Arts & Life
5:14 pm
Wed July 17, 2013

For Actress Ruby Keeler, Another Opening, Another Show

Originally published on Wed July 17, 2013 6:11 pm

Ruby Keeler was an unknown actress when she starred in the 1933 production of Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street.

But the movie was so popular she was able to land two more splashy musicals that same year — and seven more by the end of the decade. There was nothing extraordinary about her talents as a vocalist or as an actress, but audiences of the Depression era really bought into Keeler's "innocent" onstage persona. In fact, they craved it.

Her life story was also a source of optimism for many during bleak times. She had truly earned her way to stardom, rather than being born into it. And unlike more graceful, natural performers, she had to work hard when she was onstage. They loved that about her.

But while Keeler was a huge star during the '30s, as the decade wound down, so did her career. Her marriage to Al Jolson came unraveled, and in 1940, she remarried outside Hollywood to a wealthy real estate broker and retired from showbiz — for what she thought would be forever.

Thirty years later, the nation had survived World War II, a baby boom, television, Elvis, the civil rights movement, a presidential assassination, the Beatles, anti-war demonstrations, hippies, and astronauts walking on the moon.

Basically, there were a lot of reasons to forget about Ruby Keeler.

But she had come back, this time as a 61-year-old grandmother, performing in No, No, Nanette — a creaky old '20s musical that centers on a young flapper. The Broadway producer told her that if she agreed to do the play, she'd only have to do two musical numbers.

From the very first preview in Boston, the audience greeted Keeler like an old friend, as she told an interviewer on opening night. What the people in the audience hadn't imagined was what it would do to them: Seeing her was like a fountain of youth.

Especially when they realized she'd put on her tap shoes.

A New York Times critic described the audience response to Keeler as "part nostalgia, part astonishment" at this model of "sobriety" hoofing with chorus boys half her age who were wearing sweaters so bright and zigzaggy, they looked like "a trainload of tigers struck by lightning." Madness was all around her, said the critic, but there was no madness to the diligent, dutiful kid who'd gone out there a youngster and was coming back a star.

Comebacks are usually about reinvention, but not this one. Keeler still couldn't act or sing. But she worked hard up there onstage, just as she had on-screen, and when audiences saw her, they remembered the determined Depression-era youngster, and their own determined Depression-era youth.

Outside the theater were things like Vietnam, psychedelia, all manner of the new. But up onstage, Keeler was as she'd always been. Eight shows a week through two years on Broadway and another two on the road. Working hard to make people happy, and fueling a nostalgia craze — one that would permeate 1970s entertainment much as the counterculture had the 1960s.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Finally this hour, a story of a comeback. We're looking this summer at people, places and things that have returned to glory: towns, fashions, animals and now a film star. She was huge in the 1930s but then dropped out of sight for decades, then, as we hear from Bob Mondello, she returned in the 1970s as the toast of Broadway.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: 1933, the star has broken her leg, and this being a backstage musical the director turns to the plucky chorus girl.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42ND STREET")

WARNER BAXTER: (as Julian Marsh) You've got to go on, and you've got to give and give and give. They've got to like you. Got to. Do you understand?

MONDELLO: Even at the very dawn of talking pictures, there was nothing new about the plot in Busby Berkeley's "42nd Street," but the girl was new, an unknown named Ruby Keeler.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42ND STREET")

BAXTER: (as Julian Marsh) You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star.

MONDELLO: And darn, if she didn't do exactly that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42ND STREET")

RUBY KEELER: (as Peggy Sawyer) (Singing) Come and meet those dancing feet on the avenue I'm taking you to, 42nd Street.

MONDELLO: "42nd Street" was so popular that Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, who played her boyfriend, made two more splashy musicals that same year - seven more by the end of the decade. Nobody ever said she could act, and that voice was nothing special. But Depression-era audiences loved her innocence, and they knew that the chorus girl making good story was Keeler's story too. In real life, she'd come from nowhere to become a star and even married Al Jolson. And unlike more graceful, natural performers, she had to work hard on their on screen, and they loved that too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42ND STREET")

MONDELLO: Keeler was a huge star during the '30s, but as the decade wound down, so did her career. Her marriage to Al Jolson came unraveled. And in 1940, she remarried outside Hollywood a wealthy real estate broker and retired from showbiz she thought forever. Flash forward 30 years, the nation has now survived World War II, a baby boom, television, Elvis, the civil rights movement, a presidential assassination, The Beatles, anti-war demonstrations and astronauts walking on the moon, if there's any one person nobody is thinking about, it's Ruby Keeler who is now a 61-year-old grandmother.

But a Broadway producer has a notion that the older theater audience, folks who aren't really into the age of Aquarius musical hair, might be feeling nostalgic about the entertainments of their youth. So he digs up this script "No, No, Nanette," a creaky old '20s musical that centers on a young flapper, and turns it into a showcase for the flappers' guardian, promising Ruby Keeler that if she'll agree to be in it, she'll only have to do two musical numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "NO, NO, NANETTE")

MONDELLO: From the very first preview in Boston, the audience greeted Keeler like an old friend, as she told an interviewer on opening night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KEELER: I didn't know whether to stand there or cry or laugh. I just didn't know what to do. And then I hope they'll remember - would remember the line I had to say after that. After all, I've been away so very long. I mean, I haven't been around at all. And it's - you can imagine what it would do to a person.

MONDELLO: What the audience hadn't imagined was what it would do to them. Seeing her was like a fountain of youth, especially when they realized she put on her tap shoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "NO, NO, NANETTE")

MONDELLO: A New York Times critic described the audience response to Keeler as part nostalgia, part astonishment at this model of sobriety hoofing with chorus boys half her age who were wearing sweaters so bright and zigzaggy, they looked like a trainload of tigers struck by lightning. Madness was all around her, said the critic, but there was no madness to the diligent kid who'd gone out there a youngster and was coming back a star. Comebacks are often, maybe usually about reinvention, not this one.

Keeler still couldn't act, couldn't sing, but she worked hard up there on stage, just as she had on screen. And when audiences saw her, they remembered the determined Depression-era youngster and their own determined Depression-era youth. Outside the theater were things like Vietnam, psychedelia, all manner of the new. But up on stage, Ruby Keeler was as she'd always been - eight shows a week through two years on Broadway and another two on the road - working hard to make people happy and fueling a nostalgia craze, one that would permeate 1970s entertainment much as the counterculture had the 1960s. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "NO, NO, NANETTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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