Texas Guinan & Ruby Keeler
Texas Guinan jump-started the career of a talented teenager in 1926 at the El Fey Club on West 45th Street.
- excerpt: "Al and Ruby" by David Hinckley, New York Daily News -
Child labor laws being enforced about as rigorously as Prohibition during the Roaring Twenties, 16-year-old Ruby Keeler took the stage around 2 a.m. at midtown's El Fey Club - at 107 West 45th Street - one night in 1926. Ruby was a hoofer, and a swell one at that. Starting when she traded school for showbiz at age 13, she had built up a solid reputation for her fast feet and the shapely legs directly above them.
Her act ran half an hour, and thanks to the patronage of Texas Guinan, the coolest saloon keeper of the day, Ruby did it at two or three clubs a night, shuffling back and forth. It ran the kid ragged, but by week's end she pocketed $150 or more, which came in real handy because her father, Ralph, an iceman on the upper East Side, had medical problems that ran up whopping doctor bills and left the Keeler family and its six kids without their breadwinner.
Ruby was Ethel Hilda Keeler while she was growing up in Yorkville. She never cared much about singing and dancing, she always said; it just happened to be the best-paying job she could land. When she left St. Catherine of Siena after the sixth grade, she didn't have a lot of other choices. Fortunately, this one was working out. Besides having Texas Guinan on her side, she also had Johnny Irish.
Johnny Irish was a dapper character who ran mobster Owney Madden's clubs and had taken a shine to Ruby. He was older and married, and the official word was that he and the kid were never an item, particularly because eagle-eyed Mother Keeler chaperoned her daughter around the clock. When he was around, she never lacked job offers.
Then, on that midsummer night in 1926, the equation changed. Into the El Fey Club walked Al Jolson, the biggest singing star in America.
At the age of 40, Jolie had reached a level of fame and fortune that only the man himself, who lacked neither modesty nor ambition, could have foreseen.
The ebullient Guinan, spotting this super-celebrity, called him by name and tossed him a wooden noisemaker. But she tossed it too enthusiastically and it sailed into Jolson's forehead, causing him to say something like "Ouch."
Mortified, Guinan took him to the downstairs room, where the good booze was stashed and the mobsters and millionaires got to hang out with the girls.
When Ruby joined them, she profusely apologized to Mr. Jolson, who said forget it, it was nothing, have a drink. So she had an orange juice and they chatted amiably for a few moments. When she left, Jolson reportedly mused aloud whether she was old enough for this job.
To which Texas Guinan reportedly replied: "She's old enough. But forget it. She's Johnny Irish's girl."
Ruby went on to Broadway. Jolson went on to Hollywood. Then Ruby got an offer to do a Hollywood short herself and happened to take the same westbound train as Jolson's old friend Fanny Brice. When the train gotto Los Angeles, Jolson was waiting to meet Brice. Whereupon he spotted Ruby, and soon invited her to the premiere of "Lilac Time" with Colleen Moore and Gary Cooper. As Jolson was divorced, the columnists climbed all over this date, not failing to note that he was 41 and Ruby was 18.
Jolie kept Ruby in town by setting her up with a dancing job for $350 a week. He sent her flowers nightly. Ruby, however, was no pushover. She had mingled with fame and fortune in New York, come up on the club circuit with the likes of George Raft and Barbara Stanwyck. She also knew Jolson had a reputation as a runaround.
But he wore her down and things got serious enough that he arranged a private meeting with Johnny Irish to discuss his intentions. Rumor, or maybe just the romance of Broadway, says Irish told him that if he ever did Ruby wrong, he'd end up facedown in the Suwannee River.
Whatever was said, back in New York, Jolson and Ruby drove to Port Chester on Sept. 21, 1928, and were married by a justice of the peace. The next morning, they boarded the Olympic for a honeymoon cruise to Europe. Broadway columnist Mark Hellinger was invited along to chronicle the trip, and Ruby's mother said Jolson gave Ruby $1 million as a wedding gift. . . . Broadway oddsmakers gave the marriage six months tops, figuring that's how long it would take one of the biggest egos in showbiz to crush this teenage flower. . . . When a film biography was made of Al Jolson in 1946, Ruby Keeler refused to allow the use of her name.
- - excerpt by David Hinckley - -
Published: November 2, 2004
Printed: The New York Daily News
http://www.nydailynews.com/city_life/big_town/. . . .