b. Ethel Hilda Keeler, 25 August 1909, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, d. 28 February 1993, Rancho Mirage, California, USA. A charming and petite actress and singer renowned for the Busby Berkeley ‘Depression-era’ musicals she made with Dick Powell in the 30s, particularly for 42nd Street in which Warner Baxter barked at her: ‘You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star.’ That is exactly what she did do, some time after taking dance lessons as a child and tap-dancing in the speakeasies of New York while she was still a teenager. In 1927 she danced her way into three Broadway musicals Bye, Bye Bonnie, Lucky, and The Sidewalks Of New York, and Florenz Ziegfeld offered her an important role with Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting in Whoopee! While the show was being cast she travelled to Hollywood to make a short film, and there met Al Jolson. He followed her back to New York, and they were married in September 1928. At her husband’s request, Keeler left Whoopee! before it reached Broadway, and for the same reason she only spent a few weeks in Show Girl (in which she was billed as Ruby Keeler Jolson). While she was performing in the latter show, Jolson rose from his seat in the stalls and serenaded his wife with a song. For the next few years she stepped out of the spotlight and concentrated on being just Mrs. Jolson. That is, until 1933, when Darryl F. Zanuck at Warner Brothers saw a film test she had made some years before, and signed her for the ingenue role 42nd Street. All her years of training paid off as she and Dick Powell and those marvellous Busby Berkeley dance routines (coupled with a tremendous Harry Warren and Al Dubin score) made the film a smash hit. Keeler’s most memorable moment came with a soft shoe number, ‘Shuffle Off To Buffalo’, but her demure, sincere personality and fancy footwork delighted audiences throughout the picture. 42nd Street was followed by more of the same in the form of Gold Diggers Of 1933, Footlight Parade, Flirtation Walk, Shipmates Forever, and Colleen. In 1935 she and Jolson starred in their only film together, Go Into Your Dance. Keeler made her last film for Warners, Ready, Willing And Able in 1937. It contained what is supposed to be one of her favourite sequences in which she dances with co-star Lee Dixon on the keys of a giant typewriter. After playing a straight dramatic role in Mother Carey’s Chickens (1938) and appearing in one more musical, Sweetheart Of The Campus (1941), she retired from the screen. In between making those two films, she had divorced Jolson in 1940, and, a year later, married John Homer Lowe, a wealthy broker from California, and they raised four children. Apart from making some guest appearances on television during the 50s and 60s, and playing in a brief revival tour of the play Bell, Book And Candle, Keeler stayed well away from the public eye until 1970, a year after Lowe died. She was tempted back to Broadway for a revival of the 1925 musical No, No Nanette, partly because she was assured that it would not ridicule the old musicals, and also because Busby Berkeley was to be the production supervisor. The show was a triumph, running for 871 performances and winning several Tony Awards. US television viewers were reminded of her prowess in 1986 when Ruby Keeler made her last major public appearance in the ABC special Happy Birthday Hollywood. She died of cancer in February 1993.
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