Happy 107th Birthday, Ruby Keeler!

Actress, singer and dancer Ruby Keeler was born Ethel Ruby Keeler 107 years ago in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Here are 10 RK Did-You-Knows:

  • Her father was a truck driver who moved his wife and six kids to New York City when Ruby was three years old in search of better pay.
  • Ruby’s family couldn’t afford dance classes for the aspiring hoofer, but she took occasional lessons at the parochial school she attended.
  • When she was 13, Keeler lied about her age (the law required chorus girls be at least 16) and attended a cattle call audition for a Broadway producer. She was hired for the chorus in George M. Cohan‘s The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly (1923). A year later, she was working in the chorus at a Tex Guinan speakeasy called El Fay.
  • After appearing in a few more Broadway shows, Keeler married Al Jolson and moved west to Hollywood with him. Though the marriage lasted eleven years, it was not a happy one and Keeler was hesitant to discuss it in later years. When a biopic was made about Jolson’s life in 1946, Keeler refused permission to use her name in the movie.
  • Her first credited movie role was in 42nd Street (1933), in which she played a young Broadway chorus girl who gets her big break with the star of the show breaks a leg (literally).
  • Keeler’s greatest success in pictures came in a string of Busby Berkeley musicals in which she starred opposite boyish crooner Dick Powell.
  • Keeler retired from show business in the 1940s, but made a triumphant return to the Broadway stage in 1971 in a revival of the play No, No, Nanette. The production ran for 861 performances.
  • Keeler was one of several Canadian actresses who were stars in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s, including Mary Pickford, Marie Dressler and Norma Shearer.
  • Keeler’s movie career was brief; she starred in just eleven feature-length motion pictures from 1933 to 1941. She later made the occasional cameo appearance in movies and on television, but these were few and far between.
  • Keeler’s nephew was Ken Weatherwax, who played Pugsley on the 1960s sitcom The Addams Family.

Ruby Keeler

Happy 114th Birthday, Norma Shearer!

There seems to be widespread confusion regarding Norma Shearer’s birthday. Some sources say she was born on August 10, some say August 11, and The New York Times, in its obituary for her, cites August 15. The year is in question too: Was she born in 1900, 1902 or 1904? Biography.com lists her birth as occurring in 1900 and 1902.

We’re going with August 10, 1900, but we cannot promise that’s correct….

Norma Shearer was born Edith Norma Shearer 114 years ago today in Montréal, Québec, Canada. Here are 10 Did-You-Knows about the former Queen of MGM:

  • Shearer, who won a beauty contest at 14, moved to NYC with her (stage) mother and sister Athole (who would later marry legendary director Howard Hawks) four years later. After Florenz Ziegfeld passed on casting Shearer in his Follies, she got some small roles in movies.
  • Irving Thalberg saw some of her early movie work and in 1923 signed Shearer to a contract with with Louis B. Mayer Pictures, a precursor of MGM, where he was vice-president.
  • Shearer made eight—count ’em, 8!—feature pictures in 1924.
  • Shearer converted to Judaism to marry Thalberg in 1927 and continued to observe the faith after his death and for the rest of her life.
  • Norma’s brother, Douglas, won twelve Academy Awards for his work as a sound designer. The pair were the first brother-and-sister tandem to win Oscars.
  • At a point in her career when she appeared in only prestige productions, she played a part in The Stolen Jools (1931), a star-studded short subject intended to raise money for a tuberculosis sanatorium, as the owner of the titular “jools.” Also in the film were such luminaries as Wallace Beery, Buster Keaton, Edward G. Robinson, Laurel and Hardy, and members of the Our Gang cast.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have based one of his stories, “Crazy Sunday,” on one of Shearer’s parties and the story’s protagonist, Stella Calman, on Shearer herself.
  • Weak eye muscles gave Shearer a slightly crossed eye; she worked with eye doctors to improve it and cameramen to disguise it.
  • She was the third woman to win the Best Actress Oscar and the second of three consecutive Canadians to win it (Mary Pickford won it in 1929 and Marie Dressler in 1931).
  • Among the roles she is reported to have turned down were Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind), Mrs. Miniver, and Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard). Of Scarlett, she said, “Scarlett O’Hara is going to be a thankless and difficult role. The part I’d like to play is Rhett Butler.”

Happy birthday, Norma Shearer, wherever you may be!

Norma Shearer

Hollywood Undressed, Part Two

This is our final offering from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood (but actually ghost-written for Sylvia by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker).
The second part of the book comprises Sylvia’s dietary and nutritional theories, and we weren’t going to share those here (they’re a little on the dry side), but we decided to say goodbye to Sylvia with the first chapter of that section of the book, which shares daily menus from the diets Sylvia assigned her various and sundry celebrity clients. “Who wouldn’t want to eat like Gloria Swanson or Constance Bennett for a day?” we asked ourselves.
 

DIET AND WHOLESOME COOKING

 
1. FOOD AND ITS PREPARATION
 

BELIEVE it or not, the object of a first-class masseuse’s business is to get rid of patients. If she’s on the level, the masseuse aims to send the patient away in good condition and hopes never to see her again. In this respect, massage is like the medical profession. The doctors too (the decent ones) do their level best to ruin their own racket and nothing is so satisfactory as a patient cured—which is a patient lost.
In Hollywood, Sylvia is reaching the point where her hob, for having been done too well, shows diminishing returns. Which is as it should be. And Sylvia, far from moaning over the fact, is as pleased as the kid who broke up the game by slamming the only ball into the river for a home run. Bit by bit, one by one, the respectable and representative percentage of Hollywood film people who are listed on the boss’s books have been made over and educated to the point where they are the caretakers of their own waistlines and do not need professional supervision at thirty dollars an hour.
If the boss can take it that way, far be it from me to show a meaner spirit. So—
Hurrah! I got fired.
It isn’t the massage that makes these people their own conditioners. The pounding can, and does, effect a speedy correction of overweight, underweight and some of the other deviations from the beautiful normal. But we can’t give any mileage guarantees in our business. A waistline bought on the massaging slab won’t last from now until next Sunday unless the buyer coöperates in the upkeep. With every treatment given in our back room goes a lecture on diet. The boss spiels it out while she’s working, something like this:
“No more fried food—“
Wham!
“Cut out sea-food.”
Ouch.
“Turn over. And listen: lay off the liquor.”
Our customers all go through the same phases. At first they pay no attention to the diet instructions, figuring that the treatments will be absolution for their sins of the table. Sylvia’s invariable procedure, after a week or so of this kind of dishonesty, is to lock the patient out. It makes no difference who the patient is. Some of our most famous patients have been through the disciplining experience of being refused treatment. They eat, drink, live and, to a certain extent, dress as Sylvia prescribes, or they are locked out until they come back in penitent mood—which they all do. Thereafter, there are frequent backslidings. But Sylvia screams and threatens, periodically refuses treatment, and the backslidings become fewer and farther between. The great time to complete the dietary education of a Hollywood movie girl is during one of those interludes (they all pass through them) when the last picture contract is dead and the new one hasn’t been offered. Then, living on credit, running up bills, frightened, chastened, ready to listen to reason, the over-size babies can be taught something. In the long run, invariably, the knowledge is finally appreciated. Good dieting is good eating. When they find that out, the boss has done all she can do for a patient. Good-by patient.
The proposition, here, is to sum up Sylvia’s diet knowledge as it was brought to bear on the people of Part One, taking them in order of their appearance in these pages. As will become apparent as we go along, the boss handles diet problems with a dual point of view: the elements of the diet, and their preparation. Of the two, the latter is much the more important. A pork chop, properly cooking, would be a much better diet dish than a chicken wing fried in fat and ignorance. The place where the chemistry, quality and suitability of your food is decided is not in a scientific tract setting forth the calorie, protein, vitamin contents of this and that raw product; it is not in the package from the patent food manufacturer; it is not in test-tubes, treatises and tabulated statistics; it is over the burner of your kitchen range. There you may negotiate the miracle of your physical regeneration. There also, you may concoct an assortment of deadly poisons from the evil effects of which not even Sylvia’s fists, pounding at their merriest, can deliver you.
 
2. MARIE DRESSLER’S “AS IS” DIET
MARIE DRESSLER, as has been told, went through a period in Hollywood when, for business reasons, she put up a million-dollar front. By way of awing the financial executives of a company which was trying desperately to circumscribe her salary demands, she set up a semi-royal establishment in a turreted castle of the Hollywood hills. An unexpected result of this purely political maneuver was that idleness, plus a Filipino cook with an oriental imagination, began to tell on her midsection. Sylvia had to put her foot down.

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Three

The third chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood (but actually ghost-written for Sylvia by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker), tells the story of the masseuse’s contentious relationship with actress Mae Murray.

THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

Mae MurrayThe boss rubbed Marie Dressler and got a balance in the bank.
She rubbed others and got famous.
She rubbed still others and got wealthy.
She has rubbed some for charity, some on spec., lots for cash down—but, by and large, I guess she really rubs for the kick she gets out of her “art.”
But the kick she got out of rubbing Mae Murray was different, and more than she bargained for.
It happened in the boss’s earlier Hollywood days. Mae summoned Sylvia about Christmas time, 1927, and spake:
“You come along with me on a coast-to-coast tour, and let’s not talk dough. What you get by the week is—poof?—pin money. I’ve got plans for you. We’ll launch a breakfast food! Say, we’ll do a sanitarium right over in Westwood. There’s millions in it!” And she got sentimental and added: “Think of your darling sons. Do it for them. They’ll be rich!”
Now, I make a rule: When anybody says, “I know how to make a million,” I’m deaf. If somebody says, “Want to pick up ten bucks?” I’m listening. But Sylvia is made different. She came home from the Mae Murray interview raving with enthusiasm.
I said right then: “THis will end up in a lawsuit.” That is exactly the way it did end up, and I got credit for second-sight.
Sylvia came back from the big tour with Murray minus salary she couldn’t collect. So she sued.
Yes, they told it to the judge—but, your Honor, you don’t know the half of it, dearie! The trial lasted two days, and they had it out in court—all about Mae’s husband, Prince M’Divani, and his ways; about how Sylvia rubbed Mae so hard she got fallen arches (Sylvia did); about how Alice White was ready to show the judge just where Sylvia reduced her and there was a riot in court; and how one of Sylvia’s lawyers told Mae not to throw any inkstands—all this was chewed over by the lawyers.
The boss won and collected.
The contract the boss made with Mae was to travel with her for six months from coast to coast and keep her in daily trim. When you’ve been dancing for as many years as Mae the muscles of the legs begin to bunch up. All veteran dancerse have this trouble. Most of them let nature take its course. But Mae is wiser. She can round into shape to this day and show a leg like a débutante’s.
But Mae put it better than anybody else could in her testimony at the trial.
Sylvia’s lawyer was trying to prove that the boss had had a hard time of it on the job.
 
(File No. 250,490, Los Angeles Hall of Records: in the matter of Sylvia vs. Murray: Deposition of the defendant
Question (by Mr. C. M. Addison, for Sylvia). She neglected you, did she?
Answer (by Miss Murray). She was completely tired out many times, and went to her room without attending me.
Q. Probably true, because sometimes she gave you attention three or four hours at a stretch, didn’t she?
A. No.
Q. Well, she did what you asked?
A. No.
Q. What did you ask of her that she didn’t do?
A. Well, it was her complete attitude. The reason you have a masseuse is because you need it, just as a horse needs it when he’s in a race. I’m in a race four or five times a day. In dancing, your muscles become tired after twelve hours’ work.
 
But the way to get it all straight is to start from the beginning—the day when we loaded the boss and Mae and all Mae’s bundles on the train for San Francisco.

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Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Two

The second chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood, tells the story of how actress Marie Dressler became Sylvia’s first client from the motion picture industry. The book was actually ghost-written for Sylvia herself by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker.

OUR FIRST LADY STRIPS FOR ACTION

Marie DresslerMARIE DRESSLER is the one woman whose name is in the date book as far back as 1925, who doesn’t give me a pain. I guess everyone likes her. Even these cats that come in here with gastritis every time somebody else makes a hit in a picture can stand the idea that Marie Dressler is knocking them dead with every release. Maybe it’s because Marie is nobody’s rival for a beauty prize. What really burns them up is having new cutie breeze into town hunting for a lap to climb on. Nobody got alarmed when Miss Dressler began squeezing through the doors of casting offices. And now it’s too late to do anything about it.
The nightly prayer of the Hollywood female is: “Please, Lord, don’t send us any more lookers.” Heaven heard them once, and sent Marie Dressler.
Sylvia was giving Dressler her daily tumble before Hollywood ever did. Back in 1925, in “The Callahans and the Murphys,” Dressler was just one of the supporting crowd—an aunt or something. Nevertheless, she was Sylvia’s first movie client and her entering wedge into the film colony.
Yes, if Marie Dressler hadn’t been loaded up with fourteen quarts of near-beer a day back in 1925, Sylvia might have gone back to Chicago. And me? I suppose I’d still be holding the towel for that dentist who couldn’t pay my wages. But for Marie Dressler, Sylvia might never have hung on in Hollywood.
The boss told me about that first call to Marie Dressler’s suite in the Ambassador Hotel. You see, in those days, being just a squareheaded immigrant, Sylvia knew no more about the Hollywood film world than you can find out walking down Vine Street at lunch hour, and reading the press blurbs. And what you see from that angle is all front—the big Hollywood front. It took her a couple of years to work around to the other side of Hollywood.
The call to attend Marie Dressler came quite unexpectedly. I don’t need to say I wasn’t yet on the scene. An unknown masseuse doesn’t need a secretary to handle the appointment book and the collections. One of her patients was a Chicago woman visiting Los Angeles and staying in the Hotel Ambassador. This same woman was getting treatment by the hotel doctor, who was an A-No.1 M. D. and was on the level. So when Marie Dressler called the doc to her suite in the same hotel and showed him the symptoms of gastritis, the doc recommended Sylvia.
And so Mae Murray and Alice White and Bebe Daniels and Mary Duncan and Ramon Novarro and Ronald Colman and Norma Shearer and Ruth Chatterton and Ann Harding and Norma Talmadge and Grace Moore and Connie Bennett and Gloria Swanson followed in rapid succession, and today Sylvia stands at the top of her profession and has an electric refrigerator and a hired girl in the kitchen.
Well, meanwhile, before going up to the Dressler suite, Sylvia stopped in to thank the hotel doctor for the boost. And she got to telling him how this was like a dream coming true—
“Because I worked a year in Chicago to save up enough money to come out to Hollywood,” she told him. “I doped it out, doctor, that the one thing they want out here is to hang on to their good looks, which they can’t do without some professional help. Now, this Marie Dressler—tell me confidentially, doctor. She isn’t so sick, as she’s afraid she’s lost her shape or her complexion. Isn’t that it?”
You see, Dressler was just a name to the boss, who hadn’t been spending much money or time on the movies. The doctor got wise that Sylvia thought she was to go to work on the alabaster surface of a piece of living Hollywood statuary. He let it ride.
“The poor girl’s a little overweight,” is all he said—with a poker face.
“Any bets I can’t take it off? said Sylvia.
“I’m not a betting man,” he replied.
So Sylvia went on up to suite A3 to get her first peek at Hollywood beauty languishing luxuriously in its lair.

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