In 1931, when Ruby Keeler burst onto silver screens across America amid a shimmering, fantasy world of song and dance, her freshness seemed to epitomize innocence, exuberance and optimism, qualities that kept the country's dreams alive even in the midst of Depression hardships.
The film was Busby Berkeley's "42nd Street," Keeler's screen debut, in which she played Peggy Sawyer, the ingenue who steps in to save the show when the star breaks her leg. It was a rags-to-riches fable that mirrored her own transformation from impoverished chorus girl to leading lady. Keeler, frequently paired with Dick Powell, went on to star in a decade's worth of musicals, including "Gold Diggers of 1933," "Footlight Parade" and "Flirtation Walk." In 1971, she returned to Broadway to work with Berkeley one more time in "No, No, Nanette."
On Saturday, Keeler will be honored at a star-studded tribute at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara. The event, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, will feature a compilation of film clips, live production numbers, anecdotes from friends and the presentation of an SBCLO Lifetime Achievement Award for Stage and Screen. Celebrity receptions will be held before and after the ceremony.
"I'm so happy and excited, I can hardly believe it," Keeler said. "I don't want to act too naive and say I don't know what it's for, but I want to thank them so very much for this tribute."
SBCLO representatives see the event as the first in an annual series of award ceremonies. That Keeler should be honored first, they said, is particularly apt.
"Not only does she symbolize the old style spirit of entertainment the company is trying to bring back with its revivals of classic musicals," one SBCLO staffer said, "but it was our stage version of '42nd Street' two years ago that brought SBCLO a new level of professional stature. So it's both a personal and public tribute."
Director/choreographer Jon Engstrom, who directed SBCLO's "42nd Street" as well as its recent production of "Singin' in the Rain," will stage the evening's two production numbers. His association with Keeler dates from the 1971 production of "No, No, Nanette," in which Engstrom landed his first Broadway show as a singer/dancer. Keeler had returned to the stage to ease the sorrow over the death of her husband of 30 years, John Lowe.
"I really didn't know who Ruby Keeler was when I started with 'Nanette' because I was a naive kid who didn't have a lot of show-biz background," Engstrom said. "But when she started tap-dancing for us, it really blew us away--she was in her 60s at that time and still a wonderful dancer.
"She always gave 150 percent every performance and she never missed a tap step."
Keeler dismissed the compliment with a simple "that's what my parents taught me." But she admitted that she sees a difference in the work ethic of many younger actors today.
"When we worked on a picture, we were all working for a good picture, rather than for the individual person.
"I read where people today have marvelous jobs in television--13 weeks, 26 weeks--then they leave the show because they want a vacation. My heavens, we never thought of vacation until everything was over."
Engstrom still remembers the moment during his time with "No, No, Nanette" when he fully understood Keeler's contribution to the American musical. It was during pre-Broadway tryouts in Boston. Keeler had already spoken some dialogue on stage and had been warmly received. During the "I Want to Be Happy" number, Keeler appeared at the top of a huge double staircase and started down the stairs.
"She took one step down the stairs and the light caught the glint on her taps," Engstrom said, "and the audience knew she was about to dance and they started screaming. They kept screaming and cheering and carrying on as she continued walking down the stairs. And then when we finished the number the entire audience jumped to its feet and it stopped the show right then. That's the only time in my life I've ever seen a show fully stopped by a standing ovation, and it happened every single night."
Not surprisingly, Engstrom chose "I Want to Be Happy" as one of the production numbers for the Arlington tribute. The other will be the opening audition number from "42nd Street."
Among the celebrities presenting and performing at the Arlington will be Alice Faye, Virginia Mayo, Anne Jeffries, Penny Singleton, Anne Francis and Toni Kaye.
Charles Champlin, recently retired as arts editor and critic at large for the Los Angeles Times, will serve as master of ceremonies.
"When we look back on the films of Keeler's era," Champlin said recently, "we do so with admiration for their technical skills, but at the same time with a kind of envy for their innocence, for their optimism. But you can't go back to it. You just can't surrender your disbelief the way you could in the '30s and '40s and even the '50s. We're just too sophisticated, and it's harder and harder to play make-believe."
But Keeler has no trouble recapturing the feel of her days with Berkeley. "How wonderful and how different it was when we were working," she said. "It was always great just to arrive in the morning and go into makeup. Nowadays it's all money, money, money. They're making a lot of it, much more than we made, and good for them. But that's beside the point. It's what you feel inside while you're doing it--that wonderful feeling of trying and hoping that you're accomplishing something."
* WHERE AND WHEN
A Tribute to Ruby Keeler, Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $100 for the ceremony and celebrity receptions; $35 and $25 for the ceremony only. Call 1-800-366-6064 for reservations or further information.