Here are 10 things you should know about Ruby Keeler, born 109 years ago today. She was one of the biggest stars of early movie musicals.
The inimitable director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was born Berkeley William Enos (though some sources claim it was Busby Berkeley William Enos) 121 years ago today in Los Angeles, California. Berkeley, of course, is famous for his large-scale cinematic dance numbers that featured dozens of beautiful starlets painstakingly organized in geometric, kaleidoscopic formations that were often best viewed from above. Here are 10 BB Did-You-Knows:
- Berkeley’s mother, Gertrude Berkeley, was an actress and his father, who died when Berkeley was just eight years old, managed a theatrical troupe.
- In his early teens, Berkeley attended the Mohegan Lake Military Academy near Peekskill, New York, graduating in 1914.
- As a young man, Berkeley held a number of disparate jobs, working for a shoe company, playing semi-pro baseball and leading a dance band.
- Berkeley served in World War I, with the rank of field artillery lieutenant. Some say the drills he saw his fellow soldiers perform while in the military may later have influenced his precision choreography (we consider this a stretch, albeit a delightful one we’re willing to perpetuate).
- During the 1920s, Berkeley choreographed more than 20 Broadway musicals, and from the beginning, he was less interested in dance steps than in the kind of complicated geographic formations for he later became famous in Hollywood.
- Berkeley’s Hollywood debut as a choreographer and dance stager came in a 1930 Eddie Cantor picture, Whoopee!, and he would go on to work on 40 pictures in the next decade, as choreographer or director (or both).
- In 1935, Berkeley was traveling home from the wrap party for In Caliente when the car he was driving hit a pair of autos; three people were killed and five others seriously injured (as was Berkeley). Berkeley was brought up on second degree murder charges; the first two of three trials resulted in hung juries; in the third, Berkeley was acquitted of the charges.
- Despite his success in the field of terpsichore, Berkeley never took a dance lesson.
- By the late 1930s, Berkeley began to direct non-musicals, including the John Garfield vehicle They Made Me a Criminal (1939).
- At age 74, Berkeley directed the Broadway revival of No No Nanette. In the cast was his former leading lady at Warner Brothers, Ruby Keeler. The show was a success, and both Berkeley and Keeler saw their work acclaimed.
Happy birthday, Busby Berkeley, wherever you may be!
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.