Ruby Keeler, born Ethel Hilda Keeler, was an actress, singer, and dancer most famous for her on-screen coupling with Dick Powell in a string of successful early musicals at Warner Brothers, particularly 42nd Street. From 1928 to 1940, she was married to legendary singer Al Jolson. She retired from show business in the 1940s but made a widely publicized comeback on Broadway in 1971.
Keeler was born in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada to an Irish Catholic family, one of six siblings. Two sisters, Helen and Gertrude, had brief performing careers. Her father was a truck driver, and when she was three years old, her family packed up and moved to New York City where he knew he could get better pay. But it was not enough: there were six children, and although Keeler was interested in taking dance lessons, the family could not afford to send her.
Keeler attended St. Catherine of Siena parochial school on New York’s East Side, and one period each week a dance teacher would come and teach all styles of dance. The teacher saw potential in Keeler and spoke to her mother about Ruby taking lessons at her studio. Although her mother declined, apologizing for the lack of money, the teacher wanted to work with her so badly that she asked her mother if she would bring her to class lessons on Saturdays, and she agreed. During the classes, a girl she danced with told her about auditions for chorus girls. The law said you had to be 16 years old, and although they were only 13, they decided to lie about their ages at the audition. It was a tap audition, and there were a lot of other talented girls there. The stage was covered, except for a wooden apron at the front. When it was Ruby’s turn to dance, she asked the dance director Julian Mitchell, if she could dance on the wooden part so that her taps could be heard. He did not answer, so she went ahead, walked up to the front of the stage, and started her routine. The director said, “who said you could dance up there?” She replied, “I asked you!” and she got a job in George M. Cohan’s The Rise of Rosie O’Reilly, in which she made forty-five dollars a week to help her family.
She was only fourteen when she was hired by Nils Granlund, the publicity manager for Loew’s Theaters who also served as the stageshow producer for Texas Guinan at Larry Fay’s El Fay nightclub, a speakeasy frequented by gangsters. She was noticed by Broadway producer Charles B. Dillingham, who gave her a role in Bye Bye Bonnie, which ran for six months. She then appeared in Lucky and The Sidewalks of New York, also produced by Dillingham. In the latter show, she was seen by Flo Ziegfeld, who sent her bunch of roses and a note, “May I make you a star?”. She would appear in Ziegfeld’s Whoopee! in 1928, the same year she married Al Jolson.