LOS ANGELES -- Rudy Vallee, the crooner with the raccoon coat and megaphone who became the nation's fi stpop singing sensation, died at his home while watching the Statue of Liberty celebration on television. He was 84.
Eleanor Vallee said she and her husband of 35 years were holding hands while watching Thursday night's telecast of the Liberty Weekend celebration when he remarked, 'I wish we could be there; you know how I love a big party.'
She said Vallee then drew a big breath and died.
Paramedics were summoned, but Vallee was dead by the time they arrived at his large, pink Spanish-style villa in the Hollywood Hills.
Vallee, who would have been 85 on July 28, underwent surgery in February for cancer of the throat. While hospitalized, he suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair.
'So many people have called -- Ken Murray, Jane Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Alice Faye -- there's just been so many,' Mrs. Vallee said.
'President Nixon called. He just loved Rudy. He told me, 'You know Ellie, I love you, and you know what a great American Rudy's been.''
In New York for the July Fourth celebration President Reagan praised Vallee as an 'American institution' who brought 'special magic' to his audiences.
'The music of Rudy Vallee will be a part of American culture for generations to come,' the president said.
Hubert Prior Vallee, the son of a pharmacist, was born in Island Pond, Vt. He later took his fi st name from Rudy Wiedoeft, a saxophone instructor he admired.
Vallee worked his way through Yale playing the saxophone at college dances. In 1924, he left school and made his radio debut in London, but soon returned to resume his studies, graduating from Yale in 1927. He moved to New York and played one-night stands with the bands of Vincent Lopez and Ben Bernie.
Wavy red hair, an Ivy League blazer, ice cream pants and snap-brim hats were part of his panache, but it was the megaphone in an era before microphones that became his trademark six decades ago.
With the megaphone in hand, he sang in a rich, somewhat nasal voice that became recognized by three generations. His hits included 'I'm Just a Vagabond Lover,' 'Deep Night' and the sentimental 'My Time Is Your Time,' which became his theme song.
In the 1930s he became one of radio's most popular entertainers. His greetings to listeners, 'Heigh-ho, everybody!' became his nationally known radio signature.
Through the years, his body thickened a bit, but Vallee was youthful looking and trim into his 80s and continued to entertain when the mood struck him.
In 1985, he made a rock video at age 83, appearing -- but not singing -- in a 3 minute production called 'Girls Talk' featuring Linda Nardini.
He told an interviewer he still wanted to work, even though, 'After 57 years, I've had it up to here.'
'I only have an income of $40,000 a year,' he complained. 'If I die tomorrow all my wife gets is a $9 million house and no way to take care of it.'
Vallee was married four times, but had no children.
Many consider him the fi st crooner, fathering a genre that was to make Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra among the most famous names in the wo ld.
It was, in fact, Crosby who put Vallee's star into decline for a number of years.
'I was sitting in a New York hotel room,' he recalled several years ago. 'All of a sudden I heard a sound truck blaring through the streets at 10 o'clock at night. It was playing (Crosby's) 'I Found a Million Dollar Baby in the Five and Ten Cent Store.'
'The minute I heard that voice I knew I was through. Here, I realized was a great singer. I just wished I could sing like that.'
Once Crosby's career began rolling on records, movies and radio, Vallee became nearly an overnight unknown.
He spent the 1940s and 1950s making occasional radio appearances and in some motion picture roles.
In 1961, his career rebounded when he starred on Broadway in 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.' He later starred in the movie version.
Vallee made his Hollywood debut in 1929 in 'The Vagabond Lover' and said at the time: 'I'm not kidding myself. I'm just a fad and won't last. In a few years I'll be just a memory.'
Funeral arrangements will be private. Vallee will be buried in the family plot in a Catholic cemetery in Westbrook, Maine, his wife said.