Ruby Keeler, stage and screen actress whose name became inextricably linked with the Depression era musicals of choreographer/director Busby Berkeley, died yesterday of cancer at her home in Rancho Mirage. She was 83.
Though her career consisted of a handful of Broadway shows and musical films, Keeler epitomized the hard-working chorine looking to break out of the back line to stardom. To paraphrase a now legendary line from her hit musical “42nd Street ,” Keeler went out on the Hollywood sound stages as a youngster, but came back a star.
Keeler was active in Hollywood for only a few years. Ironically, she turned her back on stardom to devote herself to married life, first to the legendary Al Jolson and subsequently to real estate broker John Homer Lowe.
“I couldn’t have cared less about having a career,” Keeler once said. “I always felt there was more to life than showbiz. The idea of early retirement appealed to me no end.”
Born Aug. 25, 1909, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Keeler was raised in New York. After studying dance as a child, she lied her way into the chorus (she was 14 but said she was 16) of George M. Cohan’s “The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly.” She was astonished to be making the then not-unsubstantial sum of $ 45 a week. Throughout her teen years she danced in prohibition-era speakeasies such as the El Fey Club on West 45th Street where the brassy Texas Guinan served as hostess.
She received good notices for her next show, the 1927 musical “Bye Bye Bonnie” in which she had a solo, “Tampico Tap.””I wasn’t ambitious, then or later,” Keeler remarked. “And the newspaper attention surprised me.”
After appearing in the stage flop “Lucky,”she had a role opposite Bob Hope (billed as Lester Hope) in his stage debut in “The Sidewalks of New York.” Flo Ziegfeld saw her in the show and offered her a large role in the musical “Whoopee,” with Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting. While waiting for rehearsals to start, Keeler traveled to Los Angeles to work in “prologue shows,” which the Loews theaters put on before movies.
When she descended from the train in Los Angeles, Jolson, who was there to greet Fannie Brice, asked to be introduced to her. She made a short for Fox before returning to New York. Jolson followed and they were secretly married in Port Chester, N.Y., on Sept. 21, 1928. After her honeymoon, Keeler started rehearsals for “Whoopee” but left the show out of town at Jolson’s request.
A year later she appeared in George Gershwin’s “Show Girl” but stayed only one month before again acceding to her husband’s wishes. But in 1933, Darryl Zanuck, then at Warners, cast her as the ingenue in “42nd Street.” The film was a smash and intitiated a cycle of lavish Busby Berkeley fantasy-laden dance musicals including “Gold Diggers of 1933,””Footlight Parade,” and “Flirtation Walk,” almost all of which featured Dick Powell as her co-star, but also such talents as Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell and James Cagney. In 1935 she and Jolson adopted a baby boy and starred in their only film together, “Go Into Your Dance.”
Keeler was becomingly modest about her success. At a retrospective for Berkeley’s films in the ’60s, she admitted “I couldn’t act. I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn’t the greatest tap dancer in the world.”
But audiences were won over by her sincere on-screen persona and by 1937 Keeler was earning $ 4,000 a week. The fascination for the forget-your-troubles depression-era musicals was subsiding, however. And that year Jolson quarreled with Warners and left the studio, taking Keeler with him. She signed a contract with RKO for two films a year at $ 40,000 each but made only one film “Mother Carey’s Chickens,” in which she was billed under another RKO player Anne Shirley , which caused her to terminate her contract. Details of her marriage to Jolson were widely ballyhooed in the press as was its subsequent deterioration.
They separated in 1939 and she sought a divorce on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty, asking for $ 400 a week alimony and $ 100,000 in trust funds for their adopted son Al Jr., who subsequently changed his name to John Lowe Jr. She did, however, agree to appear opposite her estranged husband in the Broadway-bound musical play “Hold on to Your Hats,” in 1940. During a trial run in Chicago she left the show and Jolson forever because during rehearsals he persisted in ad-libbing references to their marital squabbles. Thereafter, Keeler would not discuss her years with Jolson, saying only that “It was a mistake — a long mistake.” When the bio-film of “The Jolson Story” was made in 1946, Columbia Pictures reportedly paid her $ 25,000 for the rights to her side of the story although she refused to let her name be used. She was represented in the film by a fictitious character named Julie Benson, played by Evelyn Keyes. ]
After one more film, a Columbia B-musical, “Sweetheart of the Campus,” Keeler met and married Lowe and retired to their Newport Beach home where they raised four children, John, Christine, Theresa and Kathleen. Thereafter, her public appearances were rare, the occasional theatrical or TV appearance including a reunion with Powell on the Ed Sullivan Show in the mid ’50s. In 1968 she briefly toured in a summer-stock production of John Van Druten’s “Bell, Book and Candle.”
However, a year after Lowe’s death in 1969 she returned to Broadway after a 40-year absence in a revival of “No, No, Nanette,” when she was assured that Berkeleywould supervise choreography and her girlhood friend Pasty Kelly would co-star. She also made guest appearances in such films as “The Phynx” and “They Shoot Horses Don’t They.”
She is survived by five children and 14 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held tomorrow afternoon in Rancho Mirage and a private funeral Mass will be held Wednesday at St. Joachim Catholic Church in Costa Mesa, followed by burial at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery.
Send donations to the Ruby Keeler Research Fellowship Memorial in c /o The National Stroke Assn., 8480 E. Orchard Rd., Suite 1000, Englewood, Colo., 80111.