Friday, October 19, 2007

"A Day at Santa Anita" (1937)

The Three-Disc Deluxe 80th Anniversary Edition of "The Jazz Singer" was released earlier this week (Tuesday, October 16th). The DVD set of the momentous first-ever "talkie" movie starring Al Jolson is a handsome package with copious printed material and loaded with fantastic documentaries about early-sound-in-film and more, plus many hours of never-before-seen Vaudeville reels, and mouth-watering excerpts long believed lost from the "Gold Diggers of Broadway."

Of particular interest to Ruby Keeler fans here is the addition of a three reels with short cameos. You have to pay particular attention, because the shorts aren't listed anywhere on the box or packaging slip, you'll have to scroll through he "Special Features" of Disc One.

We first see Ruby and husband Al Jolson in the Warner-Vitaphone Technicolor two-reeler "A Day at Santa Anita." (Vitaphone production reels #8071-8072). As far as I can tell, it's the earliest colour film I've seen Ruby appear (~ an imdb entry says the film has been previously available on the "Each Dawn I Die" DVD, starring James Cagney and George Raft).

"A Day at Santa Anita" is directed by Bobby Connolly, who worked with Ruby on "Flirtation Walk," "Go Into Your Dance," "Shipmates Forever," "Colleen" and "Ready, Willing & Able." (Connolly later staged the musical numbers for "The Wizard of Oz.")

A pithy plot concerns a small girl named "Peaches," played by Sybil Jason (who later starred with Jolson in "The Singing Kid"), caught in a tug-o-war between her attachment to a racehorce named "Wonderboy" - she being the only person who can motivate the horse to win - and a Family & Children's Service that wants to take the young child away from the racetrack. The film is shot mostly on location at Santa Anita Park, with the San Gabriel mountains framing a picturesque backdrop. As might be expected in a short of this nature, Wonderboy wins the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap, with Peaches screaming him home along the stretch rail in a moving stolen car.

There are several Hollywood cameos, including Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Edward G. Robinson, all playing themselves, as well as appearances by Ruby's comedic Warner co-stars Hugh Herbert, Allen Jenkins, and Frank McHugh (the latter also starred with Ruby in the 1929 Ziegfeld production "Show Girl").

Ruby makes her appearance at the 8:07-minute mark of the 18-minute short. She is announced at the track, lazily acknowledges the announcement and barely lifts her eyes or attention from her racing form. She later asks Al some betting tips, and Al cracks a joke.

Track announcer: Among the well-known people we have that great comedian Al Jolson and his charming wife Ruby Keeler.


Ruby: Jolie, you got a tip for me in this race?

Al, chuckling: Honey, you know I don't play tips - I play hunches.

Ruby: Hunches?

Al: Sure, like dreams. Think of Echo (?). For instance Ruby, I went to bed the other night, I had the most peculiar dream. I kept dreaming about hats - hats! - and I went to the track yesterday and I looked at the program and there's a horse running with the name "Hat Trick," and I put a bet on him. And who do you think won?

Ruby: Who?

Al: "Sombrero." I'll see you afer a while.

Ruby and Al appear as themselves in another cameo at the same racetrack, the MGM black-and-white two-reeler "Hollywood Handicap" (1938), directed by the immortal Buster Keaton. The plot involves a race horse named "Suzie Q" bequeathed by his owner to a group of soul-singing stablehands (The Original Sing Band). The horse is a plonker, runs a distant last, but delicately dances across the finish-line like a Lipizzaner in full view of Hollywood producers and secures a movie contract. Feature cameos include Mickey Rooney, Charlie Ruggles, Oliver Hardy, and Ruby's old 42nd Street "mentor" Warner Baxter.

The Jolsons are announced at the 6:19-minute mark, with Ruby dressed in hat and fur, with a racing form tucked under her arm.

Announcer: Al Jolson picked the winner when he got a line on Ruby Keeler.

Sidebar: We see a pair of shorts here showing the Jolsons as regular horse players, and indeed Al Jolson was an infamous punter and spent much of his free time at the racetrack. But according to Jolson biographer Herbert Goldman, his wife thought it was a drag:

[I]f horse racing was a part of [Jolson's] life, it was also gong to be part of Ruby's. The only trouble was that racing bored Miss Keeler.

Al regarded hs wife's lack of interest as a challenge. He and Johnny Donovan, who still trained Jolson's horses, presented Ruby with a two-year-old colt named Cimarron, a son of Hand Grenade, and Donovan registered a set of colors for her with the Jockey Club: "Gold and green halves, green sleeves and cap." Ruby, however, remained unenthralled by racing.

I did a search at the thoroughbred Pedigree Inquiry and could not find Ruby's "Cimarron" listed. I don't know if her horse even raced, but I've taken the liberty of adding it to their database myself, despite being clueless about the horse's Dam. Click here.

Another slice of joy in the DVD is a collection of trailers for Jolson's movies, and of particular interest for us again, the trailer for "Go Into Your Dance" (1935). The trailer runs a full three minutes.

Here's the Entertainment Event Millions Have Awaited.

Ruby Keeler co-starred for the first time with - Al Jolson.

The World's Greatest Song and Dance Combination!

In Warner Bros. Newest Musical Triumph GO INTO YOUR DANCE.

Jolson and Keller

What a Team!

Hear Al Sing 5 New Hits by Warren and Dubin.

See Ruby "Go To Town" in The "Cocktail Rhythm" number with 100 Fast-Stepping Cocktail Cuties.

Four more stars in the Supporting Cast: Glenda Farrell, Patsy Kelly, Sharon Lynne, Helen Morgan, in -

Go Into Your Dance.

A First National and Vitaphone Picture.

Go Into Your Dance.

It's the Show of a Thousand Sensations!

All the Gayety and Glamour of New York Night Life!

All the Romance and Drama of the Show World!

Combined in this Fascinating Story by the Author of "42nd Street"!

Dazzling Ensembles!

Breath-Taking Dances!

Scintillating Melodies!

Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler -

Go Into Your Dance.

The "Jazz Singer" DVD-set also presents a new feature-length documentary "The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk," where we see a few very brief clips of Ruby, incluing she and Al appearing at an unspecified movie-or-theatrical premiere.


The Santa Anita racetrack didn't open until 1934. Prior to that - i.e. when "The Jazz Singer" was released - drinking, gambling and horse racing were forbidden in the state of California, and Hollywood horse players had to drive south o' the border, down Tijuana way, to Agua Caliente.

(See "Fast Companions" (1932; a.k.a. "Caliente") starring Mickey Rooney and Maureen O'Sullivan; and the terrific "In Caliente," starring Pat O'Brien, Dolores del Rio, Wini Shaw ("The Lady in Red)," directed by Lloyd Bacon ("The Singing Fool," "42nd Street," "Footlight Parade," "Wonder Bar") and featuring choreography direction by Busby Berkeley.)

Arguably the greatest race horse of all time, Phar Lap, famously won the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap weeks before his tragic death.

The book "Phar Lap" by Geoff Armstrong & Peter Thompson reports that race, on March 21, 1932, was attended by Al Jolson, Buster Keaton, Wallace Beery and Eddie Cantor. (Goldman's bio indicates Jolson played the Fox California in San Diego on the Friday, March 19th, two days before the race, and was on a "Holy Week Lay-Off" thereafter.) According to Armstrong & Thompson, on the night of the "Red Terror's" famous victory;

That night, Al Jolson was again the main act at the casino. Reflecting on the day's events, he sang a quick parody of 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary'.

It's a long way to Caliente,
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way across the ocean,
For the richest prize I know.

Goodbye Doctor Freeland,
So long, Spanish Play.
It's a long, long way to Caliente,
But Phar Lap knows the way!

There is no indication that Ruby accompanied Al to watch Phar Lap's immortal win. This was several months prior to her shooting "42nd Street," and her whereabouts are unknown.

"Wonderboy"'s fictitious win in the Santa Anita Handicap reminds us of the real winner of the rich handicap race the year the two-reeler was released, namely Rosemont, who defeated the legendary Seabiscuit by a nose.

Seabiscuit is listed by author Laura Hillenbrand as having been ridden in that race (Feb. 27, 1937) by Red Pollard. Seabiscuit's "other" jockey George Woolf used to ride Seabiscuit with his lucky kangaroo saddle - once used by noneother than Phar Lap. (Presumably it was Woolf's saddle exclusively, so I'm unsure if it was ever used by Pollard.)

Santa Anita race track is today owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., the largest racing facility empire in North America, and headed by Chairman Frank Stronach, the self-made billionaire who once washed dishes at the K-W Hospital less than a mile down the road where I live.

Connections, connections . . .

Don't forget "Shipmates Forever" is playing TCM on October 24th!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

"Don't Give Up the Ship"

"Don't Give Up the Ship" (Shipmates Forever) by Al Dubin & Harry Warren, sheet music cover.

Hats Off To The Navy's "Flirtation Walk"!

NOTICE: "Shipmates Forever" (dir. Frank Borzage, 1935), starring the romantic partnership of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler is showing on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) - circle your calendars - Wednesday, October 24, 10:00 AM ET.

Monday, September 3, 2007

"Look at me, I'm a Co-Ed!"

"A Nightclub Goes To College...And The College Goes Delightfully Nuts!" Columbia Pictures "Sweetheart of the Campus" lobby card.

"I just had to see Betty Blake, or die."

NOTICE: Ruby bops in her jail cell and brings a nightclub to college in "Sweetheart of the Campus" (dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1941), playing on TCM tomorrow morning - Tuesday, September 04, 09:45 AM EDT. Co-starring Ruby Keeler, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard ("Ozzie and Harriet").

Friday, August 24, 2007

Happy Birthday Ruby!

It's a good trick: Ruby Keeler limbers up on her bike before making a speed run to the Warner Studio to film a dance number for her new picture, "Dames." Warner Bros photo by Scotty Welbourne, No. RK.PUB.A78, 1934.

Ethel Hilda "Ruby" Keeler was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia on August 25th. Most sources, including IMDB, lists Ruby's birth year as 1909, which would make 98 years. The biography written by her friend Nancy Marlow-Trump, however, lists Ruby's birth year as 1910.

One of these days I'll try to track down official birth registrar records from Halifax/Dartmouth and get a confirmation.

Ruby died in 1993, but she lives on in the hearts and films of her adoring fans. Happy Birthday Ruby!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ruby Keeler Jolson

The Dance Magazine. September 1929. Cover design—Ruby Keeler Jolson, painted by Jules Cannert.

Following-up on the last entry, as mentioned, author Patrick Watson sourced much of his material for “Ruby Keeler: Queen of Nostalgia” to Herbert G. Goldman’s “Jolson: The Legend Comes Alive” (Oxford University Press, 1988).

I recently completed Goldman’s book, and re-read all the passages about Ruby and her marriage to Al Jolson. By way of a personal review, I preferred the more compelling narrative of Michael Freedland’s biography to Goldman’s, but Goldman’s volume is superior in value of facts, resources and leads. The material he compiles about Keeler is extensive, and much of it will be cannibalized here.

Goldman states up front that he never interviewed Ruby, “who suffered a burst embolism, [and] did not choose to abet my efforts.” Hence he compiles his version from secondary sources, including contemporary 1930s movie magazines (which I will be examining at later postings) as well as the memoirs of others, particularly Mr. Billy Grady, Ruby’s first manager and the author of "The Irish Peacock: Tales of a Legendary Talent Agent". In the same fashion that Patrick Watson mined much of his primary material from Goldman’s book, Goldman in-turn makes ample use of Billy Grady’s memoir as his primary Ruby source. I will be reading the Grady volume in short order. For right now, Goldman’s accounts are gold, and I recommend it to any-and-all Ruby fans.

In the version sourced by Goldman, in the spring of 1923, Ruby, then thirteen years old, is hired as a chorus girl for producer George M. Cohan’s The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly. The show tours for more than six months before opening at the Liberty Theatre on Broadway on Christmas night, where it runs for 11 weeks.

During Rosie’s Broadway run, Ruby wins a beauty and dancing contest run by producer Nils T. Granlund. Ruby is too young to be hired by Granlund, “but Earl Lindsay, one of the contest judges, offered her a two-year contract at seventy-five dollars a week to dance in his new club on the roof of the Strand Theatre.”

Several weeks later, Granlund offered Ruby a featured spot as a dancer at the El Fey Club. […] Ruby released from her contract with Lindsay, became a principal attraction at the El Fey before she was fifteen. Larry Fay was the owner, but the club was soon identified with Texas Guinan.

Goldman introduces us to Johnny “Irish” Costello:

A handsome, baby-faced Italian, he frequented the Broadway speakeasies to protect the interests of Owney Madden, a former killer who supplied most of the bootleg whiskey drunk in New York clubs throughout the twenties. Writers have tended to white-wash Ruby’s relationship with Johnny, claiming he was just a friend protecting the young girl from nasty characters. The fact, however, is that Ruby was Costello’s girlfriend from the time she was seventeen years old. Ruby was, by then, no longer innocent, but she recognized the value of her charm and could appear naïve when the occasion demanded.

Under Johnny’s patronage, Ruby’s career in night clubs blossomed.

[Emphasis mine.]

Goldman does an excellent job itemizing Ruby’s early stage career with Johnny Irish as her suitor, beginning with a floor show at the Silver Slipper, and then headlining at Tex’s 300 Club in September, 1926. (The Silver Slipper was a nightclub owned by Johnny Irish and Billy Grady. Goldman does not mention whether there were other owners.) Billy Grady becomes Ruby’s agent later that same year.

Goldman continues the stageography:

Ruby returned to the Broadway theatre as a featured dancer in [Earl] Lindsay’s Bye, Bye, Bonnie. The show opened at the Ritz Theatre on January 13, 1927, and Ruby won a huge hand for her “Tampico Tap” number. Charles Dillingham, [Florence] Ziegfeld’s greatest rival, now wanted Ruby for the part of “Maxie Maxwell” in Lucky, his $313,000 vehicle for Mary Eaton. Bye, Bye, Bonnie was still running, but Lindsay was persuaded to give Ruby her release. It marked the second time she had deserted that producer.

Lucky plays the New Amsterdam Theatre and closes after seventy-one performances. Producer Charles Dillingham then hires Ruby for Sidewalks of New York, at Broadway’s Knickerbocker Theatre. The show opens in September, 1927 and runs for 112 performances before hitting the road.

Jolson saw Sidewalks of New York at the Woods Theatre in Chicago on April 9, 1928. He already knew who Ruby was, but that night in Chicago was when he was smitten. Ruby was now eighteen, a five-foot-three, one-hundred-pound beauty.

Ruby returned to New York after Sidewalks of New York closed in Chicago, and Grady booked her for a six-week tour of west coast picture houses at $1,250 a week. Ruby was accompanied by her sister Helen on the trip to California. Al was there when the train pulled into Los Angeles, and William Perlberg, later a producer but then a Hollywood agent, made the introductions.

Shortly before production on [The Singing Fool] started, Jolson, William Morris, Bill Perlberg, and a handful of Warner executives went to Union Station to meet Fanny Brice, coming to Los Angeles to make her first talking picture, My Man.

Al saw a wide-eyed girl deboard right after Fanny. [...]

"Hello, kid," Al greeted her.

The startled girl looked up, seemingly surprised that the great Jolson knew her.

Perlberg, who was handling the details of Ruby’s picture-palace tour for Grady and the William Morris Agency, told her to drop by and sign the necessary contract the next day. When she got there, Ruby was amazed to find Al Jolson—greeting her like an old friend and insisting he could get her even more money than Grady had. Ruby protested, but Al spoke to Perlberg, made a few calls, and got her a slight increase.

Goldman proceeds to describe how Ruby—Johnny Irish’s girl—was shocked and scared by Jolson’s interference and advances. Ruby opens at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles on June 15, 1928. For the first four shows Jolson sends secret gifts to her every evening, showering her with roses, toiletries and a lynx fur.

When Ruby discovers the identity of her secret admirer, she freaks. Goldman quotes Benny Rubin, on the same bill, speaking with Los Angeles Herald Express columnist James Bacon in 1971:

[Keeler] was aghast and brought Al all of his gifts, wanting to return them. Naturally, he wouldn’t accept them. He then asked that she and her sister go to coffee with them.

“Ruby begged off because she had a date. Al said: ‘Is it that important you can’t break the date?’

“A voice behind us said, ‘Yes, it’s that important.’ We turned to see Jackie Fields, the famous boxer.” Fields, who would win the world welterweight title, was looking after Ruby for Costello.

If Fields was moonlighting as Ruby Keeler's personal bodyguard, he was an especially busy boy. BoxRec's profile shows Fields fighting Don Fraser the week before and Jack Zivic the week after (Fields won both by KO).

Goldman writes Jolson is at Grauman’s Egyptian almost every day, that Ruby is horrified by the stalking, and counting down the days till her Los Angeles engagement ends and she could move on to San Francisco and rid herself of Jolson. Goldman, bluntly: “She was wrong.” Jolson begins his mashing of Ruby anew, and Keeler again panics, calling her agent Billy Grady and crying. “That guy Al Jolson is out here and keeps sending me flowers and calling me to go out to dinner with him. I don’t want to go. I’m afraid. Get Johnny to wire me the money. I want to come home.” Five days later Ruby is home in New York.

Jolson is in California filming The Singing Fool for Warner Brothers, his follow-up to the first talkie The Jazz Singer.

In July, Warner said he wanted Ruby for a “gala presentation” at the new Warner Theatre in Hollywood. Grady set the price at $1,500 plus round trip transportation—after getting Warner’s word that Jolson was in Florida and would not be near Ruby. Jolson, of course, was still in California, and it was at his suggestion that Jack Warner asked for Ruby.

By the second day of her engagement for Warner she is on the phone crying to her agent, and returns home at once.

Goldman raises a bizarre report in Variety magazine three weeks’ later that says Ruby married Johnny Irish, on August 31, 1928, and showed a ring backstage at the Fox Theatre in Washington. The engagement is announced on-stage, with a claim the ceremony was performed by a Rev. Father O’Grady. Keeler later calls the whole thing a joke, and somewhat disingenuously tries to pass the ring off as her cousin’s.

When reporters begin asking for more details, Keller calls her agent and says she is with Jolson in Washington; that she is in love with Jolson; and would Grady please pass the heartbreaking news to Johnny.

Goldman writes, “Grady broke it to him, and the gangster took it. Costello’s cohort, Tommy O’Neill, and Larry Fay found him outside of Dinty Moore’s restaurant in tears.”

The only time that Ruby ever talked about her courtship by Al Jolson, she said that a mutual friend invited them to dinner. “I was doing five shows a day,” she said, “but I said yes, because you found time to have dinner. Al was at their home and that’s how it went. He had a big ring he brought me and I said yes, I would marry him.”

Goldman rightly states, “Parts of the true story are still missing.” I’m going to eventually pull all the different versions together and work out a spreadsheet and timeline. Re: Goldman's comment above, Marlow-Trump’s book provides some newer information (see comments prev. posts). In the preface to his Jolson bio, Goldman mentions his inability to get Keeler on the record; one presumes he would almost certainly have liked to talk about Costello. He continues:

Miss Keeler’s reluctance to discuss Al Jolson is familiar to most students of the subject. Less known is her refusal to discuss Johnny Costello. Was the ring that Ruby flashed in Washington the one that Irish gave her in New York, or the one she claims was given to her by Al in Washington? […]

At any rate, she was “Costello’s girl” no longer. By the time that Ruby got back to New York to start a two-week engagement at Loew’s Capitol on September 1, 1928, she was Al Jolson’s fiancée. The engagement, however, was kept secret.

Costello’s scary gangster pals are the reason for the secrecy. Johnny Irish spares Jolson’s skin, but hardballs him into giving Ruby “a wedding present of one million dollars—payable before the wedding." More mobsters try to extort money from Jolson, thinking him a soft touch, but Jolson gets columnist Mark Helliger of the New York Daily News to use his underworld connections to get heavies to back-off Jolson. Helliger, and photographer Tom Donahue, are later rewarded with a trip on the Jolson’s European honeymoon aboard the Olympic and provided exclusive scoops for the Daily News.

Irish had promises Ruby that no harm would come to Al, so he arranges a party for his friends in Atlantic City on the night of the sailing. He figures that would keep any of them from putting Al—and possibly Ruby—to sleep. [...]

Shortly after the Olympic "steamed," someone phoned Johnny Costello at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Atlantic City. As soon as Johnny heard the ship had pulled out, he put down the phone.

"All right, boys," he called out, "the party's over."

Al and Ruby were married at the home of Surrogate George A. Slater in Westchester County, 3:30 p.m., September 21, 1928. On the marriage certificate, Goldman reports Jolson “filled in the space calling for his mother’s maiden name, he put down “Ethel Canton,” not Naomi. Ethel was Ruby’s real name. Once again, Al was, in essence, marrying his mother. Al and Ruby board the Olympic before midnight.” Neither Jolson’s nor Keeler’s names are recorded on the official passenger list. They are jined by columnist Helliger, photographer Donahue, and Als' pal Louis Schrieber.

On the honeymoon, Ruby is offered a role in Florence Ziegfeld’s Whoopee, and she agrees to join rehearsals on October 22. Ruby’s mother Nellie offers crazy tales (which I’ll try to examine closer at a later date) to the New York American about the marriage while the Jolsons’ are travelling, including a story about Ruby’s threat to kill herself if Jolson didn't marry, and a confirmation (of sorts) about that one-million-dollar dowry. Al and Ruby return aboard the Leviathan and angrily deny the reports.

Whoopee opens in Pittsburgh the first week of November, 1928. Jolson, in California shooting The Singing Fool, begs her to run away from the show and join him without Florence Ziegfeld's permission for a release. She dutifully complies and arrives in Los Angeles on November 14. The couple make a trip to Hawaii aboard the City of Honolulu and return to California in early January, 1929 with tabloid rumours of marital friction.

If Florence Ziegfeld was stung by Ruby’s cheeky departure from Whoopee, he nevertheless offers her a starring role in his new production of Show Girl. Ruby begins rehearsals in May of 1929.

Goldman sets it up:

In New York, the fights between Al and his ten-aged wife continued. Al attended almost every rehearsal of Show Girl, giving Ruby more advice than she could possibly absorb and making her even more tense than she would otherwise have been. Ruby, who had never had more than a minor featured role in any show before, was shouldering a big Ziegfeld production. She was not yet twenty, and the knowledge of what was expected, plus the strain of the rehearsals, made her irritable and nervous. Miss Keeler had “a temper to begin with” according to Billy Grady, who was called in to make peace with the Jolsons whenever Al and Ruby had a fight.

Show Girl opens at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on June 25, 1929, with Ruby playing the lead role of “Dixie Dugan.”

The best song in the score was easily “Liza,” written especially for a second act minstrel number with what one critic described as “one hundred beautiful girls seated on steps that covered the entire stage.”

The high point of this number came when Frank McHugh sang the verse and Ruby stepped into a spotlight at the top of a magnificent series of platforms. Miss Keeler had barely gone into her dance when Jolson rose from his seat in the second row, scrambled into the aisle, picked up the refrain, and sang “Liza” at the top of his lungs.

The Jolson-Keller “Liza” has become one of the most famous moments in musical comedy history.

[We’ll get to the re-fried version as played in The Jolson Story at a later date. Continuing directly...]

Why did Jolson do it? “I don’t know” was Ruby’s answer to that question on a 1971 Dick Cavett TV show. “I was just as surprised as anyone. I guess he just liked to sing. But I don’t know why he did it. I’m not very bright, you know.”

Jolson certainly did like to sing, but he rarely gave extemporaneous performances. The most likely explanation for what happened probably lies in what Matilda Golden, Ziegfeld’s secretary, told author Charles Higham. According to Miss Golden, Ruby momentarily froze on the top platform in the dress rehearsal. Dance director Bobby Connolly yelled “Come on, Ruby!” and Jolson, who was out front, started singing the song back at her. It was apparently Ziegfeld’s idea to have Jolie repeat the act during performances in order to boost ticket sales. Ruby was not told of the arrangement.

At least one Boston critic found the Jolson-Keeler “duet” an obvious and tasteless blight on what was otherwise a fine evening, and Ruby’s friend, Patsy Kelly, was still indignant almost fifty years later. (“That was her show, not his.”) Whether Al sang “Liza” as a p.r. stunt to help the show, to steal his wife’s thunder, or simply because he “liked to sing” did not help his marriage. The Jolsons were quarreling—again—when Ruby arrived at the Ziegfeld theatre for the Broadway opening of Show Girl on Tuesday night, July 2nd. […]

Al sang “Liza” to his bride again that night, just as he had done throughout the previous week in Boston.

The September, 1929 issue of The Dance magazine (see illustration at top) features a striking Jules Cannert illustration of Ruby on the cover. There is no accompanying feature, but the magazine does run a review written by critic Paul R. Martin. Excerpt:

Probably everyone remembers Show Girl, the magazine serial, novel and motion picture by the adroit J. P. McEvoy. This, then, is the musical comedy version of the same, and it looks like a winner, though certainly not the type of sensational smash Mr. Ziegfeld has come to demand of himself. […]

But the vehicle offers the indubitable advantages of Ruby Keeler Jolson […].

Ruby Keeler Jolson is of course the center of interest, having been elevated to featured position for the purposes of this opus. She displays exceptional promise for the future, with a taking personality and her w.k. ability to buck dance with wooden shoes. That there are many things about filling an ingénue role she does not know should not be held against her. In time, Ruby Keeler Jolson will be a leader, and now she is doing remarkably.

Milton dismisses George Gershwin’s score as “a distinct disappointment… dull and undistinguished.”

In the same issue, another reviewer “Keynote” (Black and Blue Notes), reckons the show “pretentious.”

In [Show Girl], Mr. Ziegfeld, famed for actively disliking “jazzy” music, leaves a straight band in the pit, but bows to public opinion far enough to put Duke Ellington on the stage in two spots.

Ellington is probably the leading dispenser of hot Negro music. His records have been very successful, and he has been a Harlem drawing card for several years. That he is not given a full opportunity to display his wares in the show is not his fault. He is not given the chance, though Show Girl, a very pretentious production, could be a lot livelier.

There is no mention in either review of Al Jolson’s “Liza” duet.

Jolson continues with the “duet” for a week and then returns to California. Keeler goes through a series of undisclosed health problems, presumably including exhaustion, and misses several performances. She has an undisclosed operation at Lenox Hill Hospital on August 1st; again, the illness and reason for the operation never disclosed. The show runs without Ruby for several weeks, and Ruby leaves to California to join Jolson.


Future searches: Charles Higham, Billy Grady, more...


Note: Goldman provides different spellings on the name Nils T. Granlund, sometimes on the same page, alternately spelling it "Granlund" and "Granland." To further muddy the confusion, Patrick Watson spells it "Grunland." The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) entry uses "Granlund" as the primary entry, and "Granland" as an alternate. Marlow-Trump's book quotes Ruby in an early interview explaining, "Lord knows I certainly wasn't Granny's [Granlund's] type. He loved the tall, buxom, glamorous chorus girl. I wasn't a beauty, but he hired me, anyway, to dance at the El Fey club." It's a great quote. Moreover, Ruby's use of the nickname "Granny" suggests "Granlund" more than Watson's "Grunland." In future I will use the primary IMDB spelling as the proper form.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Al meets Ruby

Al Jolson Returns With Bride From Honeymoon Abroad. Among the many returning voyagers on the "Leviathan," which arrived on New York Harbor, on October 22nd, were the couple well-known in theatrical circles, Al Jolson and his bride, the former Ruby Keeler, whose recent marriage caused a sensation. Pacific & Atlantic photo, 10-22-28. No photographer credit.

Alternate versions to the facts and mythos of the infamous Al Jolson introductions as detailed in Dell Hogarth's Silver Screen profile below can be found in Patrick Watson's "Ruby Keeler: Queen of Nostalgia" (2002), Nancy Marlow-Trump's "Ruby Keeler: A Photographic Biography," (1998), and Michael Freedland's "Jolson: The Story of Al Jolson."

Patrick Watson's chapter uses judicious use of Herbert G. Goldman’s "Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life" (1988) as his primary source. I am currently making my way slowly through Goldman's volume and will post discrepancies found there - and elsewhere - down the road.

Watson sets the scene, during the era of prohibition and speakeasies:

Nils Grunland had a "speak," a pretty notorious nightclub called the El Fey. He not only ran the club, he also produced its entertainment, and when he came to see Rosie O'Grady there was something about the young dancer that caught his eye, so when the show closed he offered her a regular spot at the club. There was a kind of innocence about her that struck everyone, a vestal virgin kicking up her heels in a seductive short-skirt tap-dancing routine.

Watson writes that the New York Italian mobster Johnny "Irish" Costello became enchanted in Ruby, and "began to suggest around town that it might be a good idea if some Broadway producers found her more roles in Broadway musicals. Producers did not like to say no to Johnny Costello, and Ruby began to get some very nice roles."

[Al Jolson] had a weakness for young girls with innocent looks. He saw Ruby Keeler in a show called Sidewalks of New York at the Woods Theater in Chicago, and he was smitten. Jolson was very powerful by then, very well-connected, very capable of getting good intelligence on people’s comings and goings, very capable of finding out when this enchanting child would be in circumstances where he might be able to get to know her without interference from her handlers. When Ruby got off the train in Los Angeles one afternoon, where she had gone for a brief engagement, for once all on her own, there on the platform was one of the most famous men in America, calling out to her, to Ruby Keeler, "Hello Kid!"

Jolson knew he was living dangerously; this was Costello's girl. But he wanted her. He spared no expense. […]

Johnny Costello found out that they were secretly engaged. Apparently, instead of ordering the great man's assassination, he decided that his code demanded he act in Ruby's best interest. Perhaps he could understand that Ruby might really love the great entertainer. In any case, having heard that Jolson had abused a former wife, he let the singer know that his life was forfeit if he ever harmed Ruby, and that he had better make sure she was financially secure. On September 21, 1928, the couple got married and boarded a transatlantic ocean liner for their honeymoon in Europe. Costello had found out that some of his hoods were so offended they planned to take a shot at Jolson on his behalf. He threw an immense party down in Atlantic City for all of "his people," on the very night that Al and Ruby sailed from New York on the Olympic, and the story is that he did it to make sure they had a safe departure.

Nancy Marlow-Trump, in "Ruby Keeler: A Photographic Biography," provides her version of the meeting.

Many stories have been printed about the first meeting of this very famous couple. One version holds that Jolson saw Ruby at the El Fey Club and asked, "Who's the cute little tap dancer?" Ruby was 16 at the time and still largely unknown. Suddenly, one of the best-known entertainers in the world proceeded to sweep Ruby off her dancing feet. This version of the tale has Jolson showering Ruby with diamonds, furs, and baskets of flowers. It was even reported Jolson gave her a penthouse on Fifth Avenue and a pigeon-blood (dark red) ruby ring to match her name.

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 at the station with Warner Bros. brass to meet famed comedienne Fannie Brice. He spotted Ruby immediately and asked for an introduction. Ruby said in an interview for "Films in Review" (September 1971), "The introductions were perfunctory, and everybody went their separate ways. That's the true story of how I met Jolson."

Ruby's mother Nellie tells Marlow-Trump that she knew about the wedding plans long before the press did.

Ruby and Al had told her they loved each other and always wanted to be together. When interviewed, Momma told the press, "For the first time, Ruby felt real love when she met Mr. Jolson. She asked me if I'd mind if she married him. I encouraged her, and I knew then the marriage would take place."

Another version that helps bring the strands together is Michael Freedland's, "Jolson: The Story of Al Jolson". Freedland writes:

One night Al was at Tex Guinan's place [the El Fey Club] and it was profoundly to affect his life. He walked into the club in full evening dress, as always, looking immaculate and acknowledging the welcome the assembled company were giving him.

He sat down with Eppy [Louis Epstein] and Harry Akst, trying to keep his mind on the show in front of him. Just sitting in an audience was always a hard job at first. But then a girl in a chorus caught his eye.

"What's the name of that cute little dark one?" he asked Tex.

"Her name’s Ruby," the club owner replied. "Ruby Keeler. But keep away. She's Johnny's girl."


"Yeh – Johnny Irish."

I can find very little information about Johnny "Irish" Costello online. Marlow-Trump says he was a close friend of heavyweight boxing champ Gene Tunney.

Freedland, continuing directly:

[Jolson] went up to Ruby after the show and liked the smile she gave him even more than he had when she flashed it across the footlights. They talked and liked each other.

But at that stage neither was taking the other very seriously. […]

Months later, Al was at a Los Angeles railway station to meet Fanny Brice on one of those show business welcomes that delighted the publicity agents. She got off the train accompanied by two young girls. Fanny introduced them to Al, "Mary Lucas. . ." Al smiled like a gentleman. "And Ruby Keeler." There was a blush on the young brunette's face as she was introduced to Jolson. Of course, she remembered him. How could she possibly do otherwise? But did he know who she was?

Because this was a showbiz gathering, the agents were there in force, too. Including Al's own man, William Morris.

As tough as Al was with most of his contemporaries, his heart melted like butter when faced with a pretty show girl. Looking at Ruby through the corner of his eye, he told Morris, "Get that girl a job dancing for $350 a week. Say Jolie says she's the best little hoofer he's ever seen." […]

The next day Morris personally made the calls. […]

Every night after the show there was a bouquet waiting for her from Al.

When she returned to New York, Johnny Irish sent for her. Irish was as soft as far as women were concerned as was Jolson – but he was inclined to take that softness to greater extremes than the singer ever did.

When he saw that Ruby was quite clearly more interested in Jolson than she was in him, he had the word passed through the gang grapevine that it might be a good idea for Jolson to come to see him. Al did just that – like a prospective bridegroom calling on his father-in-law.

"Ruby loves yer," said Johnny Irish without any formalities. "So you'd better marry her – or there won't be a certain singer on Broadway no more. Get me?"

Jolson got the idea. […]

Al and Ruby were married at Port Chester, New York on 21 September 1928. He was (at least) forty three. She was nineteen.

Ruby's parents objected to the marriage right up to the time the ceremony was performed by a justice of the peace.

Al Jolson’s birthdate is officially listed as May 26, 1886.

Freedland writes, "no one can be positive about Jolson's birthdate […] assuredly it was not 1886," and that Jolson told friends "he had invented the year as well as the month because he never knew for sure when it was that he was born." He further examines the mystery, explaining that George Jessel told him "he remembered Al saying he had taken off a year from his real age," and making the observation that Jolson looked a lot older than his official sixty-four years while on a tour to Korea immediately prior to his death in 1950. Freedland deduces Jolson's birth year was more likely 1885.

Marlow-Trump's account, however, suggests he may have been older than even that. She writes:

Margie Keeler-Weatherwax, Ruby's younger sister, disputes Jolson’s birthdate. "Al was the same age as our father [Ralph Hecter Keeler] when Ruby met him," she told the author. "Poppa was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1882. Al was 46 when he married Ruby, and she was 18."

Returning to Freedland:

The papers splashed the story of Abie's Irish Rose come true. Abie the big Broadway stage success was now being made into a film and Jewish Al and Catholic Ruby seemed to epitomize the talk.

The gossip columnists loved every detail of the story. Wherever Al and Ruby went, the newspaper men and women went, too. […]

When he and Ruby returned on the Olympic from their European honeymoon, a new home was awaiting them at Encino, a few stones' throw from Hollywood. Al carried Ruby over the threshold for the cameramen. The couple had a meal together and just as the bride was settling in, Al decided to go for a short walk – "to help the food go down, honey," he explained.

(See note about the Olympic below. -Dave.)

He was away for the rest of the evening and a few hours into the morning besides. "The guys at the fire station saw me as I passed by," he explained to Ruby, "and I gave them a song or two."

Ruby didn’t argue. After all, she wasn't married to a man. She had teamed up with a legend and she knew she would have to share him.

To be continued...


Some obvious errors of note:

1. At the end of Patrick Watson’s chapter, he’s got Jolson biographer Herbert Goldman mistakenly named as “Howard Goodman.” No web search filters this name as a Jolson biographer.

2. Nancy Marlow-Trump's Keeler biography lists Ruby's birthdate as August 25, 1910, a year later than every other source.

3. Michael Freedland identifies the liner that Al and Ruby returned to America as the Olympic. Most sources indicate the ship was actually the Leviathan. The Olympic was the liner they escaped to Europe aboard.

There will likely be more errors corrected in the coming weeks.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dancing Thru

Silver Screen. May 1936. Cover portrait of Ruby Keeler by Marland Stone.

"This is an Irish fairy tale . . . unbelievable but true. For in no other way can certain events be explained. If we followed logic, it would be impossible for the beguiling blue-eyed pixy born twenty odd years ago to be the Ruby Keeler of today."

So begins Dell Hogarth's profile of Ruby Keeler in the May, 1936 issue of Silver Screen magazine. Those "twenty odd years" would more accurately be 26 even years at the date of publication.

The sub-header of the cover story reads, "Ruby Keeler Has Danced All Her Life, And Loves It." The two-page article introduces Ruby's latest pic Colleen, and covers the now familiar tale of her rise from infancy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to her impoverished childhood years in New York City; her early schooling at St. Catherine of Sienna's School, and The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly.

Hogarth paints a picture of Keeler's early career dancing at Texas Guinan's legendary El Fey Club, describing Ruby as being "like some woodland sprite who had become entangled in the maze of the city," while mentioning the "sordid dramas," "feminine schemings" and "shabby tricks" of the dressing room.

"One incident must be recited to reveal more precisely her attitude at that time. One of the girls finally persuaded her to allow two prominent men to drive them home in their limousine. Ruby accepted on condition that they stop two blocks away from her house. She didn't want anyone in the neighborhood to see her get out of that sumptuous limousine - they might think she had gone high hat! The other girl was Patsy Kelly."

As was common in yesteryear, and still occurs to-day, these types of articles are many times planted by movie studio publicity departments and are often apocryphal, offering fact mixed with conflicting fictions. Diving into these intrigues, it's wise to exercise a healthy dose of skepticism. Nevertheless, these accounts are still fascinating and prove useful, providing information and templates that can be compared and contrasted against other sources.

Of particular interest for many Rubyphiles is the story of how she met her first husband Al Jolson, 24 years her senior, and how she began her Hollywood movie career. These stories shall be examined and dissected as I move through the various sources, but here's a lengthy excerpt from the Silver Screen version as authored by Hogarth:

"The great Ziegfield saw this Cinderella and put her immediately into his current Whoopee [1928]. As premiere danseuse. And romance played its ace.

"Al Jolson was the star of the show. But beneath his gruff, wholehearted manner he was really shy - and still is. When he saw this new recruit to the cast he lost his heart. But they were never introduced. He didn't even speak. He merely watched adoringly from the wings when she danced, and she watched him. Two shy natures that loved and were afraid to make each other understand.

"Fate takes its time: humans don't guide it. Ruby went to California for the first vacation in her life and there, half-heartedly, she tried to get into pictures. But studios weren't interested in a girl who could only sing and dance. Liking the sunshine anyway, Ruby remained to dance in prologues on the stage.

"One evening Ruby went to the station to meet a friend from New York. Al Jolson was there to meet Fanny Brice. Somebody introduced them. Their friends arrived unmet.

"That night when Ruby danced in the prologue at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood the master of ceremonies recognized Al in the audience. It was a preview night, celebrities were there, so he asked the famous comedian if he wouldn't step up on stage and favor the house with a song. It was then that Hollywood got an inkling of a fairy story romance - one that led to rumors that Al and Ruby had been engaged for a long while, that he had taken her away from Texas Guinan, put her in Whoopee and induced her to come to Hollywood. For without hesitation Al jumped to his feet. He didn't go up on stage. He didn't sing to the audience. From where he stood at his seat he sang to that elfin girl on the stage who answered him with a blushing smile.

"Three months later Ruby retired from the stage to be a wife. As far as she was concerned her career was forever finished. But the pattern of her life, she knew, was not quite complete.

"During those years in night clubs and on the stage she had always dreamed of a husband, a family, and a home in the country. But Heaven didn't send a child and Al, who had always lived in hotels and never had a home of his own, couldn't quite adapt himself to the idea of a country estate. His spirit was too restless. So, wisely, Ruby didn't force the issue.

"But that didn't mean she was going to relinquish her real career for a shadowy life on the screen. When Joseph Schenck prevailed upon her to let him make a screen test she laughingly agreed. But when the test turned out so good that he pleaded with her to accept a role, she begged off, afraid. She was humbly content as Mrs. Jolson.

"One Friday night when she and Al were watching the fights at the Hollywood Stadium, Jack Warner leaned over and whispered that he had seen her test. Throughout the main event he implored her to accept the ingenue lead in 42nd Street. Al chuckled. The diversion, he said, might do her good. Go ahead.

"The rest is history.

"The fairy story must continue. The little housewife who became the toast of Hollywood overnight was delighted, but scarcely thrilled. The fumes of worldwide renown didn't go to her head. She was humbly thankful - that is all.

"It is indicative of this child of fortune that she didn't rant against Fate when she remained childless. Instead, she adopted a boy. And after years of quiet persuasion Al was ready to settle down in the country. They built a large, rambling place in Encino. And the day before Christmas Al was elected mayor of the town."

O-kay, that's a very long excerpt. But as a template it should serve us well down the road, separating fact from myth, especially as we compare it against other sources, particularly modern biographies as written by Patrick Watson and Nancy Marlow.

It's curious to note that nowhere in Hogarth's profile do we find any actual quotes from Ruby herself. The only accompanying pictures are the lovely airbrushed cover, and a single uncredited photograph of Ruby in a tree taken from a series of familar Warner/Vitagraph publicity stills shot by Scotty Welbourne in 1934. Indeed, one can surmise that Ruby mightn't have been interviewed or cooperated with Silver Screen in any capacity on the feature.

That said, one doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater and dismiss the feature nor the "facts" presented entirely. It'll all be valuable down the road - and that's what this blog is all about: assembling as many accounts as possible and attempting to formulate the "most likely" scenarios. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 23, 2007

I Only Have Eyes For You

Ruby Keeler. 1934 Vitagraph promotional photo. 20 x 26 cm. Date-stamped au verso March 11, 1935. Negative tag "RK.188." No photographer credit.

Welcome to Shadow Waltz, a blog-slash-fanzine dedicated to the incomparable Ruby Keeler! Ruby has been my favourite movie star since I first saw 42nd Street, the fabulous 1933 "musical comedy with dancing," about twelve years ago.

Now, before we get carried away here, understand that "favourite" shouldn't be confused with "best" or "greatest." Rhetorically, I ask: Is Ruby Keeler screenland's best-ever dancer? No. Singer? Don't think so. Actress? Even Ruby would've guffawed at that!

Having said that, she's my fave.

Why? Not sure, precisely. How does one quantify Rubyphilia? A fetish? Perhaps. I consider myself a fan and devotee. I suppose if obliged to answer the reason(s) why, I'd say it's the sum of all her parts, and probably has something to do with the gilded age of the early Hollywood talkies and musicals she was starring in, her undeniably ebullient charm and innocence, and - let's not beat around the bush here - a pair of the most adorable and magnetic eyes to ever light up the silver screen. Of course, singing and tapping those incredible and timeless songs by Harry Warren & Al Dubin doesn't hurt, either.

As to the intent of the blogzine, I don't purport to be an expert in all things Ruby. But I do have a growing collection of Ruby memorabilia - vintage magazines, newspaper clippings, photographs & other promotional ephemera - that I'll be sharing here to promote interest in her remarkable life and show biz career. At the same time, my cross-purpose here is to discover and learn more about her life and work.

Ruby Keeler was born on August 25, 1909, which means we're just a couple years away from her 100th birthday. Ruby parted this mortal coil some thirteen years ago - sadly, before I was even aware of her - but that centenary is approaching, so I'll be sure to update the blog as regularly as possible with an aim to celebrate that centenary in style.

Last point for the time being, I'd also like to invite all Ruby fans - and for that matter, fans of Dick Powell, Busby Berkeley, Al Jolson, Jimmy Cagney, Joan Blondell, etc. - to submit news, information, photos, trivia, gossip and anecdotes about Ruby to the blogzine. You can send them to me directly, or post them in the comments section below.

Be sure to bookmark, and thanks for dropping by!