by Beverly Adam (author of Two Lovers: the love story of Carole Lombard and Russ Columbo)
So- how rich and famous was Russ Columbo? He was very rich and very famous. Let me put this into perspective for you, Russ Columbo was a big singing radio star. His era was the early 1930’s before television and let’s watch an old movie on TV.
There was no one half as popular as a radio star in the 1930’s. They were heard singing and talking weekly. In Russ’s case he was heard almost daily. He performed live onstage with famous orchestras at grand hotels such as The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, which had it’s own radio program, as well as at clubs like The Golden Pheasant in Chicago and on his own weekly radio show. He had a huge fan base of thousands because everyone knew him. Radio signals didn’t travel very far back then, barely a couple of states at once. He would travel to the Midwest and East coast to be heard and seen with his co- host celebrities like Texas Guinan. They would put on shows at local theaters. He then would visit local radio stations and perform live his music and songs from movies his studio was promoting.
He also had record deals and you could hear him as often as you liked on your record player, and this was long before tape decks and itunes. Brunswick made a phenomenal $500,000 dollars off of Russ in proceeds in a short period of time. That was big money back in the Great Depression when a typical salary was less than fifty dollars a month.
That kind of money didn’t happen with film stars, even as productive an one as Carole Lombard who appeared in eight pictures in one year. She was invited every once in awhile to be heard on the radio in a dramatic presentation, but not daily like Russ. To build-up her career a studio needed influential newspapers, Hollywood gossips, and magazine advertisements to help.
Russ was earning between $1,500-2,000 a week at Universal as a movie actor. A doctor’s entire salary for one entire year was about $3,500. It’s true after the break-up with his mismanaging manager Con Conrad who basically sabotaged his career in New York by cancelling lucrative advertising and record contracts, as well as losing Russ’s Paramount Theater gig, the singer was left with barely a dime. Russ quickly made-up for it when he signed with the movie studios, added in a weekly radio show and was paid nightly for live performances with orchestras and promotional appearances for the studios.
When Russ died his estate totaled $45,000, which wasn’t too shabby for 1934. But what one forgets is that he had residuals about to come in for his songs and the movie roles he had just performed in. They would bring in a ton of money.
Lucky and smart singer Billy Eckstine bought the rights to the last two songs Russ wrote: Yours To Command and Until Eternity, and made millions singing, recording, and yes, leasing the rights, which other performers paid to perform and record. Billy became, as a result, more rich and famous.
So sorry folks, Russ was nowhere near being broke when he died, he was about to be rolling in dough.
Click on the red lettering to learn more about Russ Columbo and the influence his songs had by reading my free blog:Russ Columbo’s music made them rich and famous. One song in particular, Prisoner of Love, struck a chord.