By Cara Jepsen
“All of these people are dead,” says Rudy Horn as he pages through a photo album, pointing to black-and-white photos of performers with whom he once shared the bill: Ruth Etting, Fifi D’Orsay, George Burns, Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw, George Gershwin, Texas Guinan, Paul Ash, Gloria Swanson, Bonnie Baker, Ray Bolger, Olsen and Johnson, Ruth Hill. “Nobody’s around anymore. I look at my phone book and I might as well throw it out.”
Some, like Buddy Ebsen and Bob Hope, are still alive. Horn spent nearly 80 years in show business and performed for Franklin D. Roosevelt not once but twice. His specialty was an acrobatic drunk act, but he was also a comic, singer, and ballet dancer, and he counted among his friends a who’s who of entertainers.
Today his northwest-side bungalow is filled with vintage furniture and meticulously maintained photo albums. There are also audiotapes, videotapes, and suitcases full of slides. Fats Waller plays on the stereo. On the walls hang signed publicity photos and candid shots of celebrities posing with a slim, mustached Rudy Horn. Still tall and quick-witted, Horn looks closer to 65 than his 88 years.
He got his first break at age eight, when he won a Charleston contest at the seedy Haymarket Theater on State Street. His father, a German immigrant named Henry Horn, operated the huge Marigold Gardens theater at Broadway and Grace and the old Green Mill at Broadway and Lawrence. In those days the Green Mill took up an entire block, now the site of the Uptown Theater. Horn refers to the Green Mill’s current incarnation down the street as “the candy store on the corner.”
One of his first day jobs was jerking sodas for $4 a week at the flagship Walgreen’s on the south side, where new recruits attended school to learn the lingo. Horn considered Charlie Walgreen a good boss: “He would always say, ‘Don’t ever steal anything, just take it and tell me.'” Horn jerked at several soda fountains in Chicago before running away to New York City, where he worked alongside James Cagney, waiting on customers like Bela Lugosi. This was during prohibition; Horn would make seltzer and lime mixers for the stars, who frequently added their own hooch. Occasionally one of them would give him work as a chorus dancer. Later he became a headliner: “If you keep at it long enough, you end up being successful.”
Back in Chicago Horn diversified his act to include singing, dancing, storytelling, and stand-up comedy. “I wanted to be in showbiz so badly. I sang and danced and did a couple of cute stories.” Horn landed a gig at the McVicker’s Theatre on Madison between State and Dearborn, “and went to the top almost overnight.”
During the 1920s, Horn says, “I think I played every sewer in Chicago, the best and the worst. There were 300 to 350 places to play at that time.” Top-of-the-line theaters “had everything,” according to Horn, “a playroom for the kids when you went to see a show. And they served tea and coffee and wafers when you waited for the next movie.”
Then there was Colosimo’s, Al Capone’s joint at 22nd and Wabash. “I worked there off and on. They had a whorehouse upstairs, but I didn’t know that at the time. I used to run up there to get candy, and that was a big deal. Rose, the madam, would give me a check to give to my mother [his father had left her by that time] and I told my mother, ‘Gee whiz, those girls are the nicest. They give me candy and everything.’ She smacked me against the wall and said, ‘If I ever catch you up there again I’ll kill you.’
“In those days if you did something wrong in the club, like heckling an act or being noisy, the hostess would slip a mickey in your drink and you’d want to leave. People would ask, ‘Where did he go?’ and they would say, ‘Oh, he just left.'”
Like Walgreen, Capone was a good boss. “I was always good for a five-dollar bill from that guy, and in those days that was a fortune. He had good and bad points like anyone else; anyone who gets double-crossed can get mean, you know.”
Horn worked in burlesque while he was making his way up the ladder in vaudeville. “You weren’t allowed to swear, you couldn’t say hell or damn, and you had to be very careful onstage. If a little red light in the footlights went on, it meant the police were in the house, so you better not say hell or damn or they’d pick you up and take you to the station.”
Life offstage was also tame. “In burlesque we had a lot of marriages,” he says. “There was a line of girls, comedians, and chorus dancers. They’d meet each other at the beginning of a tour, and son of a gun, by the time we ended some of them would be married.”
For Horn, performing at the White House was an eye-opening experience. One of his performances there was part of a stag show with Fifi D’Orsay, but the event was top secret. “You think of the White House as so pure the way they carry on, then you see it’s just exactly the opposite,” Horn recalls, declining to give details or name names. “FDR had so much personality and was such a friendly guy.”
A week before Horn was slated to play the legendary Palace Theatre in New York, he says, one of columnist Walter Winchell’s lackeys approached him and asked if he wanted a write-up. “If you got a Winchell write-up, your salary went up overnight,” Horn remembers. “But he always wanted a kickback. His manager would come to you and say it would be this amount and you’d be glad to pay it. I didn’t pay and I got in a lot of trouble. I told them to go to hell. I was very independent, and I figured it was supposed to be open and free and based on talent. A lot of people played there and got a bad write-up because they didn’t pay. They said they’d fix me, and I didn’t do the show. The theater manager sued. So I went to Europe, and that was it. They couldn’t get ahold of me there.”
In Europe Horn produced and performed in USO shows with fanciful names like “Night in Rio,” using the name Rudy Van Horn so people would think he was Dutch instead of German. In the late 50s, at a show in Wiesbaden, a young Elvis Presley came backstage to introduce himself. “I didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t entertaining at the time. But he was a polite kid.”
Horn stayed overseas some 20 years, entertaining at military bases and taking side trips to places like Libya. Eventually he married dancer Alice “Alobar” Moorehouse; the two had met in a show and stayed together for 13 years, often working on the same bill. The marriage ended after she became a Jehovah’s Witness. Their son, now in his 50s, is also a Jehovah’s Witness, and neither he nor his mother is on speaking terms with Horn. “He said I couldn’t be saved and that he didn’t want to have anything to do with me,” Horn explains.
During his long career Horn headlined over “tap dancer” Sugar Ray Robinson, and also played with Danny Thomas and the Glenn Miller Orchestra, earning $650 a week. He points to a photo taken around 1940: “Here’s Joey Bishop when he used to carry my bags, when he was trying to get into showbiz.” Horn also knew Frank Sinatra in the early 1930s. “He was a jerk. He treated women like they were filth. I have no use for that man. He’s a big star now–so what? Everybody forgets what he did before. He’s a very shrewd guy, very hot tempered. He wanted to be a gangster, really. Of course now he’s considered a wonderful human being. He was always good to his family, though. I’ll say that.”
Eventually Horn returned to Chicago to care for his ailing mother, who died in 1968. He played club dates in the U.S. for several years before he stopped dancing altogether and began acting in commercials for Joe Sedelmaier. Now Horn heads up Puppet Patters, a group that brings puppet theater to poor children, and serves as director of the Three Sheeters, a vaudeville organization. He was one of the subjects of Vanishing Act, a video documentary about vaudeville directed by Will Clinger. Clinger will discuss the heyday of Chicago’s entertainment business with Horn at ten this Saturday morning at the Newberry Library.
Horn still keeps in touch with a handful of cronies. “We had 100 to 112 people in one show,” he says. “We didn’t make much money, but we all worked. Back then stars were really stars. People seemed more happy, and everybody loved everybody else, and that doesn’t exist today. It’s another world and it’s hard to get used to it, and there’s nobody around.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Rudy Horn photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.