Ruby Keeler (1909-1993)

Ruby Keeler
Ruby Keeler

Ruby Keeler was an actress, singer, and dancer who rose to fame in 1933 with a starring role in the movie musical '42nd Street'. She worked numerous times in musicals with Dick Powell. From 1928 for 12 years she was married to legendary singer Al Jolson. She then retired for almost 30 years, until making a spectacular comeback in "No No Nanette" on Broadway in 1971.

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Ruby Keeler was born Ethel Hilda Keeler in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada on August 25, 1910, one of six siblings. When she was three she and her family moved to Yorkville, on the east side of New York City where her father, an ice delivery truck driver, could get better paid work. Ruby went to the local Catholic St. Catherine of Siena school and began dancing at local community functions. Her talent was so obvious that when she was eleven, her teacher began giving her free lessons at the Jack Blue's dancing school in Manhattan, as her parents could not afford the fees.

Chorus Girl 1923

When she was just 13 in 1923 she first danced professionally in George M. Cohan's The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly' after lying about her age at her audition. She was soon appearing at 2 or 3 clubs a night and she became the family breadwinner. The beautiful, vivacious dancer soon got noticed and in 1924 she was given a role in 'Bye Bye Bonnie' by Broadway power broker Charles B. Dillingham. After a successful run of six months she appeared in other shows produced by Dillingham, 'Lucky' and 'The Sidewalks of New York'. Her rise continued with a role in Flo Ziegfeld's 'Whoopee!' in 1928. Also in 1928, on September 21, she married the charismatic star, Al Jolson. Her life was about to change dramatically.

Al Jolson, 1928

Al Jolson was undoubtedly the most popular performer on Broadway and in vaudeville in the 1920's. He had already had been married twice, with both marriages ending in divorce. He was more than twice her age and she was already involved with mobster Johnny "Irish" Costello. But Jolson was smitten with Ruby and he showered her with gifts, including a pre-wedding gift of one million dollars. All objections from her family and from the protective Costello were dropped after this and Ruby and Al were duly married on September 21, 1928.

The couple honeymooned in Europe but their relationship was a flawed one. He was egocentric and over-controlling with his young wife.and would belittle her in front of guests, or ignore her altogether. She did not put up quietly with his abusive ways. Although they adopted a son, Al Jolson Jr., in 1935, the marriage was essentially over and in 1939 Ruby filed for divorce, charging extreme cruelty.

Career Boom

In the meantime, partly because of the fame of her new husband, Ruby's career took a great leap forward. After a brief sojourn in Hollywood Ruby returned to Broadway in 1929 to star in 'Show Girl'. She was soon under contract to Warner Bros., the same studio as Jolson, and in 1933 she was chosen to appear in Warners' new musical '42nd Street' opposite Dick Powell and Bebe Daniels. The film was a huge success and included a show-stopping title-song finale choreographed by Busby Berkeley, in which Ruby dances on top of a taxi amidst swaying Manhattan skyscrapers.

As a result she was given a long-term contract by Jack Warner and she was given starring roles over the next few years in a number of Warners musicals such as 'Gold Diggers of 1933' and 'Footlight Parade', both in 1933, 'Dames', the following year, 'Colleen' in 1936 and 'Ready, Willing and Able' in 1937. Most of her movies also starred Dick Powell. She also starred with Jolson in 'Go Into Your Dance' in 1935.

Retirement and Family

After her stormy marriage to Jolson, Ruby married John Lowe in 1941, a real estate agent whom she met whilst playing golf. They had four children together and Ruby retired from movies to raise her family.

During the 1950's and 1960's she was persuaded out of retirement to do some TV work but it was in 1971 that she came back spectacularly, returning to Broadway to star in 'No No Nanette' and appearing in a run of 861 performances.

Ruby Keeler died on February 28, 1993, in her Rancho Mirage, California home after a long battle with cancer. She is interred in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Orange, California.

Ruby Keeler Academy Awards

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Ruby Keeler Filmography

42nd Street
Gold Diggers of 1933
Footlight Parade
Flirtation Walk
Casino de Paree
Shipmates Forever
Ready, Willing and Able
Mother Carey's Chickens
Broadway Ahead