How Russ Columbo became The Valentino of The Radio

by Beverly Adam (author of Two Lovers: the love story of Russ Columbo and Carole Lombard)

Russ Columbo’s connection to Rudolph Valentino was a genuine one. He worked when he was a young man for Pola Negri (Valentino’s last lover). He was a recognized violin virtuoso who played both classical, as well as contemporary music. This ability brought him to the attention of silent movie star Pola Negri, who was looking for a violinist.

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Russ Columbo.

Russ was performing one evening at the Mayfair Ballroom when Pola walked in and saw him. The resemblance between her lover Valentino and Russ was striking. She hired him on the spot, asking him to report to her set the following day to play background mood music. This was the era of silent film and live music was played during filming to help set the mood for the actors.

Russ was a young eighteen years old and had been looking for a way to work in motion pictures. He worked for Pola playing violin music and occasionally she found him work as an extra, working as an unnamed actor on films. For two years Russ worked for Pola and played his violin. During this time she was involved with Rudolph Valentino with whom she performed in movies.

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Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri

In August of 1926, news was brought to the movie set that Rudolph Valentino had died in New York from complications due to an appendicitis surgery.Valentino was only 31 years old. Russ was in the middle of performing Dvorak’s Humoresque while a love scene was in the process of being filmed. A messenger whispered to Russ, “Valentino has collapsed into a comma and died.”

Stunned by the news, Russ suddenly ceased playing.

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Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri

Noticing that Russ had stopped and now wore a bereaved expression on his face, Pola asked, “What is the matter with you? Why did you stop playing right in the middle of a scene?”

“Rudolph Valentino is dead,” Russ responded.

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Pola Negri at Valentino’s funeral

The movie star fainted, and Russ later vouched for the fact that it was not an act, but from genuine shock. For days Pola was inconsolable over the loss of her lover.

Russ went on with his career and worked with the Gus Arnheim Orchestra playing the violin and singing. It was at The Cocoanut Grove that he was discovered during a performance by the songwriter Con Conrad who became his manager and brought him to New York City where he found stardom on the radio and stage. He won the hearts of thousands of young girls and listeners who heard his velvety baritone voice on the radio. The songs he composed such as,  You Call It Madness, But I Call It Love, Prisoner of Love, and Too Beautiful For Words, became  billboard charted hits.

Years later Russ returned to Holywood, after breaking up with his manager, and Universal Pictures considered having him star in a biopic about Rudolph Valentino, but it did not come to fruition.

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Rudolph Valentino in The Son of The Sheik.

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Russ Columbo