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Keeler Still Taps in Her Memories

August 26, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

If anyone who reads this runs across a print of a movie called "Sweetheart of the Campus," Ruby Keeler would like to hear from you. It was her last movie--made more than 40 years ago--and she's never seen it. "It must still be around," she said the other day at the Balboa Bay Club, "because I still get mail from people who say they've just seen it."

Keeler, who now lives in Rancho Mirage, was in Newport Beach to be included in the Orange County Walk of Stars at the Anaheim Hilton (the ceremony will be Sept. 8 at 11 a.m.), and to enjoy a get-together with her extended family.

And extended they are. The day I visited, there were seven grandchildren, two of her three daughters, one son, one son-in-law and two sisters milling about, with Keeler--ensconced in a deck chair on the patio--at the center of it all. And there were more children and grandchildren due the next day. "It's like coming home," said Keeler, who lived in Orange County for more than four decades before defecting to the desert.

At 78, she no longer has the spring in her step, but she has lost none of the liveliness in her eyes. That's why it's difficult for a visitor to accept the cane leaning against the back of her chair. She needs it to walk, the result of an aneurysm suffered 13 years ago. But the eyes still belong to the ingenue of "42nd Street" who takes over when the star can't go on.

But forget the ingenue image; this is the street-wise New York girl who parlayed a love for dancing into vaudeville and night club acts and later, into featured roles on Broadway and in Hollywood.

She talks about it all today with humor, warmth and a small edge of irreverence, flavored with a smidgen of a New York accent. And she chain-smokes all the while.

Although the plot of "42nd Street" mirrors the real life of Ruby Keeler in some quite remarkable ways, there are some significant differences. Keeler wasn't from the sticks; born in Canada, she grew up in Germantown on New York's East Side. She wasn't a young woman; she was still a child when she broke into show business. And she didn't get to be a star purely by luck; she slogged her way up through a lot of chorus lines.

Keeler learned to dance, she says, from her father and from weekly folk dancing lessons at her parochial school. "My father," she says, "was a big man who loved to dance. He would waltz with me, and when he turned me, he would always lean over and whisper, 'Reverse.' The first time he didn't have to say it to me was one of the big moments of my life."

The folk dancing teacher saw talent in young Ruby and invited her to attend a class, but the Keeler family could not afford to pay for it. So Ruby was given free lessons with a weekend group. There she was spotted by another dance teacher, who taught tap and who took her under his wing--along with another little girl named Patsy Kelly, who was to become a lifelong friend and who would follow her to Hollywood.

"When I was 13," Keeler recalls of her big break, "one of the other girls in my class told me about an audition for a George M. Cohan musical called 'The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly.' You had to be 16 to work, so we lied about our age. Before that, Broadway was just a street to me. But once I passed through the stage entrance of the Liberty Theater for the first time, it was just like '42nd Street.' "

At just 13, Keeler was dancing in the chorus of a Broadway show, moonlighting at a night club and trying to attend a "continuation school." Something had to give. "My formal education," she says, "stopped at the seventh grade. I never went to high school. But I was making $45 a week, and how my mother needed it!

"I lived at home until I was married," she says, "and my mother was always with me when I was working. When my first show opened in Boston, she somehow brought all six of my brothers and sisters up there to see me."

For the next six years, Keeler danced on Broadway and in vaudeville and club shows, working with all the major stars of that period. She performed in shows with Bob Hope and his wife, Dolores, and she was the featured dancer with Eddie Cantor in Florenz Ziegfeld's "Whoopee," although she left the show before it got to Broadway.

She also did a screen test for Warner Bros. Pictures at their New York studio in the late '20s, but nothing had come of it when her agent offered her stage work in California.

The agent was waiting for her when she arrived in Los Angeles, where she also met Al Jolson, who had made history in 1927 as the star of the first talking picture. Less than a year later, Keeler, then 19, became the 43-year-old Jolson's third wife.

In the early '30s, as Warner Bros. set out to cast "42nd Street," Keeler's old screen test was discovered and she was cast opposite a young singer named Dick Powell.

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