Ruby Keeler: Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet

blog42ndMy favorite days of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars are those devoted to character actors, neglected stars, or actors whose careers were limited to one genre—sort of, the forgotten and forsaken of film history. It’s not that these actors were not famous, established, or major stars in their day, but to today’s audiences, they lack the iconic recognition of Golden Age favorites like Bogart, Tracy, Ball, or Davis. If it weren’t for TCM, the forgotten and forsaken would be lost to time.

Case in point: Ask most people to name a Ruby Keeler film, and the response would be, “Who?” Even movie lovers know her only from a handful of Warner Bros. musicals, specifically 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. I confess I knew very little about her: I have seen her Depression-era musicals, I remembered that she was married to Al Jolson, and I recalled that she had an amazing comeback in the early 1970s when she starred on Broadway in No, No Nanette.

AFTER DECADES OF RETIREMENT, KEELER RETURNED TO BROADWAY FOR 'NO, NO NANETTE," DIRECTED BY NONE OTHER THAN BUSBY BERKELEY. HERE THE TWO PROS CELEBRATE AFTER OPENING NIGHT.

AFTER DECADES OF RETIREMENT, KEELER RETURNED TO BROADWAY FOR ‘NO, NO NANETTE” DIRECTED BY NONE OTHER THAN BUSBY BERKELEY. HERE THE TWO PROS CELEBRATE AFTER OPENING NIGHT.

When I saw that Friday, August 19, was Ruby Keeler day on TCM, an image of Ruby hoofing on top of a car from 42nd Street popped into my mind’s eye. I wondered how she arrived at that point in her career and what happened to her between those Warners musicals and her comeback. What I discovered was that young Ruby Keeler led a colorful life filled with memorable encounters and experiences.

Born in Nova Scotia into a poor Irish Catholic family, Ethel “Ruby” Keeler was raised in New York, where she was enrolled as a child in the Jack Blue School of Rhythm and Taps. Blue had worked with the legendary George M. Cohan, and he taught Ruby in the Cohan style. Small wonder that she landed a part in the chorus of Cohan’s Rise of Rose O’Grady—at age 13. Keeler also studied with Buddy Bradley and maybe Bill Robinson, though the latter can’t be confirmed.

Like Cohan, Keeler was a hoofer. Hoofing is not a slang term for tap dancing. It’s actually a specific style of tap, which is sometimes described as “dancing into the floor” because of the emphasis placed on stomps and stamps in syncopation. In classic tap, upper-body poise and posture are important; at times, the dancer seems to be posing. But, in hoofing, the arms are used for balance. In 42nd Street, Keeler pulls off her skirt to begin tapping in a pair of short shorts and a ruffled blouse. Her arms seem to flail inelegantly and ungainly as she solidly pounds out the steps in a clogging-like style. I always thought her style was clunky and unsophisticated until I read that it was a masculine, street style that dominated the stage during Prohibition. Keeler once noted, “I dance like a man because all my teachers were men.”

KEELER WAS PART OF GUINAN'S EL FEY GANG, WHICH APPEARED AT THE HIPPODROME.

KEELER WAS PART OF GUINAN’S EL FEY GANG, WHICH APPEARED AT THE HIPPODROME.

Keeler quit school and entered show business during Prohibition when night clubs and speakeasies served illegal liquor while showcasing the latest in entertainment. Young Ruby worked in the chorus of a number of clubs, including the Silver Slipper and the El Fey, which—like most clubs—were financed or owned by organized crime. The El Fey was operated by the notorious Texas Guinan, a Roaring 20s personality that was larger than life. Guinan introduced acts, sang a little, cracked jokes, and taunted her male customers with her familiar greeting: “Hello Suckers.”

Sources like to claim that Texas protected Keeler, who was a teenager at the time, but I find it difficult to believe because of Guinan’s typically scandalous behavior and wild, club-focused lifestyle. If Guinan was watching out for Keeler, she didn’t do a stellar job, because the young dancer took up with minor-league mobster Johnny “Irish” Costello. One evening Al Jolson strolled into Guinan’s club in full evening attire as was his habit. He spotted Keeler in the chorus and introduced himself. Though she was less than half his age, he was attracted to the brunette with the youthful face and big, dark eyes. When Guinan revealed that she was Costello’s girl, he left the encounter at flirtatious conversation and moved on.

MR. and MRS. JOLSON

MR. and MRS. JOLSON

A few months later, back in California, Jolson and his agent William Morris (yes, that is the William Morris) were asked to meet Ziegfeld legend Fanny Brice at the train station. Brice was accompanied by two young hopefuls looking to find work in Hollywood. One of them was Ruby Keeler. Through their connections, Jolson and Morris secured Keeler a dancing gig at a night club in L.A. for $350 per week. Each night, Jolson sent flowers to Keeler’s dressing room.

When Keeler returned to New York, Costello wanted to pick up where they had left off, but young Ruby was in love. The mobster sent for Jolson to ask him about his intentions. According to lore and legend, which sounds greatly embellished, Costello informed America’s most famous entertainer that he had better marry Keeler, or there would be one less singer on Broadway. I doubt seriously if this had anything to do with Jolson’s decision to marry Keeler in Port Chester, New York, on September 21, 1928. By the way, he was 43 (maybe older), and she was 19. As I am fond of saying about marriage, it was a match made in hell.

KEELER FROM 'SHOW GIRL'

KEELER FROM ‘SHOW GIRL’

Jolson and Keeler became the era’s super-couple—like Bogart and Bacall in the Golden Age, Burton and Taylor in the 1960s, and Brangelina today. Jolson was Jewish and Ruby was Irish Catholic: They were the real-life incarnation of a popular musical of the day—Abie’s Irish Rose. The press followed them everywhere, and reporters paid hotel clerks, waiters, and cab drivers for info on where the couple was going each night.

Jolson micro-managed Keeler’s career, treating it as an extension of his own. In 1929, Florenz Ziegfeld signed Keeler to dance in the new Eddie Cantor show Whoopee! The show opened in Philadelphia, but when Jolson saw that she was billed as Ruby Keeler Jolson, and that her name was below Cantor’s on the bill, he took her out of the show. He would not allow Cantor to have top billing over the Jolson name, though it was Cantor’s vehicle. A few months later, Ziegfeld asked Jolson if Keeler could appear in a new musical, Show Girl. On opening night, Jolson was in the audience waiting for his wife to make her entrance, though he was unaccustomed to handing the spotlight over to someone else. As George Burns later recalled, “It gave Jolie a pain in the ass.”   When Keeler’s number began, Jolson dashed down the aisle and jumped on stage to join the chorus in the refrain, completely upstaging Ruby’s entrance. The crowd went crazy. The response was so tremendous that Ziegfeld suggested Jolson make the same “spontaneous” appearance every night. And, so he did for several consecutive nights. He even postponed the start of his new film for Warner Bros. to continue his surprise appearances in Show Girl. At the time, Keeler played along, though fellow stars Jimmie Durante, Eddie Jackson, and Lou Clayton were not pleased. However, years later, Keeler admitted that she hated Jolson for it.

BLOG AND POWELL WERE TEAMED IN SEVERAL MUSICALS, WHICH DID NOT PLEASE JOLSON.

KEELER AND POWELL WERE TEAMED IN SEVERAL WB MUSICALS, WHICH REPORTEDLY DID NOT PLEASE JOLSON.

Jolson eventually returned to Hollywood, while Ruby remained with the show. Not long after, she tripped during her number and broke her ankle, which closed the show permanently. Keeler joined her husband in Hollywood, where the two were a fixture at prize fights, movie openings, and restaurants. When Jack Warner suggested Keeler might try her luck in the movies, he had to convince Jolson that her appearances would be no competition against his star vehicles. He also had to allow Jolson to be her manager and to negotiate her salary. Warner wanted Keeler for 42nd Street, and Darryl F. Zanuck, who worked as a producer for WB at the time, negotiated her salary with Jolson. She received $10,000 for her role in the film. Jolson told Keeler he would not be visiting her on the set, because he refused to watch her kiss another man, even if it was only for a movie.

SOURCES SUGGEST THAT JOLSON WAS BEHIND KEELER'S EXIT FROM WARNER BROS. AFTER LEAVING WB, SHE FLOPPED IN 'MRS. CAREY'S CHICKENS.' SHE MADE ONE MORE FILM, THEN DIVORCED JOLSON IN 1940.

SOURCES SUGGEST THAT JOLSON WAS BEHIND KEELER’S EXIT FROM WARNER BROS. AFTER LEAVING WB, SHE FLOPPED IN ‘MOTHER CAREY’S CHICKENS.’ SHE MADE ONE MORE FILM, THEN DIVORCED JOLSON IN 1940.

And, that’s how Ruby Keeler came to make her first film. Keeler had an “aw, shucks” quality in her manner and her voice, which suited the sweet, innocent ingénue roles that she specialized in. But, by the time she danced on that car in 42nd Street, she was no sweet, young thing. She was a survivor of bawdy night clubs, Texas Guinan, the bright lights of Broadway, Flo Ziegfeld, small-time mobsters, and Jolson. She was 23 years old.

 

 

16 Responses Ruby Keeler: Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet
Posted By Susan Doll : August 15, 2016 4:21 pm

Additional factoid: I watched “50 Years of Star Trek” last night on the History Channel and discovered that Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the second version of the Star Trek series (with Capt. Picard) was a bartender or barkeep called Guinan. She was named after Texas Guinan.

Posted By Dr. Mary Archer : August 15, 2016 7:00 pm

I have been teaching a Reminiscent Therapy Program in the Performing Arts to all ages, 7yrs-103 yrs of age at a Performing Art School, Country Club Wellness Centers, Assisted and Independent Living facilities and does include Memory Care Centers in the Palm Springs Area.

I do hold a Doctorate in Performing Arts, and my vision was to create an Inter-generational Performing group of all ages and supposed disabilities like Alzheimer’s/Dementia. I have already completed this task, and my Inter-generational Performing Group now Performs in our Community to the Song 42nd St. All students of all ages learn this simple Tap Routine, and everyone of this age group is amazed at their Performance.

I would like to find out how to get a copy of the Trailer of your 42nd Street Movie, so that I can possibly use it before my group performs. What an added attraction to what we do. I myself have performed as part of a Song & Dance team, and was the supporting Act with Danny Thomas, worked with Paul Anka, Cab Calloway, Hines, Hines & Dad, Dionne Warwick just to name a few.

My website is up and running, *more to come* but it will give you an idea of the success we are having with Hollywood as our theme and core of our foundation. Edu-tainment is what I call what I do, and I am happy that children today can learn more about this wonderful Art-form with an opportunity to perform Tap Dancing with all ages. Thank You kindly for your positive response.

Posted By Emgee : August 15, 2016 7:34 pm

Jolson was certainly a real piece of work: he once assaulted Barbara Stanwyck while she was still a chorus girl and a friend of Keeler. When she tried to fight off his advances he put a burning cigar to her skin until she passed out. Showbiz, eh?

Posted By MikeD : August 15, 2016 9:00 pm

If you’re ever driving on the 405 Freeway in Culver City, take a look at the cemetery on the hill (Hillside Memorial Park). The large columned structure with the waterfall is Al Jolson’s monument.

Posted By Doug : August 16, 2016 12:14 am

Susan, I saw that same Star Trek tribute; you beat me to it, but all is good. What you describe about Keeler’s early career seems to have an echo in Joan Crawford’s “Dancing Lady”.
Forgive me, please,for once more bring up Benchley, but “Abie’s Irish Rose” was, for him, the show that would not die. He had to come up with fresh remarks about it each week in his review columns, and his calls for it’s cancellation, pleading with audiences to go see something, anything else…the book, “Benchley On Broadway” devotes an entire chapter to “Abie’s Irish Rose”.
I’m glad that she had a later career in “No, No Nanette”, but I wonder what was her life was like in all those other years?

Posted By Susan Doll : August 16, 2016 3:57 am

Dr. Archer:
The 42nd Street trailer is available to watch on Youtube. Also, sometimes DVDs of classic movies will include the trailer as an extra.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 16, 2016 3:58 am

Doug:
Keeler’s life was quiet after she divorced Jolson. She married someone else and became a stay-at-home wife, with an occasional appearance on tv. It was after her husband died that she returned to show biz.

Posted By funmeo : August 16, 2016 9:10 am

I have never noticed that before MikeD :)

Posted By swac44 : August 16, 2016 11:41 am

As I’ve probably mentioned a dozen times before in MM comments, I live in Ruby Keeler’s birthplace, and there isn’t so much as a plaque on her family’s house (which I believe still stands), and nothing to signify her origins here, not a street name or statue or anything. She did make one return home to accept an honourary degree from a local university in the 1970s, but that’s about it. (There’s also been a campaign to honour Halifax as the birthplace of Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster with a statue, but that didn’t get very far either.)

I guess naming a street after David Manners is going to be completely impossible too.

My favourite Keeler anecdote is the one about what she reportedly said anytime someone asked her about Jolson. “Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer who ever lived. I know, because he told me so every day that we were married!”

Posted By AL : August 17, 2016 11:02 pm

MOTHER CAREY’S CHICKENS–wasn’t that Anne Shirley ?

Posted By Susan Doll : August 17, 2016 11:55 pm

Al: Anne Shirley is in MOTHER CAREY’S CHICKENS, but that’s Ruby in a bad wig in the photo.

Posted By Allen : July 9, 2017 2:59 am

I seem to be one of the minority’s people today posting on websites that I loved Ruby’s singing, it had a certain innocent charm, and no, I do not automatically say that about just anyone who has a singing style somewhere near that neighborhood. I have read different people’s comments on Ruby saying how audiences were easier to please in the 1930s than today, but I do not share their opinion about that being a bad thing. I just love Ruby Keeler,that particular innocent charm of hers was very nice, including her simple not all on key singing. But I loved it the way she did it, such as the charming way she half sang, half spoke her line in “Dames” “I only have eyes for you” as she and Powell were walking onto the subway before they both fell asleep and Powell dreamed of like 30 Ruby’s faces and Ruby and 30 Ruby look alikes were dancing and singing in my opinion beautifully. Her singing parts in “Pettin in the park” and “By a waterfall”, I feel the same way. I liked her dancing too, understanding that she had a background as a buck dancer, which was more about the rythmn tapping sounds than gracefulness. Ruby’s a wonderful person, and I hated hearing about AL Jolson treated her and I’m hoping that not all of what I heard on that is accurate. I did read how her next marraige after Jolson was happier where she had 4 children with, and she left Hollywood temporarily with a bad taste in her mouth due to how Jolson treated her. About 30 years later when she came out reminiscing about the great moments she had making her WB films and becoming a star and pushing aside the ugliness from her failed marraige with Jolson, she bounced back into the limelight around 1970 for a few more hurrahs including a touching, emotional moment on a show in 1984 with, I forgot his name, singing in the style of Powell ” I only have eyes for you”. I could see through her emotions there that not all of her memories from the 1930s were bad.

Posted By Allen : July 9, 2017 3:42 am

Did I mention that Ruby Keeler’s beautiful? And again, the scene in “Dames’” “I only have eyes for you” where she and the 30 Ruby look alikes dance in their identical white dresses singing beautifully. I wanted to also add that the first time watching that part, I thought that the film makers performed some sort of trick photography where all 30 girls actually were Ruby and they found a way to make them all appear dancing together in the same place, and I wondered how back then they had the technology to do that. After watching that again though, I could see that they were just all different showgirls made up to look just like Ruby.

Posted By Allen : February 19, 2018 1:55 pm

Jolson really burning a cigar onto a girl trying to fight off his advances? Men seemingly were still able to get away with such barbaric treatment of women back then. I know that flappers brought in a new age of women, but “girl power” was all still in its infancy back then, men still largely had the upper hand most of the time.

Posted By Allen : February 19, 2018 2:16 pm

Ruby may have survived Al Jolson, Costello, Guinan, and the wild, speakeasy lifestyle, but she had gotten plenty tired of it and fled it all to live a settled, happy married life and children

Posted By Allen : February 19, 2018 2:19 pm

She loved starring in her films and being famous, but not the speakeasy crowds and Jolson.

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