Rudy Vallée must have known he was going to be famous. Or he suffered from an undiagnosed case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Those are really the only possible explanations for the four and a half tons of ephemera that make up the Rudy Vallée Collection, owned by and housed at the Thousand Oaks Library. In the 1930s and ’40s, Vallée was as big as stars got, a multimedia sensation who sang, acted, played saxophone and hosted several popular radio programs, and he kept every scrap of information to prove it: scripts; photographs; press clippings; sheet music; business records; fan mail; personal letters. Even the receipt for his locker at Yale is in there somewhere. Naturally, Vallée was also among the first radio personalities to begin recording and preserving his broadcasts. Either he had the foresight to realize these things would be important to future researchers of American popular culture, or he was a little bit insane. How else to explain a man who collected menus from every restaurant he patronized?
Regardless, Vallée’s pathological hoarding is Klaudia Englund’s gain. She is one of two archivists employed by the library to organize the pieces of his life into an easily accessible whole — all 250 linear feet of it. She and her colleague, Jeanette Berard, spend their days in a cramped, climate controlled warehouse above the library’s archives building, sifting through endless rows of boxes, taking inventory beneath the smiling, wholesome visage of Vallée himself, who stares down at them from a large cardboard cutout promoting his group, the Connecticut Yankees. Englund, who moved from circulation to her current position in 1999, has a background in archaeology, and for her, what she does here is not much different from digging through the dirt in Syria and Iraq.
“The work at the desk is very similar,” she says. “I really feel it all the time, when I open a new box and there is stuff I discover, and I have to figure out what it is and describe it and make it safe and put it in folders and boxes and clean it. Maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much.”
Vallée’s isn’t the only career Englund and Berard are responsible for cataloguing. Small as it may be, the room in which they work is home to the Thousand Oaks Library Foundation’s American Radio Archives (ARA). Item for item, it is among the largest resources of memorabilia from the “Golden Age of Radio” in the United States, a literal treasure trove of material from forgotten figures, names long buried beneath the avalanche of new media that hit in the 1950s beginning with the advent of television. And once it combines with the Pacific Pioneers Broadcasters (PPB) collection, it will, according to the PPB, be the largest in the country.
The library reached an agreement with the Hollywood-based organization to acquire their archive in 2000 — the only question is where to put it.
The answer has been in development ever since: a brand new 40,000-square-foot facility, complete with a radio museum, listening room, replicated DJ and engineer booths, a theater and, perhaps most importantly, enough space for the archivists to work on multiple assignments at once. The estimated cost of the project is roughly $30 million.
“It’s hugely ambitious,” says Steve Brogden, library services director, “but we’ve been very pleased with the response we’ve gotten so far.”
Thankfully for Brogden, Thousand Oaks is something of a radio town. At least, it was in 1984, the year the Library Foundation formed. Back then, several iconic Golden Age radio personalities lived in the area, which inspired the foundation to start the ARA, beginning by outbidding the Smithsonian for the Vallée collection. Later, they obtained their second biggest collection, that of former Thousand Oaks resident Norman Corwin. Though not as famous to the general public as Vallée was in his prime, Corwin is a legend in the industry. He wrote two of the most listened-to broadcasts in radio history: We Hold These Truths, honoring the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, in 1941; and On a Note of Triumph, aired the day of the Allied victory in World War II. His screenplay for the Vincent van Gogh biopic Lust for Life, starring Kirk Douglas, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1956; 50 years later, a film about Corwin’s own life, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.
“Ray Bradbury called him the greatest writer, producer, director of radio’s golden age,” Brogden says. “When Orson Welles did War of the Worlds, Corwin was in the studio right below, and they were good friends. Corwin came up, ‘What the hell is going on up here? We’re getting all these calls.’ ”
At age 97, Corwin continues to produce writings and other material, all of which goes almost immediately onto a shelf in the ARA’s current warehouse, alongside nearly 200 other grey boxes which hold his work. He has agreed to serve as honorary co-chair of the fund drive for the new building, and Brogden believes his name will help encourage donations on a national scale. (Philanthropist Robert Ahmanson, who passed away on Sept. 1, was to be the other chairperson.)
Brogden hopes to have raised enough money between the end of 2008 and the middle of 2009. From that point, he says the complex will take two years to construct — making it a full decade from conception to creation. The original design, at 14,000 square feet, was rejected as too small, pushing the timeline out further than initially expected. Englund says the PPB is eager to see the facility open: a transformer explosion at their Clubhouse in Hollywood two years ago rendered their archive inaccessible without hazmat suits; it remains sealed off by the Department of Water and Power. The sooner they can relocate their collection, the better.
While the ARA is strongest in the area of scripts, the PPB collection is vast and varied. It includes: transcription discs of ancient network comedy and suspense programs, as well as news broadcasts circa WWII; the CBS and Standard sound effects libraries; trade publications and schematic manuals; vintage radio equipment, such as mixing boards and early stereos, and other miscellaneous artifacts, like Bing Crosby’s favorite microphone.
For Brogden, having all this stuff under one huge roof isn’t simply about bragging rights — he is reluctant to confirm the collection would be the largest in the country — it is about saving a significant part of America’s social history. In its current form, the ARA is only available to the public on a reservation basis; as such, it is primarily used by scholars, some of whom have spent weeks combing through the archives, researching books and dissertations. But Brogden wants to afford everyone the chance to view what they have, and be educated by it.
“I think radio, even though it peaked with the Golden Age in the ’30s and ’40s, that was such a critical time in our nation’s history, that was a very important aspect of how it works and how it contributed to the country,” he says. “Also, someone has suggested that radio played a significant role in the development of the country, because immigrants were coming from all over the world, and it was very important to them that they learn the English language. Before television really hit, radio was one way people could learn the English language. For that reason, it’s a critical component.”
Englund, who was born in Germany, agrees. She does not see the ARA as a graveyard for a dead medium, but as a tribute to a form that remains as vital in the 21st century as it was in the early 20th.
“It’s still pretty much alive,” she says. “There are different formats of programs, in many cases, than you used to have. There’s not a lot of the suspense and mystery series. But in one form or another, it’s still alive.”