Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ruby Keeler centennial

This post is a few days early, but I'm going bush and will be many miles from an internet. Ruby turns 100 on August 25th. There are some references (incl. wiki) that notably put her birthyear at 1910, but other sources, including TCM, date it at 1909. I'm fairly certain it's the latter. One of these days I'll investigate the Halifax newspapers and see if there was ever a birth notice posted.

The blog has been sadly neglected the past few months, but this is a reminder that I am still working on my dedicated Ruby Keeler website, and suspect I'll have a ton of new material ready to go on that in the next half year. I'll keep you posted...

Happy Birthday Ruby!!!!!!!!!!!!

Friday, November 7, 2008

From the vault: Ruby Keeler postcard No. 3

British Manufacture "Real Photograph" Postcard. No. K 51 "Cameo" Series, 85 Long Acre, London. Ruby Keeler. First National. Date unknown.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Girl

The show was designed as a vehicle for Ruby Keeler. Though Ziegfeld never attempted to sleep with her, he was fascinated by Ruby Keeler: her naive charm and her openness captivated him.

The following is another version of the infamous "Liza" tale from Show Girl, this time from the biography "Ziegfeld" by Charles Higham. As with others before-and-since, there are some new anecdotes and more discrepancies, but one thing comes through loud and clear - the Great Ziegfeld was a man besotted.


By Charles Higham

Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1972


Dark Waters

RECHARGED with new energy that summer [1928], Ziegfeld was preoccupied with a new show by William Anthony McGuire: Whoopee, based on Owen Davis's Broadway play The Nervous Wreck. Gus Kahn wrote the lyrics, and Walter Donaldson wrote the music. The show was designed as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor, whose on-again, off-again relationship with Ziegfeld had finally blossomed into a deep and lasting friendship. Whoopee was ideal for Cantor; it was the story of the hypochondriac Henry Williams, who goes to California to recover from an imaginary illness and on the way arrives in a Wild West settlement.

Ruby Keeler was signed to play opposite Cantor, but her husband, Al Jolson, insisted that she should go to Hollywood to be with him. Ruth Etting took over the role. [...]

The year 1929 opened without powerful fanfare. The Follies were being held in abeyance, too difficult to mount because of the enormous work involved in the other musicals and still affected by the interminable litigation between Klaw and Erlanger. William Anthony McGuire, still drinking, still subject to unpredictable vanishings, still as unreliable and charmingly reckless as ever, was busy on a new production: Show Girl. The show was designed as a vehicle for Ruby Keeler. Though Ziegfeld never attempted to sleep with her, he was fascinated by Ruby Keeler: her naive charm and her openness captivated him.

Show Girl opened at the Ziegfeld theater on July 2, 1929. It was based on a novel by J. P. McEvoy with a score by George Gershwin. Basically the story of the rise to fame of a showgirl, Dixie Dugan, the whole scenario was designed as a hymn to Ziegfeld himself. The second act curtain actually rose on a scene of the Ziegfeld Theater, echoing Ziegfeld's earlier use of the New Amsterdam in Sally and in some of the Follies productions. There were fine moments of comedy—Jimmy Durante made his most important early stage appearance; and Eddie Foy, Jr., was witty as a greeting card salesman whose cigarette case blew up every time he opened it and whose gifts contained alarming devices (his routines twice brought the audience to its feet.) The highlight of the entire production was Gershwin's An American in Paris ballet, danced superbly by Harriet Hoctor against a glittering background of the Eiffel Tower and the city skyline. To this one scene Ziegfeld, passionately fond of Gershwin's music, gave almost superhuman effort, creating a glittering chiaroscuro of color and movement.

Ruby Keeler was extremely nervous during rehearsal, and Ziegfeld—who worshipped her more every day—and director Bobby Connolly found it very difficult to get a good performance out of her. At the dress rehearsal she reached the top of the superb staircase that had been designed especially for her, and she froze. She stood motionless in her tuxedo and high hat, clearly at a loss about what to do next. Bobby Connolly yelled, "Come on, Ruby!" Al Jolson, who was out front, jumped up. He sang her song back to her—Gershwin's "Liza"—and she suddenly snapped to into life, remembered the lyrics, and danced beautifully down the stairs. Ziegfeld immediately said to Jolson, "Al, do that on opening night." For several nights, until Ruby was settled in, Jolson continued to help Ruby perform the number, creating a sensation with every audience.

One much-published story was entirely true. In Ruby Keeler's honor Ziegfeld completely redecorated the star dressing-room at the Ziegfeld Theater in white organdy, the walls covered in ruffles. Her dressing table was also in organdy, the entire décor exquisitely designed by Urban. On opening day Ziegfeld called Goldie from Hastings and told he to take a taxi to Cartier's to pick up a package. She obeyed the instructions and picked up the "package"—actually a huge box. When she came back, she called him and said, "I'm back, and I've got the box. What do I do now?" He said: "Well, open it!"

She did so. It was a magnificent toilet set of brushes, mirrors, perfume bottles, and makeup boxes, 21 pieces of solid gold inlaid with crystal and mother-of-pearl. He told her to write on it "To the greatest star I've ever had" in a facsimile of his handwriting and instructed her to hide in a cupboard in Ruby Keeler's dressing room to report on Ruby's reaction when she saw the set.

Goldie said: "Mr. Ziegfeld, where am I going to hide?" He said: "You figure it out!" She was lucky: the dressing room was so full of flowers that she was able to hide just behind the door without being seen in the mirror.

When Ruby arrived, late, nervous, red-eyed, and in the midst of a quarrel with Jolson, Goldie had been hiding behind the flowers for over an hour. Ruby sat down at the dressing table and began to use the toilet set, too distraught to notice that it was new. Jolson ran in after her and saw the card. He exclaimed, Look, look at what Flo gave you, look at this!" But she went right on making up her face without comment. Goldie slipped out unobserved. Goldie told Ziegfeld that Ruby hadn't noticed the set until Al Jolson saw it. Ziegfeld was bitterly disappointed, and when he tried to give Ruby Keeler several pairs of $125 silk stockings imported from Paris, Ruby's mother intercepted the gift at the dressing room door.

Show Girl opened on July 2, 1929. Unfortunately the show had only a brief run.

Ziegfeld, by Charles Higham
Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, 1972

Monday, October 27, 2008

From the vault: Ruby Keeler postcard No. 4

"Real Photograph" Postcard. No. 81. Manufacturer unknown. Ruby Keeler. Warner Bros. & Vitaphone Pictures. Date unknown.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

From the vault: Ruby Keeler postcard No. 2

British Manufacture "Real Photograph" Postcard. No. 784 "Picturegoer" Series, 85, Long Acre, London. Ruby Keeler. Warner Bros. Date unknown.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

It's Ruby's Turn Now...!

Modern Screen. August 1933. Cover portrait of Ruby Keeler illustrated by Marland Stone.

Another straight transcription of a cover story feature article, this time from Modern Screen magazine, dated August, 1933. It's always fascinating to see how those contemporary versions of events become blurred when compared and contrasted against other versions. I've already posted some of these, and will doubtless post more. It'll all be assembled into some sort of timeline with footnotes shortly. In addition to the feature story ("It's Ruby's Turn Now...!"), the magazine also posts a lead review of Gold Diggers of 1933, and a nice feature interview with Jack Warner about his plans for the Warner studio stars. I have transcribed the Gold Diggers review in full, and excerpted Warner's comments about Ruby from his profile. It's curious to note the conflicting and inconsistent usage of the titles "Golddiggers" vs. "Gold Diggers," and "42nd Street" vs. "Forty-Second Street," within the binding of the same magazine issue.

August 1933
Cover portrait of Ruby Keeler illustrated by Marland Stone


By Caroline Somers Hoyt

ONE day I was having lunch in the First National commissary with Ruby Keeler.

He husband, Al Jolson, attired in golf knickers and white cap, came up to the table.

"Want to play golf this afternoon, honey?" he asked.

"I'm sorry, darling, I can't," she said. "I've got to rehearse the dance routines for 'Golddiggers.' Then I've got a fitting later." She saw the look of disappointment on his face. "But maybe if I hurry I could meet you about five and we could have one round."

And there was Al Jolson with a glorious California afternoon on his hands and nothing to do with it but wait for Ruby to finish her studio activities.

When Ruby Keeler and Al Jolson arrived in New York not long ago to attend the opening of Ruby's latest picture, she was interviewed by dozens of reporters.

Hundreds of eager fans stood in the lobby of their hotel and begged for her autograph.

The news cameramen snapped dozens of pictures of her.

During their stay in New York I called Ruby on the telephone. Al answered and told me that Ruby was out and could not see me that day. He might have been Ruby's business manager or press agent—the way he spoke to me. And I was disappointed. I had wanted to see Ruby.

Then suddenly I remembered that just a few years ago I had turned heaven and earth in an attempt to get an appointment with the busy, the sought-after, the important Al Jolson.

FOR behind these three apparently simple and average incidents there is a story as tragic as the history of show business.

Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler. Five years ago you said it that way, if you said it at all. Five years ago it was the great Al Jolson and "who was that little chorus girl he married?"

But now it is Ruby Keeler. Al Jolson is her husband.

Even before talkies Al was the greatest entertainer in the world. He made more money than any of the then-great. Came talkies and he was the one great star. "The Singing Fool"—his picture—will go down in motion picture history. Being a part of history, however, is scant consolation when one is still alive. When Al appeared on the street thousands followed him and begged for his autograph and laughed at his wisecracks. And just the other day I was disappointed when he answered the 'phone and told me Ruby Keeler was out. Isn't it amazing that now this slip of a girl, not much over twenty, erstwhile Texas Guinan chorus girl, is now the star of the family and Al Jolson—the great Jolson—makes appointments for her, answers her telephone and languishes away a California afternoon waiting while she rehearses and has fittings at her studio?

But the curious part of this strange, topsy-turvy pattern is that Ruby doesn't know it is different from what it was. To Ruby, Al is as great as he was that night, years ago, when he came to Guinan's night club and asked somebody who the cute little tap dancer was.

So perhaps that is what makes it possible for Al to go on. Perhaps that is why he can watch Ruby's fame grow and his diminish. Ruby adores him, admires him and respects him.

To her he is still the greatest showman of his time.

You should have seen them when they arrived in New York. The news cameramen swooped down to take their pictures. It was Ruby they wanted, but Ruby stepped behind Al, let him take center stage, with a big broad smile, and just looked over his shoulder. Ruby wanted it that way, because that's the sort of girl Ruby is.

IF it hadn't been for the fact she was born with dancing feet, Ruby would never, never have chosen the theatre as a career. She just isn't the type. But in school her teachers watched her going through the dull routine of "drill" and saw how lithe her body was, how quick her step and that she turned the stupid exercise into a thing of rhythmic beauty.

It was those teachers who persuaded her to go to the Professional Children's School. At thirteen she was a chorus girl in "The Rise of Rosy O'Reilly." And not much longer after that was a dancer in Texas Guinan's night club.

I'm sure you'd say that was no place for a young and inexperienced girl to work. But you wouldn't know Ruby. She tells you now—her soft eyes lit by the fire of sincerity—that the girls at Guinan's were "awfully nice girls." And she isn't putting on an act. To Ruby, they were.

Ruby managed, somehow, to remain immune to the sinister and sometimes sordid atmosphere she breathed. She danced at Guinan's but she was never a part of it. I'll give you a typical incident.

One night there was a fight in the club, the reason for which remains a tawdry secret of the underworld. Guns were drawn. Hatred charged the air. Everyone in the place was filled with terror.

And Ruby? Well, Ruby was down in the grill room. She didn't know there had been a fight until the other girls told her about it later, for Ruby was always somewhere else when these spectacular events occurred.

Ruby worked at Guinan's—that was all. The life was never an actual part of her life.

And that, of course, was partly because of her family.

For Ruby had lots more fun telling her brothers and sisters about the celebrities that came to the club than she had stepping out after the show. Besides, she was too tired to do much stepping out.

Ruby's working day at the club began at twelve-thirty and ended at half past four in the morning. The rest of the morning and the better part of the day were the child's sleeping hours. She usually got up at five and told the family everything that had happened the night before.

It was one of those big, jolly, Irish families and with them Ruby felt much more at home than in the world of glittering tinsel in which she worked.

ONE day Ruby asked her sisters, "Guess who came in last night?"

Ruby couldn't wait for them to guess.

"Al Jolson," she said, with a note of due awe in her voice.

"Al Jolson!" they repeated.

Yes, the great Al Jolson had been to Texas' Club—the greatest entertainer in the world, the big shot of the theatrical business and—what's more—he had definitely noticed Ruby. He had asked who she was. It was all very exciting and thrilling and her sisters sat wide-eyed and listened as she told the story.

And that was how the romance began—the romance between the big entertainer and the little chorus girl.

Ruby was so thrilled to be seen in company with the great Al Jolson. For she had never overcome her awe of celebrities and a feeling of her own unworthiness.

She was so shy, so unsure of herself that when Ziegfeld asked her to star in "Show Girl" she told him she could neither sing nor act and that he was making a mistake in putting her in the part. But he patted her on the back and persuaded her to take the stellar role.

She suffered such torments that when she would look out into the audience and discover two heads together, people whispering and laughing, she was quite sure that they were laughing at her. In spite of encouragement from Ziegfeld she died a thousand deaths of self-consciousness whenever she stepped on the stage and finally, her nervousness was so great, she became physically ill and a doctor told her she must leave the show.

Ruby didn't want to be anything but just Al Jolson's wife, to shine only in his reflected glory.

But the executives begged her to work in pictures. The first offer came to play opposite Al in one of his films. Ruby refused that flatly. She knew Al was nervous when he worked and she thought the added worry of her would trouble him. Besides, now that she and Al were married she had no desire for a career.

They broke down her resistance finally and she consented to "Forty-Second Street."

Again she suffered from stage fright, although she was thrilled to meet the stars and asked for autographs like any high school girl. And still, as her popularity on the lot grew, she believed that it was just because of Al.

WITH the utmost sincerity she told me, "People hardly ever remember me. But they all know Al and it's fun meeting them through him."

You see? To Ruby there is no change. Their relationships are exactly the same. She does not realize what has happened.

But these are the facts. With the release of "Forty-Second Street" Ruby's star ascended. It was one of the smash hits of the season and Ruby became an instantaneous success. She was rushed into "Golddiggers of 1933" and other films are in preparation for her.

IN the meantime—and even long before—Al's star had been waning. The novelty of his work in the first talkies having worn off, he is no longer the greatest entertainer in the world.

But the curious part is Ruby doesn't know it. The beautiful part of the story is that Ruby still sees Al as the greatest entertainer and her picture triumphs are merely secondary to the glory of being Al Jolson's wife.

The important part of her life is being with Al.

She actually doesn't realize that he is answering the 'phone for her and waiting on her while she rehearses and has fittings, for Ruby is still the little girl in the night club who was awed when Al Jolson asked her name.

As his popularity with the public fades, his popularity with Ruby grows. In her heart he is the great one, she the lesser. She still thinks that it is only because she is Al Jolson's wife that anyone is interested in her.

And so, perhaps, Al is compensated.

August 1933


Review ~

GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933 (Warners)

EXTRA swell musical. Hollywood can't make up its mind whether this is better than "42nd Street" . . . or merely as good. By that you can see that it's an evening of really swell entertainment.

It's that same old "Golddiggers" theme, but the girls, the dancing, the songs and the spectacular beauty of the whole thing is what makes it stand out.

Poor chorus gal falls for song writer (millionaire playboy in whiskers) whose brother threatens to "cut off his drinks" unless he forgets all dancers. The brother thinks they're all golddiggers. He (Warren William) comes to New York with his attorney (Guy Kibbee) to steer the younger brother (Dick Powell) on the virtuous track. Of course, he falls for the very gal he thinks the kid brother is about to marry (Joan Blondell) and thus the brother is able to actually marry the gal he loves (Ruby Keeler) and all ends in weddings.

All through the picture you will hold your breath at the gorgeous dance numbers created by Busby Berkeley and the songs, especially "We're in the Money," will send you away humming to yourself.

Joan shows a lot of dramatic ability that she hasn't had to display in the past. Ruby Keeler puts over a couple of grand songs . . . Kibbee is funny and the gals are way, way above par. You'll like it—the whole family will like it!

August 1933



What do the producers themselves plan for their own stars?

WHAT is to be the 1933-34 professional fate of Ruth Chatterton, William Powell, George Arliss, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Kay Francis, Ruby Keeler, Bette Davis, Richard Barthelmess, Barbara Stanwyck and Joe E. Brown? If any man in the world could know the multiple facts necessary to forecast these many fates, that one man would be Jack L. Warner, vice-president and sole production chief of Warner Brothers-First National Studios in Hollywood. [...]

"At the present moment, we are particularly interested in the possibilities of Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler as potential big stars of the screen. Joan has been with us for some time and I do not mean to insinuate that we have overlooked her worth to any of our pictures. But just recently we got a new slant on her. A certain scene in "Gold Diggers of 1933" suggested something new in Joan's personality, something we have overlooked. We shall develop this.

"Ruby Keeler, on the other hand is a perfect musical comedy natural and since we intend producing many of these, it is a certainty that she will figure greatly in our new program.

"Dick Powell is another newcomer who can't be ignored this season. I like him very much teamed with Miss Keeler."

August 1933


Thursday, September 25, 2008

From the vault: Ruby Keeler postcard No. 1

Handcoloured Real Photograph. Postcard. No. C 251 Colourgraph Series, 85, Long Acre, London, W.C. (England). Date unknown.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Halifax to Hollywood

"Movies". October 1933. Cover portrait of Ruby Keeler illustrated by Lt. James Lunnon.

Transcription of cover story feature article in Movies magazine, October, 1933.

"News About Broadway and Hollywood."
October, 1933
Vol. IV, No. 4
Alavania Publications


Ruby Keeler's Love Life

By Dr. Abbuh Wretlaw

Lucky at cards and lucky in love! A fortune teller once prophesied that Ruby would make good on the stage and screen—the cards were right!

A little bit of a girl with a great big slice of luck—that's Ruby Keeler. She loves her husband; she loves her work; and she loves life! She says she is lucky!

Maybe it's the luck of the Irish. Anyway, here she is, married to Al Jolson, with plenty of money and all that money brings, and with no particular desire to shine on the screen; but she's shining just the same. And they are both immensely devoted to each other.

Ruby Keeler didn't seek the studios; they sought her. Since her marriage to Jolson some three years ago she had settled down very comfortably to be the wife of a famous and prosperous comedian. They went in for domesticity in a big way. No more night clubs; no more photos of Ruby in the papers. That was all right with her. She knew that she had been one of the swellest of all tap-dancers back in the days when she was one of Texas Guinan's girls; but that belonged to the past. "Get thee behind me, show business!" said Miss Keeler (or rather Mrs. Jolson); or words to that effect.

And then Warner Bros. came to her and told her that they were about to film "42nd Street" as a big musical picture, and they wanted her very badly for one of the leading roles. The girl who was a hoofer on the Strand Roof and in Texas Guinan's night club gang was now in demand.

At first Ruby Keeler refused to even consider the idea. She wasn't interested because she was happily married; and she was not an actress, she told them. And Al didn't want her to return to the stage or the screen anyway. And she didn't care anything about it.

But the studio people insisted. As to acting—"just be yourself," they said. "That's why we've come after you. You are spontaneous; you are yourself!"

They talked money, too, and they kept on talking it until Ruby, still half-unwilling, signed on the dotted line. It was only for one picture anyway, and the little girl who was born Ethel Hilda Keeler might soon be forgotten!

So "42nd Street" was made and released and what follows is well known. The process of "just being yourself" turned out pretty well in Ruby's case; and a long-term contract was dangled before her.

Now, as a rule, a screen contract doesn't dangle long. When one considers the number of people in Hollywood and on Broadway and, for that matter, scattered all over the country who are working and hoping and praying for just such an offer, it is the irony of fate, or something, to have a case like this of Miss Keeler's. For she wasn't anxious at all. She let the contract dangle for quite a while; and probably if Al Jolson had not encouraged her to accept the offer she would simply have gone back into retirement, perfectly contented and happy.

But Mrs. Jolson, who had been, if anything, opposed to his pretty young wife's going into the cast of "42nd Street," had suffered a change of mind. It was Al who definitely encouraged her to sign the new contract, whose first result is "Gold Diggers of 1933," in which Ruby appears with Warren William, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, Guy Kibbee and other players.

Of course Ruby has enjoyed the success that has come to her as a motion picture actress. The best part of it is that it has come quite unexpectedly. For Ruby might be described as a most amazingly philosophical pessimist so far as her own qualifications are concerned. She is absolutely cheerful about it.

"I hadn't any confidence in myself while we were making '42nd Street'," she says. "I was afraid even to see the picture afterwards. Of course I felt better about 'Gold Diggers,' but I've still got my fingers crossed—if that will do any good. I do know 'Footlight Parade' will be a successful venture."

And then this very charming young person explained, rather surprisingly, why she thinks pessimism may sometimes be a winning philosophy.

"You know, I play tennis and golf, and I remember the case of a young English girl a few years ago who beat [Suzanne] Lenglen. I don't recall the girl's name, but she said at the time that she thought she had won the match because she honestly didn't expect to win it. She thought Lenglen was unbeatable, so when the game began she was perfectly relaxed and wasn't nervous and strained at all, she did a lot better than she had thought she would. I believe that worked with me. I thought '42nd Street' would be my one and only feature picture; my tap-dancing might be all right, but as an actress—goodness! So I just went ahead pretty calmly, and it turned out all right."

But she still doesn't take her screen career very seriously. If it came to an end tomorrow she wouldn't grieve; for she has everything she wants.

But "42nd Street," "Gold Diggers of 1933" and "Footlight Parade" mean that Ruby Keeler will not retire again just yet. To him—or her—that hath shall be given. The girl who was born in Halifax has landed permanently in Hollywood, and she now loves it! Date of birth, you ask? August 25, 1909, in the Province of Nova Scotia.

"News About Broadway and Hollywood."
October, 1933
Vol. IV, No. 4
Alavania Publications


Monday, September 8, 2008

That guy Jolson

Ruby Keeler-Jolson and Al Jolson. Vintage photograph, date-stamped Jan 31, 1929.

Returning once again to the mystery of the Keeler-Jolson nuptials (see passim), we come to the version recorded in the memoirs of Ruby's agent Bill Grady. It is an excellent account, and often cited, but one that doesn't always line up with other versions. For instance, Grady cites the Keeler-Jolson marriage as having transpired at Greenwich, Connecticut, where others have them being married at Port Chester, New York. And Grady doesn't see off the pair on their honeymoon, instead, in his version Ruby is back to work. Grady is working from memory here, so it calls into question how reliable a witness he is. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating tale, including a sympathetic portrayal of the vanquished gangster beau Johnny "Irish" Costello, and will be added to the timewarp Ruby spread-sheet currently in production.


The Irish Peacock: The Confessions of a Legendary Talent Agent

By Bill Grady

Arlington House, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1972


Chapter Five

Much has been written about the courtship and subsequent marriage of the young and beautiful Ruby Keeler and the one and only great Al Jolson. What has been written, plus what was told in the movie versions, is not the real story. The real tale is a fantastic one. As Ruby's agent and manager, I indirectly had a hand in it.

Ruby Keeler was the darling of Broadway. At a very early age she was dancing at the famous Texas Guinan's nightclub, also appearing in a Broadway musical, Bye, Bye, Bonnie.

Her press notices from Bonnie were outstanding, and in no small degree helped me to arrange a contract with Charles Dillingham for her to appear in Sidewalks of New York, the musical that introduced Kate Smith to Broadway. A short run in Sidewalks, and another Dillingham musical, Lucky.

Unfortunately for Dillingham, Lucky, which had cost $313,000 to produce, was a flop. It was the beginning of the end of this great man's career. To keep Miss Keeler busy, I arranged some bookings in important motion picture theaters. She was in great demand.

It was known on Broadway that Ruby and a Broadwayite named Johnny "Irish" Costello were carrying on a tacit romance. Johnny watched over Ruby like a mother hen. In the Guinan Club, woe to the ringsider who made a pass at young Ruby while she was doing her dance specialty on the cabaret floor. Two-fisted Johnny Irish would have to be reckoned with.

I didn't know Johnny's business. His constant companion was his pal Tommy O'Neil. Johnny was the quiet, nonsmoking, non-drinking type—Tommy just the opposite, talkative and prone to move in on arguments. It made no difference what subject was under discussion; pro or con, Tommy could move in uninvited.

Likable Tommy had a very annoying habit. In conversation he always repeated your last four or five words. If you were trying to explain something, it really threw you off.

Johnny and Tommy were highly regarded on Broadway. I never asked their means of livelihood, but assumed they were associated with the notorious Owney Madden, and his far-flung beer bootlegging racket. Both men were with me during my Silver Slipper days. I felt their presence there was as representatives of Madden, who had a big hunk of the operation.

As Ruby's agent, I kept Irish informed of my every move in her behalf. When I advised Ruby of a new booking, she would always inquire, "What did Johnny say?"

I received a call from Hollywood. It was Sid Grauman calling. Sid was the famous impresario of Grauman's Chinese Theater. He was planning a presentation and wanted Ruby as one of his stars. I asked $1,250 weekly, a six-week guarantee, and two round-trip fares New York to Los Angeles. Either her mother or sister would accompany her. I had been getting $500 weekly for Ruby in Eastern engagements. Grauman knew my reputation for nondickering and quickly okayed terms of $1,250.

Irish was pleased at the new salary, pleased for the Keelers. If that family had a desire in the world it was to possess money, and lots of it.

There was quite a brood of Keelers and Ruby was the big breadwinner. I was happy because studios in Hollywood were preparing musical pictures, and Grauman's would be a good showcase for Miss Keeler.

The fourth day of Ruby's engagement at Grauman's, I was at my usual table at Dinty Moore's when I was called to the telephone. It was Miss Keeler calling from Hollywood.

"Where is Johnny?" she asked excitedly.

"I don't know, Ruby," I replied, suspecting nothing. "Want me to find him and have him call you?" She was now crying. "What's the matter, Ruby, anything wrong?"

"Yes, that guy Al Jolson is out here and keeps sending me flowers and calling me to go 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."

No use reasoning further. I knew from experience that young Miss Keeler had a mind of her own and once it was made up nothing could move her. It was her mind to come home so I went in search of Johnny Irish.

As I was leaving Moore's, a taxi drew up and out jumped Johnny. I took him to the only place for privacy we could have, Moore's men's room. There I related my phone conversation with Ruby. His only comment?

"We gotta get the kid home. Where's there a Western Union Office?"

We went to the telegraph office on West 48th Street; the money was sent to Ruby, together with a long telephone conversation. We would meet her when she arrived in New York.

Five days later Ruby was home, and in the meantime I had arranged some bookings, starting at the Metropolitan Theater, Boston, to be followed by an engagement in Philadelphia.

During the Philadelphia engagement I received a call from Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers. His company was planning a gala presentation at their Hollywood theater. They wanted Miss Keeler as one of their headliners. I told Warner about the Grauman's Chinese episode, pointing out that the first question I would be asked would be, "Where is Jolson?"

Warner replied, "Don't worry about Joly. He is in Florida. Took a house there. Send her out, everything will be all right."

I set Ruby's price at $1,500 with the round-trip transportation for two. Everything was agreed to.

I went looking for Johnny to tell him what had transpired. I found him and Tommy O'Neil at Moore's. Listening to my recital of the Warner phone call, he thought several moments before answering.

"You sure that guy Jolson is in Florida?"

"All I know is what Warner tells me, that Jolson will not be in Hollywood."

"You better be sure, Grady. I don't want to have any trouble."

"No trouble," echoed Tommy O'Neil.

"I know the Keelers will think twice before they turn down $1,500. Did you tell Ruby?"

"No, Johnny, not until I told you. You know she's going to ask if you know."

"Tell her I said she can do whatever she wants to do, but talk it over with her mother."

I placed a call to Ruby in Philadelphia and anticipated her first question. "Where is Jolson?"

"Ruby, I can only tell you what I told Johnny. Jolson is in Florida and not expected in California. You call your mother and talk it over with her. Irish says to do whatever you want to do." I repeated the salary twice at her request.

The decision, after a talk with her mother, was to go to Hollywood.

Warner's Hollywood, and the second day of her engagement there, I got a call at Moore's. It was from Miss Keeler in California and she was crying.

"Where's Johnny?" she whimpered.

"Cripes, Ruby, not again."

"Yes, that guy Jolson is here, not in Florida, and the same thing is happening. I want to come home. Tell Johnny . . ." We were cut off.

I had been sitting with Johnny Irish and his pal Tommy. I went back to the table and beckoned to Johnny, and we went again to the only privacy in the place. There I told Johnny about the phone call. When I finished my tale, Irish went white and threw a left into my middle. It doubled me up like a pretzel. Man, he could hit hard.

Johnny apologized and we talked.

I repeated Warner's statement re Jolson being in Florida. I was at a loss for an explanation. Irish kept pounding his left fist into his right palm. I knew he would like to be in California at that moment.

Leaving me, he went up to Moore's apartment over the restaurant and placed a call for Ruby in California, followed by our going to the Western Union office and wiring the money to Ruby.

When the fair Miss Keeler arrived at Grand Central Station, Johnny Irish was there with a beautiful diamond engagement ring, cementing their troth.

Several more picture house engagements and Ruby was playing Loew's Washington. Again the fourth day and a pphone call, "Where's Johnny?"

"My God, Ruby, not again?"

"Yes, Jolson is here in Washington. I was all wrong. I've fallen in love with him. Will you break the news to Johnny?"

When the call came in I was in the midst of dinner. I was seated alone, and on returning to my table I couldn't finish it. How could I tell the devoted Johnny Irish? This was going to be a toughie.

Irish came into Moore's all smiles. He greeted his friends and came and sat with me. Noting my mood, he asked, "Anything the matter?"

"John, this is the toughest assignment I've ever had."

"Yeah," he replied. "What's goin'?"

"I just received a call from Ruby in Washington."


"Jolson is down there, Johnny, and she has fallen in love with him."

This nice man lowered his head without a word and for several minutes stared at his clenched fists. The knuckles were white from pressure. That good-looking Irish face was portraying inner agony. A lapse; he looked at me, banged his fists together, and abruptly left the table without a word.

Tommy O'Neil and Larry Fay came over to me. "What's the matter with Johnny? We saw him outside. He's crying and won't talk to us."

"John just got some news about Ruby. I think you guys better go out there and be with him. He needs you mostly, Tommy. I can't help."

O'Neil and Fay left. I ordered a stiff drink and followed, but when I got outside, Fay, Tommy, and Johnny were not around.

Following Washington, Ruby was to play the Capitol Theater in New York. Irish was not around his usual haunts. Only O'Neil knew where Irish was and he wasn't talking.

I wasn't exactly getting the brush from the Moore gang, but there was a strained air about their attitude toward me. Did these men think I had a part in the Keeler-Jolson affair other than arranging Ruby's bookings? Did I know about Jolson's intentions when I first booked Ruby in California? Did I know he was in or going to be in Washington when I booked her there?

This was the Broadway mob. They knew nothing about the theatrical business, other than their interest in nightclubs and speaks as an outlet for their bootleg goods. It looked like I was in a spot. I showed up at Moore's as usual. I had nothing to hide. O'Neil and Johnny didn't appear. I heard that Johnny was taking it pretty hard.

Ruby Keeler attended an early rehearsal at the Capitol Theater, New York. Immediately after orchestra rehearsal, she and Jolson went to Greenwich, Connecticut and were married. She finished her engagement at the Capitol Theater that week.

The Jolsons were living at the Ritz Towers, 57th and Park Avenue. I had a deal pending for Ruby and needed her okay. It was Show Girl for Florenz Ziegfeld, a starring role with Clayton, Jackson, and Durante as costars. Throughout this country and abroad papers were full of the Jolson-Keeler marriage.

When I arrived at the entrance to the Ritz Towers, I found Tommy O'Neil, Larry Fay, and a hoodlum known as the Slasher. Fay grabbed me as I approached. "You go upstairs and tell that dirty bastard we're gonna get him and we're waiting here until he comes downstairs."

I tried to talk them out of rough stuff. Nothing good could come of it. None of us could afford a police marker, and I think they realized it. Tommy O'Neil stood in the background. Loudmouth Fay did all the talking. He used to be Ruby's employer at the Guinan Club. I found I was getting nowhere in my peace talk, so I went upstairs to the Jolson apartment.

I'll give Jolson credit. When I told him about my encounter with the three men downstairs and their threat, he grabbed his hat, said nary a word, and left the apartment.

Tommy O'Neil told me later. "Jolson came up to us and said, 'You guys looking for me? Well, here I am. What are you going to do about it? Ruby and I are married. We fell in love. I'm sorry about Irish, but that's the way it is. Now get out of here and leave us alone.'"

When Jolson ended his talk with the trio they left, with O'Neil in the lead. A few feet away, Fay turned and said to Jolson:

"I'm telling you, Jolson. If you ain't good to little Ruby we'll kill you."

Jolson turned on his heel and came upstairs, and not a word about the downstairs happening.

The Jolsons disappeared from the Broadway scene for a while. It was a few weeks before Ruby would be needed for Show Girl rehearsals. I was offered as high as $2,250 a week for the Keeler act, but booked no dates for the time being. The Jolsons were in San Francisco. It was reported that Johnny Irish called them there and said just one thing, "Jolson, don't let me ever hear anything about Ruby that isn't good." He hung up.

The Jolson marriage, to all outward appearances, was a happy one. Al was an adoring husband, as well he might be. Ruby Keeler was a beautiful young woman. There was quite a few years' difference in their ages. Asked by many the why of the marriage, I had no answer. There was Ruby, there was Jolson, it was their life.

Show Girl rehearsed five weeks. Jolson attended every rehearsal. He was devotion itself. It was a tough show for Ruby. She was the star and carried a weighty load. It was natural that after a rigorous day of rehearsal she would be a bit edgy. Possessed with a temper to begin with, there were man-and-wife differences and sulking on both sides. I would then be called in as peacemaker.

Knowing Ruby, I could only offer Al one bit of advice. "Leave her alone. These rehearsals are tough. She'll come around in her own good time," and she did.

The show opened at the Colonial Theater, Boston, after numerous rehearsals at all hours of the day and night. Miss Keeler was a tired young lady. Jolson, noted for his inexhaustible energy, demanded more attention from Ruby than he should have under the circumstances. There was a spat and I was again called in. Jolson, a softhearted guy with even more of a temper than his wife, was in tears. I suggested a ride in the country to break the tension. Jolson and I took off.

To my surprise, instead of the ride in the country, the unpredictable Jolson ordered the chauffeur, Jimmy Donnelly, to drive to the nearest Catholic church. Jolson pleaded with me to go to the altar rail and pray that everything would be all right between Ruby and himself. I proceeded to pray while Jolson lit every candle he could find. The candle stands were ablaze with light, and Jolson stuffed bill after bill into the money slot. We went through the same proceedings in three churches, but at the third Joly wanted to be really sure about the prayers so he had Jimmy Donnelly join me at the altar rail.

Show Girl got off with a bang. It was light and melodic, and the audience loved it. The air was electric. The new star, Mrs. Al Jolson, was onstage and her famous husband was seated with me second row on the aisle. Ruby didn't disappoint, she was wonderful.

Just before the finale of the first act, Ruby had her specialty. She was to sing the hit song of the show, "Liza." It was planned that she would sing a verse and the chorus, then dance two choruses, but midway in the verse Ruby forgot the lyrics.

There was an instant of silence and Jolson rose to the occasion before the stunned audience. Stepping into the aisle, he nearly knocked me out of my seat in his haste. Jolson picked up the "Liza" lyrics and sang the song, while his beautiful young wife danced on stage. It was electrifying. Jolson, with tears of emotion streaming down his face, poured his heart out in song, his Ruby danced as she had never danced in her life, she, too, almost blinded with tears. I have had moments in the theater that thrilled me in my time, but never anything like this.

Every person in the jam-packed theater rose to his feet and applauded and cheered this great moment. As Joly returned to the seat beside me he was trembling. The audience insisted, and one verse and the chorus were repeated. The audience sensed that Ruby was exhausted and reluctantly allowed her to make her exit. Anything that followed in the first act was anticlimactic: the Jolsons, husband and wife, caused a sensation.

The incident became part of the show for the next several weeks. Ziegfeld prevailed upon Jolson to repeat the "Liza" singing while Ruby danced. New York had heard of the Boston episode, but when it happened on opening night at the Ziegfeld Theater there was no holding the audience. Many encores, and again the standing ovation.

The Jolson suite at the Ritz Hotel in Boston, after the opening, was the scene of a happy gathering of friends. All displays of temper and slight differences of opinion behind them, Al and Ruby Jolson were ecstatically happy, a wonderful climax in a history-making night in the theater.

The Irish Peacock: The Confessions of a Legendary Talent Agent
By Bill Grady
Arlington House, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1972


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Shipmates Forever, TCM Sept. 12

Vitagraph promotional photo, # RK-414.

Anchors Aweigh! We're Heading For the High Seas of Romance!

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 - Friday, September 12, 8:00 PM ET.

View original "Shipmates Forever" trailer, click here.

Be sure to set your VCRs and TIVOs! This movie is not (yet) available on home video or dvd, and appears on television only rarely. More info at the TCM website, and be sure to vote for its inclusion as a new home video/dvd title.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Happy 99th Birthday Ruby!!

Cuban full-page colour print of Ruby, sponsored by Colgate and Palmolive, date presumably 1934.

It's Ruby's 99th birthday today. (See prior post.)

I was watching the Olympic Games closing ceremony from Beijing yesterday. Watching the artistic construction of the "memory tower," I couldn't help but think of Busby Berkeley's layer-cake in "By A Waterfall" from Footlight Parade. If that wasn't coincidence enough, TCM was televising Footlight Parade and that actual sequence directly opposite to the closing ceremony sequence. Somewhere, Ruby must be smiling.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

42nd Street opens in Manhattan

Ruby Keeler, George Brent, Bebe Daniels. Warner Bros. promotional lobby card "42nd Street."

75 years ago to-day...

42nd Street -- "the tale of how America licked the Depression, how the Warner Brothers elected Franklin Roosevelt, and how Hollywood got to out-sing, out-dance and out-entertain Broadway. Indeed, America's pre-eminent theatrical strip, the thoroughfare in 'the heart of little old New York' that gives 42nd Street its name, was well in decline on 9 March 1933 when the movie's theme first blared out and its iconic title filled the screen at the Strand Theatre, five blocks away."

-- J. Hoberman, "42nd Street," BFI Film Classics (1993).

More below.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

75th anniversary: 42nd Street

Spotlight Seeker: Ruby Keeler, wife of Al Jolson, is the film moth who seeks the spotlight flame in the Warner Studio where she is to make her first picture. Credit Line (ACME) 12/12/32. No photographer credit.

"Now go out there and be so swell you'll make me hate you."

Ruby Keeler's screen debut 42nd Street is 75 years old this month. Let's celebrate!

The wikipedia entry lists the premiere date as February 2, 1933. But Village Voice film columnist J. Hoberman, in his fabulous book "42nd Street," published by BFI Film Classics (1993), lists the world premiere as 23 February in Denver, and the date 9 March 1933 as the New York City premiere at the Strand Theatre. I'll use the latter date to blow out the candles on the birthday cake.

42nd Street is not only the film that introduced me to Ruby -- playing the art-imitating-life ingenue "Peggy Sawyer" who steps out of the chorus line and saves the big show (what Hoberman calls the "Horatio Alger heroine, an American Cinderella, free to sing and dance her way up the stairway of success"), it's also the movie made me fall in love with the genre of Hollywood musicals.

There are so many elements that make 42nd Street stand out for me, from the genius of Busby Berkeley's revolutionary production numbers; the infectious musical compositions by Al Dubin and Harry Warren; the charming and winsome romantic lead Dick Powell; the duplicitous sexuality of Bebe Daniel; the tongue-in-cheek street slang from Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel; the hilarity of Guy Kibbee as financier "Abner Dillon"; to the film's real showstopper, the electric performance of director "Julian Marsh" played by the incomparable Warner Baxter.

J. Hoberman's book provides a real window into the Depression era the film was produced, as well as an inside look at the making of the Lloyd Bacon-directed Warner Bros. gamble. He dedicates the book to Ruby, and the back cover identifies himself as having been "briefly employed as Ruby Keeler's chauffeur during the Broadway run of No! No! Nanette." For fans of Ruby, Busby Berkeley, classic Warner Bros. films and Hollywood musical lovers, I can't recommend the book highly enough -- soak up those photos and buy it!.

Some tasty excerpts:

'Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty', 42nd Street is a prime chunk of fantasy real-estate -- not just a movie, but a novel, a song, a play, an act, an attitude, a dream, a racket, a rhythm, a way of life.

42nd Street is the hectic intersection where industrial folklore crosses with show business myth. [...]

[Producer Darryl F.] Zanuck, 'the chief interpreter of the Hardboiled Era' ... proposed to revive the musical and replace the percussive sound of [Warner Bros. gangster genres'] machine-gun fire with that of tap-dancing -- paying a 28-year old ex-vaudeville dancer named Bradford Ropes $6000 for the rights to his forthcoming novel 42nd Street, a backstage potboiler divided into two parts, 'Rehearsal' and 'Opening', and concerned with the interlocking fates of a show's producer and principals. ... In 42nd Street, then, Zanuck concocted the Hardboiled Musical, imbued -- like his gangster films -- with what Baudelaire termed the 'Heroism of Modern Life', those 'thousands of floating existences -- criminals and kept women -- that drift about in the underworlds of a great city.' [...]

Production began on 28 September 1932. ... The movie industry was felt to be near collapse. ... Theatres were empty, production was down, investment capital and cash flow had dried up. [...]

A series of successful sneak previews held in early January 1933...encouraged Warners to go for broke.

Exhibitors were instructed to sell 42nd Street as the 'Biggest Screen Event since the Birth of Vitaphone.' [...]

According to Variety, 42nd Street was the first studio release to be given extensive playdates in the American heartland, before opening in either New York or Los Angeles. The world premiere was on 23 February in Denver. [...]

Hoberman, cont...

Ruby Keeler was something of a professional naif. The 23-year-old dancer grew up on the East Side of Manhattan and was performing in speakeasies by her early teens, consistently attracting the attention of powerful men. Both Florenz Ziegfeld and Al Jolson saw Keeler dance at the well-known nightspot run by Texas Guinan (who would subsequently play herself in Warners' 1929 Queen of the Nightclubs). Jolson wooed Keeler away from her gangster protector, Johnny 'Irish' Costello; Ziegfeld cast her in the 1928 stage production of Whoopee!, although when the 43-year-old Jolson married the 19-year-old Keeler in September 1928, he demanded that she drop out of the cast and accompany him to California.

Keeler had already appeared in a two-minute short made by Fox to test the sound quality of recorded tap-dancing. 'Ruby Keeler, a revue dancer, snapped through a short but nifty tap-dance,' Variety reported. 'The machine gets every tap and reveals Miss Keeler as an exceptional female hoofer.' In Hollywood, she was immediately offered a part opposite Jolson but declined ('Al is so nervous when he works'), returning to New York in the spring of 1929 to star in another Ziegfeld-produced vehicle, Show Girl. This time Jolson followed her, and his initially extemporaneous gimmick of singing to his wife from the audience gave the production a needed boost. Unfortunately, Keeler's run was cut short after she fell from a spiral staircase and broke her ankle. Back in Hollywood, Joseph Schenk had her screen-tested for the female lead in the Jolson vehicle Hallelujah I'm a Bum. The powers at Warners saw the test and despite a report in the Los Angeles Times that Jolson 'hasn't been exactly keen over the idea of his wife entering on a motion picture career', offered her a leading part in 42nd Street. Negotiating with the studio he had helped propel to solvency, Jolson dmanded $10,000 for Keeler and got it. Keeler, in turn, managed to obtain parts for her two sisters, Gertrude and Helen, in the chorus line. [...]


[I]n it's matter-of-fact acknowledgement of backstage prostitution, the movie 42nd Street anticipates the less glamorous representation of '42nd Street' found in such post-Code films as John Schlesinger's 1968 Midnight Cowboy or Paul Morrissey's 1982 Forty Deuce. This tawdry backdrop makes the ludicrous innocence of Peggy Sawyer (and Billy Lawler) all the more dramatically compelling -- given the true nature of Pretty Lady (sic), the audience is left to wonder whether Sawyer will make it to the top with her virtue intact. [...]

'Have you ever been in love? Have you ever had a man hold you in his arms and kiss you?' Marsh demands. Sawyer shakes her head. Marsh, evidently a primitive exponent of the Method, grabs her in an embrace so passionate you wonder of he's insinuated his tongue down her throat.

"Two hundred people, 200 jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you. It's the lives of all these people ... you've got to give and give and give ... Sawyer, you're going out a youngster. But you've got to come back a star!"

Friday, January 11, 2008

"The little devil was just a butterfly"

Ruby Keeler and James Cagney, "Shanghai Lil" publicity still (#FP 318), from "Footlight Parade."

All directed and staged by the internationally famous creators of "42nd Street", Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley. CAN YOU EVEN THINK OF MISSING IT?

NOTICE: "Footlight Parade" (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1933), starring James Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell is showing on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) - circle your calendars - Wednesday, January 16, 8:00 PM ET.

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.