January 28, 2010 Leave a comment
From the trailer of Dames (1934)
August 25, 1910
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada
Rancho Mirage, California, USA
Al Jolson (1928-1939) (divorced) 1 child
Ruby Keeler, born Ethel Hilda Keeler, (August 25, 1910 – February 28, 1993) was an actress, singer, and dancer most famous for her on-screen coupling 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 legendary singer Al Jolson. She retired from show business in the 1940s but made a widely publicized comeback on Broadway in 1971.
Keeler was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada to an Irish Catholic family, one of six siblings. Two sisters, Helen and Gertrude, had brief performing careers. Her father was a truck driver, and when she was three years old, her family packed up and moved to New York City where he knew he 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.Although 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 said you had to be 16 years old, and 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.
She was only fourteen when she was hired by Nils Granlund, the publicity manager for Loew’s 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, which ran for six months. She then appeared in Lucky and The Sidewalks of New York, also produced by Dillingham. In the latter show, she was seen by Flo Ziegfeld, who sent her bunch of roses and a note, “May I make you a star?”. She would appear in Ziegfeld’s Whoopee! 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 Loew’s marketing campaign for The Jazz Singer. Jolson was smitten and immediately proposed. Keeler reportedly initially declined but later relented. The couple married September 21, 1928 in Port Chester, New York in a private ceremony performed by Surrogate Judge G. A. Slater of Westchester County, New York. The two had hoped to be wed aboard the White Star Liner Olympic, but were informed that company regulations no longer allowed ship’s captains to perform “at sea” ceremonies. The two sailed the following morning for a brief honeymoon before she began her tour with Whoopee!. The marriage (during which they adopted a son) was reportedly a rocky one. They moved to California, which took her away from the limelight. In 1929, at the urging of Ziegfeld, Jolson agreed to Keeler’s returning to Broadway to star in Show Girl.In 1933, producer Darryl F. Zanuck cast Keeler in the Warner Bros. musical 42nd Street appearing opposite Dick Powell and Bebe Daniels. The film was a huge success due to Busby Berkeley‘s lavish innovative choreography. Following 42nd Street, Jack 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. Frank Tashlin‘s 1937 cartoon, The Woods are Full of Cuckoos, featuring a porcine caricature called “Ruby Squealer”.. Jolson and Keeler appeared on Broadway one last time together for the unsuccessful show Hold On To Your Hats in 1940.
After a difficult marriage, Keeler and Jolson were divorced in 1940. Keeler remarried in 1941 to John Homer Lowe. Keeler left show business the same year. Keeler and Lowe had four children. Lowe died of cancer in 1969.In 1963, she appeared in The Greatest Show on Earth, Jack Palance‘s revival on television of the earlier Charlton Heston circus film of the same name. In 1972, Keeler starred in the successful Broadway revival of the 1920s musical No, No, Nanette, along with fellow Irish-Americans Helen Gallagher and Patsy Kelly. The production was directed by Keeler’s 42nd Street director, Busby Berkeley, and choreographed by Donald Saddler.
Keeler had two nephews who also worked in the film business. Joey D. Vieira, also known as Donald Keeler, is best remembered for portraying chubby, beanie-wearing farm boy, Sylvester “Porky” Brockway on TV’s Lassie (retitled Jeff’s Collie in syndicated reruns and on DVD) from 1954-57. Vieira’s brother, Ken Weatherwax, played Pugsley Addams on the 1960s TV series
The Addams Family.
Ruby Keeler died of cancer in Rancho Mirage, California and was interred in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Orange, California. She has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6730 Hollywood Blvd.
- Frank, Rusty E. and Hines, Gregory. Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900-1955. Da Capo Press, Inc. ISBN 0-306-80635-5.