The old expression "art imitates life" was never more true than in the story of one of Hollywood's brightest stars from the Golden Age of filmmaking, Ruby Keeler. In her 1933 film debut in the Busby Berkeley classic 42nd Street, Warner Baxter, playing the role of a theatrical producer, needs to replace a temperamental leading actress (played by Bebe Daniels) and pulls Ruby Keeler out of the chorus line. He says to her, "You're going out there as a youngster, but you've got to come back a star." And Keeler did.
Like many Northern Stars, Keeler is probably best thought of as an American. Born Ethel Keeler in Halifax, Nova Scotia, of Irish-Canadian parents, she moved with her parents, older brother and younger sister, to a part of the east side of New York City known as Yorkville when she was only three. Her father was an iceman, who delivered ice from home to home; her mother was a stage mother, and when her children started performing, she was responsible for all of the costumes and was instrumental in supporting their show-business endeavors. The family was poor, but Keeler recalled in later life that they really didn't know any better and had a marvelous time growing up in New York. She went to Catholic school where she probably learned some of the basics of moving in time to music while taking part in, of all things, "drill" class. Drill in this case meant moving in formation, which comes in handy if you're going to end up in the chorus line. She would later dance at community functions and her talent was so obvious that her parents enrolled her in the Professional Children's School. When Keeler was 12 years old, she was enrolled in the Jack Blue School of Rhythm and Taps. While attending, she became a regular child performer in stage shows, and it was no different then her parents, who had themselves won many contests in ballroom dancing. Everyone in Keeler's family appreciated dance, and so she was supported in her talents from an early age.
Keeler's youth and teenage years saw her dancing in theatres and clubs, and she was always a favorite with the audiences. In the 1920s, it was a gay time in New York, and Keeler, just a teenager, was carefully chaperoned by her mother, in spite of the rather "lurid" surroundings of the dance clubs she performed in for her early professional career. She was fortunate to catch the eye of Texas Guinan, a club hostess and owner who had the fame and ability to attract a wide-spread audience, from gangsters to kings! She had a chorus line of girls at the club, and Keeler was her special protégé. Thus, she danced for gangsters, crooks, thugs and even New York's best society - all part of the world of prohibition in New York. Keeler was just 16 years old! She caught the eyes of a producer, who cast her in the show Bye Bye Bonnie and her dancing and technical agility caught on with the crowds who roared their approval. Her first big break came when she landed a place in George Cohan's The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly in 1923. No one could have known that stardom was just a few short years away.
The year 1927 would turn out to be very important for Keeler. She was cast in several shows like The Sidewalks of New York, in which she played an orphan named "Mamie." Appearing alongside her was an unknown comedian named Lester Hope. Born Leslie Hope, we know him better as Bob. The show had a long run, and the press named Keeler the girl with the "best legs in New York". One night in 1928 there were two men in the audience. Both would later play important roles in her life. One was singer Al Jolson and the other was the great producer, Florenz Ziegfeld. Keeler would finally attain star status in Florenz Ziegfeld's 1929 production of Show Girl, and she would later marry the charismatic singer and star of the world's first "talkie," Al Jolson.
Many stories about their meeting have portrayed Keeler as the young chorus girl who was showered with gifts by this renowned star of stage and film. The true story can be found in the book Ruby Keeler, a biography by Nancy Marlowe-Trump. On page 44 she writes: "...the truth is that Jolson saw Ruby in the Chicago run of Sidewalks of New York and never forgot her. When she disembarked from the train in Los Angeles, Jolson was there with the brass of Warner Bros. to meet with Fanny Brice. He spotted Ruby in the station and asked for an introduction. Ruby said, in an interview for Films in Review (9/71) 'the introduction was perfunctory, and everybody went their separate ways. That's the true story of how I met Jolson.'"
Why was Keeler in Hollywood? Being connected to Ziegfeld was magic in those far-off days. It opened many doors and one of them that she chose to walk through was a chance to appear in a two-minute short. The trip paid off and soon Keeler was under contract to Warner Bros., the same studio as Jolson, where she would make her film debut in 42nd Street. The timing couldn't have been better. It was a once-in-a-lifetime combination of events, including refined filmmaking equipment, Busby Berkeley's remarkable dance routines, a movie with a solid plot, and Keeler as catalyst that made film history. It was the beginning of an era of musical hits starring Keeler and Dick Powell, which, if viewed as documentaries, capture an era of charm, grace and sophistication unmatched by anything else produced by Hollywood at that time. By now Keeler and Jolson were married. He was 46 and she was just 18 years old. At the time, she had several suitors and all stepped back when Jolson showed up. He was, after all, the most famous entertainer in the world at the time, and no one thought they could compete for her attentions. She was supposed to open in a show entitled Whoopee, but never made it to the production when it arrived in New York. It could be said the young bride stepped aside from her now-growing career, for the sake of her husband. Whatever the reason, Keeler accompanied Jolson to California.
Later, family members would remember that Jolson never allowed he to go out alone anywhere, without a family member in tow. Today, we would call this behavior slightly pathological, perhaps a bit controlling and certainly overly cautious. For the time, when a woman's career was secondary to a man's, this behavior was labeled jealous and possessive. While Keeler, herself, never came out to talk directly about this marriage, her friends and family didn't hesitate to set the record straight. His behavior wasn't just a family matter; he apparently had no problem with standing up and singing right along with Keeler, who was performing on stage in the show Show Girl, in which she was the star. There he'd be, "The world's greatest entertainer." right in the front row, singing along with her. Keeler later explained that when Jolson felt like singing, he went right ahead and did it.
Between 1929 and 1933, when she debuted in the film 42nd Street, little is known about her life; it seems that she shied away from the public eye and remained Mrs. Al Jolson in earnest. But in 1935 they made the only film in which they appeared together, Go into Your Dance. The plot was about an overbearing, egocentric star, a role that seemed perfect for Jolson. Too perfect perhaps. He was, in real life, sometimes hard to get along with because of his stardom. Following a disagreement with the studio, he left Warner Bros., taking his wife with him. His excessive controlling behavior and the rising success of her career, put Keeler in a position where she finally would leave him in 1939. She reported at the time that he was "mentally cruel" to her during the marriage and later said their marriage was a mistake, and a long one. Jolson, meanwhile, remained in denial, claiming that "Ruby's a wonderful girl and I am sorry If I gave her an inferiority complex. I hope that we can reconcile". It was too late. Keeler filed for divorce, and it was final one year later. But once out of Warner Bros., her career was essentially over. While there she had made just nine films, they remain to this day a testament to her ability to hold an audience's rapt attention with her smooth patter, great looks and unerring grace and ability on the dance floor. She made only two more features, Mother Carey's Chickens for RKO in 1938 and Sweetheart of the Campus in 1941. She more-or-less retired from showbiz following the release of that film.
However, she was not forgotten and by the 1950s she began to receive requests for television appearances and special spots in stage shows, which she accepted. A decade later there was a mild fad of sentimental nostalgia that led to a Busby Berkeley film festival in the Gallery of Modern Art in New York and a new generation of fans discovered her. She was lured out of retirement and returned to the Broadway stage when, in 1971, she starred as "Sue" in No, No, Nanette, which opened to rave reviews. Critics agreed it was Keeler that made the show work.
Her film appearances were few and far between. She showed up as an extra, uncredited, in the movie They Shoot Horses Don't They? in 1969, and had a cameo in the 1970 film The Phynx. Her last screen appearance was in Beverly Hills Brats in 1989.
Keeler's later years were spent enjoying her family, golf and swimming. She had four children with her second husband John Lowe, who died in 1969. One adopted son from her first marriage, whom Jolson had named "Sonny Boy," later changed his name to Peter.
Ruby Keeler passed away on February 28, 1993, in Rancho Mirage, California having been diagnosed with cancer sometime earlier.
Go to Ruby Keeler's Filmography