Ethel Ruby Keeler (August 25, 1909 – February 28, 1993) was a Canadian-born American actress, dancer and singer most famous for her on-screen pairing with Dick Powell in a string of successful early musicals at Warner Brothers, particularly 42nd Street (1933). From 1928 to 1940, she was married to actor and singer Al Jolson. She retired from show business in the 1940s, but made a widely publicized comeback on Broadway in 1971.
Publicity photo, 1935
Ethel Ruby Keeler
August 25, 1909
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada
|Died||February 28, 1993 (aged 83)|
|Resting place||Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, Orange, California, U.S.|
|Occupation||Actress, dancer, singer|
(m. 1928; div. 1940)
John Homer Lowe
(m. 1941; died 1969)
Keeler was born in Dartmouth, Halifax County, Nova Scotia in 1909 to Ralph Hector and Nellie (née Lahey) Keeler, one of six siblings in an Irish Catholic family. Two sisters, Helen and Gertrude, had brief performing careers. Her father was a truck driver. When Ruby was three years old, her family packed up and moved to New York City where her father could get better pay. But it was not enough: there were six children, and although Keeler was interested in taking dance lessons, the family could not afford to send her.
Keeler attended St. Catherine of Siena parochial school on New York's East Side, and one period each week a dance teacher would come and teach all styles of dance. The teacher saw potential in Keeler and spoke to her mother about Ruby taking lessons at her studio. Though her mother declined, apologizing for the lack of money, the teacher wanted to work with her so badly that she asked her mother if she would bring her to class lessons on Saturdays, and she agreed.
During the classes, a girl she danced with told her about auditions for chorus girls. The law required professional chorus girls to be at least 16 years old; although they were only 13, they decided to lie about their ages at the audition. It was a tap audition, and there were a lot of other talented girls there. The stage was covered except for a wooden apron at the front. When it was Ruby's turn to dance, she asked the dance director, Julian Mitchell, if she could dance on the wooden part so that her taps could be heard. He did not answer, so she went ahead, walked up to the front of the stage, and started her routine. The director said, "who said you could dance up there?" She replied, "I asked you!" and she got a job in George M. Cohan's The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly (1923), in which she made forty-five dollars a week to help her family.
Early dance careerEdit
She was around 14 years old when she was hired by Nils Granlund, the publicity manager for Loews Theaters, who also served as the stageshow producer for Texas Guinan at Larry Fay's El Fay nightclub, a speakeasy frequented by gangsters. She was noticed by Broadway producer Charles B. Dillingham, who gave her a role in Bye, Bye, Bonnie (produced by L. Lawrence Weber), which ran for six months. She then appeared in Lucky and as Mamie in The Sidewalks of New York, also produced by Dillingham. In the later show, she was seen by Flo Ziegfeld, who sent her a bunch of roses and a note, "May I make you a star?".
She would appear in Ziegfeld's Whoopee! (before being replaced before the opening by the much older Ethel Shutta) in 1928, the same year she married Al Jolson. The two met in Los Angeles (not at Texas Guinan's as he would claim), where Nils Granlund had sent her to assist in the marketing campaign for The Jazz Singer. Jolson was smitten and immediately proposed. The couple married September 21, 1928, in Port Chester, New York, in a private ceremony. The two sailed the following morning for a brief honeymoon before she began her tour with Whoopee! She was 19 years old, while he was around 42.
In 1933, producer Darryl F. Zanuck cast Keeler in the Warner Bros. musical 42nd Street opposite Dick Powell and Bebe Daniels. The film was a huge success due to Busby Berkeley's lavish innovative choreography. Following 42nd Street, Jack L. Warner gave Keeler a long-term contract and cast her in Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames and Colleen. Keeler and Jolson starred together in Go Into Your Dance, which was their only film together. They are satirized in Frank Tashlin's 1937 cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos. Jolson and Keeler appeared on Broadway one last time together, for the unsuccessful show Hold On To Your Hats.
In 1963, Keeler appeared in The Greatest Show on Earth, Jack Palance's television series based on the earlier Charlton Heston circus film of the same name, and made a brief cameo in the 1970 film The Phynx. In 1971, Keeler was acclaimed as a star again in the successful Broadway revival of the 1920s musical No, No, Nanette, opposite Jack Gilford, Bobby Van, Helen Gallagher and Patsy Kelly. The production was supervised by Keeler's 42nd Street director, Busby Berkeley, adapted and directed by Burt Shevelove and choreographed by Donald Saddler, who won the Tony Award for his musical staging. Keeler starred in the musical for two seasons on Broadway, followed by two additional years touring in the show. After suffering a brain aneurysm in 1974, she became spokeswoman for the National Stroke Association.
In 1992, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to her. She has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6730 Hollywood Blvd. In 1979, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by St. Bonaventure University.
Keeler and Jolson adopted a son but later divorced in 1940. In 1941, she married John Homer Lowe, a Pasadena, California businessman and left show business the same year. Keeler and Lowe had four children. Lowe died in 1969.
Keeler had two nephews who also worked in the film business. Joey D. Vieira, also known as Donald Keeler, is best remembered for portraying Sylvester "Porky" Brockway on TV's Lassie (retitled Jeff's Collie in syndicated reruns and on DVD) from 1954 to 1957. Vieira's brother, Ken Weatherwax, played Pugsley Addams on the 1960s TV series The Addams Family. Ruby's son, John Lowe, had a career as a Broadway stage manager for a number of productions beginning with No, No, Nanette in 1970.
|1930||Show Girl in Hollywood||Herself|
|1933||42nd Street||Peggy Sawyer|
|Gold Diggers of 1933||Polly Parker|
|Footlight Parade||Bea Thorn|
|Flirtation Walk||Kit Fitts|
|1935||Go Into Your Dance||Dorothy "Dot" Wayne|
|Shipmates Forever||June Blackburn|
|1937||Ready, Willing and Able||Jane|
|1938||Mother Carey's Chickens||Katherine "Kitty" Carey|
|1941||Sweetheart of the Campus||Betty Blake|
|1989||Beverly Hills Brats||Goldie|
- Ruby Keeler (1929)
- Screen Snapshots Series 9, No. 20 (1930)
- And She Learned About Dames (1934)
- Screen Snapshots Series 16, No. 7 (1937)
- A Day at Santa Anita (1937)
- Hollywood Handicap (1938)
- Screen Snapshots: Hollywood Recreation (1940)
- "Ethel Ruby Keeler extract". Nova Scotia Genealogy. p. Page 55900655 - Number 55900657. Retrieved October 24, 2016.
- Foster, Charles (2003). Once Upon a Time in Paradise. Toronto: Dundurn Press. pp. 167–176. ISBN 978-1550024647.
- Frank, Rusty E.; Hines, Gregory (March 22, 1995). Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900–1955. Da Capo Press. p. 358. ISBN 978-0306806353. Retrieved April 30, 2019 – via Google Books.
- Granlund, Nils Thor (1957). Blondes, Brunettes, and Bullets. New York City: David McKay Company. p. 125. Retrieved April 30, 2019.
- Hoefling, Larry J. (January 10, 2014). Nils Thor Granlund: Show Business Entrepreneur and America's First Radio Star. New York City: McFarland & Company. p. 104. ISBN 978-0786455997. Retrieved January 23, 2016 – via Google Books.
- Bertel, Dick; Corcoran; Ed (April 1972). "Ruby Keeler". The Golden Age of Radio. Season 3. Episode 1. Broadcast Plaza, Inc.. WTIC Hartford, Conn.
- "Jolson Secretly Weds Ruby Keeler, Actress; Captain of Olympic Barred From Officiating". The New York Times. September 22, 1928. p. 1.
- "Jolson Takes Third Bride". Reading Eagle. September 22, 1928. Retrieved November 14, 2010 – via Google News.
- "Happy Birthday Ruby!". Shadow Waltz. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
- "No, No, Nanette". Ovtur. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
- Holden, Stephen (March 3, 1993). "Ruby Keeler, tap dancing actress, is dead at 82 (sic)". The New York Times. Retrieved December 25, 2015.
- "Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated" (PDF). Palm Springs Walk of Stars. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 13, 2012. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
- "Honorary Degree Recipients and Commencement Speakers". The Archives at St. Bonaventure University. Retrieved 2017-10-05.
- Lamparski, Richard (1982). Whatever Became Of ...? Eighth Series. New York: Crown Publishers. pp. 230–1. ISBN 0-517-54855-0.
- "No, No, Nanette (1971)". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
- Dunn, Donald (1972). The Making of "No, No, Nanette". Citadel Press. ISBN 978-0806502656.