classified 4F, “because of my heart, but then they decided I could be a clerk,” he said. “I was always collapsing and the guys were so nice and they would pick me up and carry me to the barracks. I had a bad heart–enlarged, murmur. Couldn’t go out for sports. I could type so they said I could be used and they put me in an office to type. I didn’t mind that at all, but basic training almost killed me,” he laughed.

Render broke into films with a cameo role in the 1953 Joan Crawford film Torch Song singing “Follow Me,” which was, ironically, dubbed, as was Crawford’s singing voice. He recorded an LP record album—“If You Knew Rudy”—along with a number of singles on the Decca, Dot, and Edison International labels before the armed services draft put a halt to his performing career. He returned to Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) following his time in the Army and earned a master’s degree in 1955. It’s notable that many of Render’s 45s are now commanding substantial prices on the collectibles market, especially in the U.K., home base of London records.

Render’s appearance in Torch Song, turned out to be his sole film role. Listed in the credits only as “Singer at Party,” Render appears briefly at the piano singing “Follow Me.” He recalled that on the set Crawford was all business. “She never spoke to me once, never looked at me. Why didn’t she say something to me? That’s Joan. I was not important enough.” Render was important enough, however, to land a part in Crawford’s 1959 film The Best of Everything; unfortunately his appearance ended up “on cutting room floor.” It was Crawford who got him the part.

In 1959 Render wrote the title song, with lyrics by Charles Lederer, for the film It Started with a Kiss, starring Reynolds and Glenn Ford. After earning his master’s degree, he began a 22-year turn as Reynolds’ conductor and pianist, a job that took him to Las Vegas where he was her accompanist for the one-woman show she launched in 1962 with his encouragement. He also worked with Reynolds on the set of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which was released in 1964.

He remarked that he had been paid a mere $50 for “Sneakin’ Around,” and he credited his circle of Hollywood friends with protecting him from the racial segregation so prevalent in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. When his mother moved to California, he broke the real estate color barrier, with Reynolds’ help, by buying a home in a segregated neighborhood in West Hollywood, where he lived until his death. In her 1988 autobiography, Debbie: My Life, Debbie Reynolds said of Render, “When Rudy and I worked alone together, it was like playtime—sheer pleasure. He was a master at vocal layouts and knew how to get me to be creative in my performance.”

His niece and my friend, Jackie Schuller, told me that her Uncle Rudy had taken her to work with him on the set of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the 1963 musical that earned Debbie Reynolds and Oscar nomination, so I asked him why his name does not appear in the movie credits. “I don’t know,” he said, and it wasn’t for How the West Was Won (a 1962 film with an all-star cast that included Reynolds) either. I got paid!” he said, noting that in both films he had basically worked for Reynolds rather than the studio. “I rehearsed her singing, in a rehearsal hall. She worked so hard on The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She has such energy. When she worked on a movie she gave her all. She’s a wonderful, wonderful woman.”

Render credited his mother for setting him on a musical path. “I started at the age of three, watching her and my daddy,” he said. “It came completely natural, by ear.” Bringing her to California gave him great pleasure, seeing his mother enjoy a rather glamorous life, with stylish clothes and jewelry and the company of Hollywood royalty. “I never had a breakthrough” to star status, said Render, but throughout his career he treasured his friends and their friends. “The Hayses had great friends. She used to invite me to her house for tea. She would send a car; her house was Japanese-style. One night John Wayne was there and greeted me; I thought he was going to break my hand!”

Maya Angelou was a great friend: “I was booked in San Francisco once and Maya Angelou was the star. She would get up there before she sang…. She wasn’t a great singer but she was a great entertainer. I learned from her that you must talk before you perform and get to know your audience.” Render said she referred to him affectionately as “my manager.“

“Sarah Vaughn was one of my best friends until she died [in 1990],” said Render. “She was incredible and funny.” In Las Vegas, “when Debbie was at the Riviera and Sarah was in the lounge, every night we had to go there.”

Of Frank Sinatra Render noted, “He remembered everything you drank. He loved Sarah Vaughn and thought she was a great singer and she had a great voice. She was a great singer…died from cancer, smoking all those years. She had operations on her throat. My ‘papa,’ my mother’s father, died from cancer. I used to think of that whenever I saw Humphrey Bogart smoking.”

During our interview, Render recalled one incident that left an indelible impression. “It was at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills,” he said. “I was working there once and this actress came up; Sunday was the night when a lot famous people came in. Marlene Dietrich was her name. She would just look at me, never applauded, never sipped a drink. The most beautiful face ever.” She came to see him two or three times, he remembered: “God she was beautiful.”

Render remembered that he did earn royalties for It Started with a Kiss, the 1959 Reynolds film for which he wrote the title tune. Of working with prolific screenwriter and director Charles Lederer, who wrote the words to the song, Render remembered him as “a very nice man” for whom it was “always cocktail time.” They [Lederer and his wife, actress Anne Shirley] always liked to have cocktails.” Uncle Rudy then made sure that my martini was replenished.

It was impossible to be a black man in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and not be a victim of racism on some level. Render was no exception, but he was not particularly bitter. I asked him if he was treated badly in the Army and he let me know that he was in a segregated unit, “it was all African American. They were all suffering just like me,” he observed. Although Executive Order 9981 was issued in 1948 by President Harry S. Truman to abolished racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces the last of the all-black units was not abolished until September 1954.

Because of racial discrimination, “I never wanted to go to the South,” Render said, but I had a friend who was a bartender in the club where I worked and I said Debbie’s going down to Florida to perform. He told me We were driving down the street and cops stopped us and said what are you doing in there. Reynolds said, “Don’t you worry, we are not going to have any trouble tonight.” I went with her to see Sinatra and we didn’t have any trouble. I would never go there just to be going. Those people have not changed.

He spoke passionately about the hurt of racial segregation: “The first time I worked in Vegas alone, I could not sit down in the audience. My dressing room was in the basement. I said I don’t want to go there. Debbie said I wouldn’t have that trouble any more.” He recalled that “Vegas was terrible, but Lena Horne and Sammy Davis changed all that stuff. Dinah Washington was at the Sahara; they had a trailer for her because they didn’t want her in the hotel. They changed all that. I was over in another section. It was terrible. I couldn’t wait to get out of that. I heard that the stars would not play there. This was when I was working alone, doing my own act, in the late ’50s, me singing and performing, two weeks, but I didn’t want to stay there to be treated like that. In Hollywood I never had that kind of a problem.”

Pianist Bobby Short was Render’s first cousin. “He was working up on the strip, but I don’t think he went through anything like that. We were not close, but he would not put up with anything like that. They had a smooth way of putting you down; nobody ever confronted you. I was never presented with that in my face. Of course you would be angry, but nobody said it to my face. I don’t know what I would have done.”

“I was an accompanist,” Render said of the bulk of his career. Recalling with a smile his association with choreographer Robert Sidney, he said, “Wonderful man, just died last year at 99. We were all shocked; he had such energy. He’s the one who introduced me to Lena Horne. He taught me how to be an accompanist. “I didn’t know how to do that stuff.” Beginning in 1972, Render gave up being Reynolds’ accompanist. “I was with her over 20 years, before teaching. I left her to go into teaching. I told her I was tired of that show biz stuff.” Render concluded that “the best time of my life was being a teacher. I loved the children. You are giving something to somebody.” He continued to teach at Prairie, Saticoy, and Topeka schools in North Hollywood and Northridge; he also directed the children in school shows, until his retirement on September 11, 2001.

Render never married and had no children. He was predeceased by a brother, Bernard L. Render Jr., and sister Helena Pritchard. He is survived by his sister-in-law, Delores McGee Render of Indianapolis; nieces Jean Jefferson of Houston, Jacqueline Render Schuller (Timm) of Chicago, and Rhonda Render Robison of South Bend; and nephew Michael Render of Indianapolis. He leaves several great and great-great nieces and nephews and many special friends he considered part of his extended family. Once asked how he wanted to be remembered, Render said with characteristic modesty, “that I had a lot of love for my family and friends.” When I asked him what his best advice to young people was, he said, “Let nothing or nobody kill your spirit.”

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