That woman wincing in pain is the star of the show, a spoiled-rotten dancer who has finally been floored by a fracture of the ankle. The other girl, the one twisting her hanky and rolling her eyes heavenward, is the sweetest kid in the chorus and she has been chosen to step in for the fallen star. On opening night. It’s enough to give a girl the jitters, and it does. How on earth is she ever going to memorize all those lines and master those devilish dance steps?
The year was 1933, the movie was “42d Street,” the slave-driving director was played by Warner Baxter (seen above pointing at the sweet kid's leg). And making her movie debut as the humble hoofer who came back a star was Ruby Keeler, in real life the young bride of the beaming Al Jolson.
“It was a funny line, wasn’t it?” Miss Keeler laughs, remembering her classic scene with Warner Baxter. She wasn’t laughing then, however. “I was scared to death. That’s me, I guess. I’m scared to death now.”
The reason that Ruby Keeler is scared to death now is that she will soon have to go out there and come back a star again. This time for real, on the real Broadway stage. The show, a revival of Vincent Youmans’ 1925 hit “No, No, Nanette,” has been a surprise smash out of town, with the warmest applause going to Miss Keeler, who stars as the sunny, tap-dancing aunt of Nanette.
“I’ve been away a long time,” she says, biting her lip and nodding to one of her fans in the genteel dining room of Boston’s Barclay Hotel. Ruby, a youthful 60, is still pretty, with bright blue eyes, soft gray-blonde hair, and shapely legs.
“My last show on Broadway was ‘Show Girl’ in 1929,” she says. “This is a big step for me, and a frightening one. And yet it’s a wonderful thing to have happened to a woman of my age, just at this time – when I’m sort of lost. My husband – Lord love his soul – died two years ago. We had been married 27 years. It had been John’s first marriage, though I don’t know why – he was so handsome that all the gals liked him. Once I became Mrs. John Lowe, it never entered my mind to be anything else. Not that I hated the movies I had been doing. I enjoyed them; but I always felt there had to be more to life.”
Ruby’s husband, a socially prominent broker, built a large house in Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles. “Not a showplace – well, yes, it was a showplace, but comfortable, lived-in. We had a stable and a few horses. Then, when John died, my friends urged me to sell the house. All five of our children are grown now, and there is so much work that needs to be done around a large house. John had always loved keeping things just right, and I wasn’t able to do that. It killed me to sell that house. I had to sell the horses too, but I couldn’t bear to watch when the men came to take them away. I had seen them as babies.”
Then, out of the blue, producer Harry Rigby called with the “No, No, Nanette” offer. Her name had been suggested by Busby Berkeley, the show’s 75-year-old “production supervisor” and the wizard who had sent Ruby reeling through some of her most lavish Hollywood dance numbers. So now she is bound for Broadway, where she had been rated a hot new talent before she decided to shuffle off to Hollywood with Al Jolson.
“When I was 13, I was dancing at Texas Guinan’s. It was during Prohibition, so it must have been a speakeasy. But we called it a night club. It was small, but I guess anybody who was anybody went to the Guinan club. All the stars. I remember Miss Guinan as a very large and very wonderful woman, warm and kind to us and always singing.”
In 1927, Flo Ziegfeld, who had spotted Ruby tapping her toes and tossing her curls in a musical called “Lucky,” summoned her to his office and signed her up for “Whoopee,” with Eddie Cantor. “I went on tour with the show,” Ruby says softly, “but I didn’t get to New York, even though I received nice reviews. You see, I got married in Pittsburgh and Mr. Jolson, who should have known better, said, ‘Ruby, I want you to come to California with me.’ ‘But what will I do about the show?’ I asked. ‘Better come to California with me, Ruby,’ he said. And so I did, which wasn’t a very nice thing for me to do to Mr. Ziegfeld.”
Ruby’s marriage to Jolson, which ended in divorce, is not one of her favorite subjects. “I really prefer not talking about my life with Al. It’s not that it was an overnight thing; we were married 11 years. It’s just that my life since then – my husband, my children – has been so full that what came before seems an entirely different life.”
When Hollywood got around to making “The Jolson Story” in 1946, they called Ruby and asked her permission to portray her marriage to Jolson. “‘I would rather you not do that,’ I said. They said, ‘O.K., we’ll call you Pearl or Julie.’ I never saw the movie, but I hear it was good. Al was a great entertainer. I do not know that some of the things in the movie were true. When I opened on Broadway in ‘Show Girl,’ Al did stand up in the audience and sing. But not because I was about to faint, as the movie apparently made it seem, but because Al liked to sing and when he felt like singing, he sang.”
When Ruby’s second marriage took place in a Catholic church, some cynics sneered. “People thought the church was showing favoritism, but they didn’t understand. Al and I were married by a justice of the peace, even though Al’s father was a cantor and one of the most truly religious men I have ever met. So, in the eyes of the church, my marriage to Al was not a blessed marriage. I don’t think Al ever practiced any religion, but he did go to mass with me once or twice. You know, he was very proud of the fact that I continued to go to church. He loved to be able to say to people, ‘Oh, Ruby’s not here now. She’s at mass.’ Of course, I couldn’t receive communion. And though I wasn’t thinking about that at the time of our divorce, the Lord was taking care of me, even then. I could not have gotten back into the church – to receive the sacraments – if I had stayed married to Al.”
Al Jolson may not be one of Ruby’s favorite subjects, but Flo Ziegfeld is. She came back to Broadway – Jolson did not stand in her way this time – in the legendary producer’s “Show Girl,” not long after her “Whoopee” walk-out.
“I’m very proud that I was in a Ziegfeld show. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. I remember once, years after I had retired, one of our mares was having a filly. We knew that she was ready, so we were all out leaning over the fence, watching. Then the mare dropped this white, white buckskin. Skinny white legs in long black stockings, and about six long lashes on each eye. ‘She’s beautiful!’ I said. ‘She looks just like a Ziegfeld girl. We’ll have to name her after Mr. Ziegfeld.’ ‘Who’s that?’ the kids wanted to know. ‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘We must call her Ziggy.’ And we did.
“As the kids got older, they realized that I had been in the movies, and on the stage. Every once in a while, they would hear me mention Mr. Ziegfeld, but it didn’t mean much to them. Then Kathleen went to see ‘Funny Girl,’ and when she came home, she said, ‘Mom, did you really know Flo Ziegfeld?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Did you call him Flo?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘Well,’ Kathleen said, ‘Barbra Streisand called him Flo!’”
Ruby enjoys an enviable rapport with her children. “Oh, we’ve had our arguments but, basically, we all feel alike. The one thing that frightens me about so many young people today is this dope thing. I’m terribly against marijuana. Kathleen and I were talking about it not long ago. I hope and pray that she doesn’t smoke it. I said to her, ‘Kathleen, how many of your friends smoke marijuana?’ ‘A great many,’ she said. And me, with my Irish, I said, ‘Well, don’t you bring those friends in this house!’ ‘Mom,’ she said, ‘you don’t understand. What about all those cocktail parties you older people go to?’ ‘But a person doesn’t go to a cocktail party to get drunk,’ I said. ‘You have a couple of drinks and you leave.’ I truly think that kids are being brainwashed with this idea that marijuana is no more harmful than alcohol. How many 14-year-olds have you seen lying drunk in the gutter? Yet they start so young on drugs. It’s as if they just can’t wait to destroy themselves.”
One of Ruby’s sons is a Vietnam veteran. “When Johnny was in Vietnam, I was terribly worried. I’d hear reports on the news, names of places being attacked, and I would wonder, ‘Is Johnny there, with the mortars hitting all around him?’ Johnny isn’t for the war, but he feels that even if it is a mistake for us to be there, we are there and the boys should have more support. He was all for President Nixon’s Cambodian move, but he doesn’t go screaming up and down the street, waving a flag. Just before we left California, a package came for him. He opened it and inside was a Bronze Star. ‘Johnny!’ I said. ‘How did you get that? What did you do to earn it? Why didn’t you tell me you won a Bronze Star?’ ‘Well, Mom,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t sure the package was ever going to get here.’ That was all he said. But, the Bronze Star – they don’t give that to everybody, do they?”
Johnny is now the assistant stage manager of “No, No, Nanette,” and Ruby’s sister Gertrude is serving as her secretary. “We were always a close family. When I went to Hollywood, I took my mother, my father and my three sisters with me. My sisters were in the chorus of ‘42d Street.’ They were Busby Berkeley girls. Gertrude still does extras.”
Ruby is relieved that in “No, No, Nanette” she can put her best foot forward and leave the carrying of tunes to others. She will have one duet with Jack Gilford, but that will be a patter song. “I can talk a song, I just can’t sing. One thing that was difficult for me at first was learning lines again. I still walk up and down backstage thinking, ‘Now, what are my lines in this next scene?’ I never really had a lot of lines to learn before, especially on stage. I’m not an actress. You certainly can’t call what I did on the screen acting.
“When I began rehearsing for the show, my legs were...well, I was like a runner who hadn’t raced for a long time. But having Busby there helped. Some people said to me, ‘Don’t do it, Ruby,’ when they heard I was going to go out there and dance. But, so far, I think it’s working out all right. Who knows – maybe some night it won’t. My three daughters came on opening night in Boston. It was the first time they’d seen me perform. They’ve seen my movies on television, but they’re looking at a young girl in those pictures, not their mother. Now the kids say a prayer for me before matinees. If all goes well, I’ll have them come to New York for the opening.
“I am apprehensive about the Broadway opening, but the fact that we’ve been so well received all along the way does generate some excitement, don’t you think? The audiences have been having fun; in the ‘I Want to Be Happy’ number at the end, they’re smiling and singing and swaying along with us. It’s like having a party in your own living room. I’ve prayed as much as anybody that they’ll like us in New York, too. Especially for the sake of the kids in the show. It’s their careers.
“It’s different for me,” Ruby says, brushing a curl from her face and smiling the smile of the sweetest kid in the chorus. “I can always go home.”
Ruby Keeler died on February 28,1993 at the age of 82...