Thelma Ruby takes to the stage again at 91. William Russell speaks with someone who encompasses musicals, revue, and General at the National.
She may be 91, but Thelma Ruby is going back on stage with her one woman show to launch the Festival 46 season at the King’s Head theatre in Islington later this month.
Star of revue, musicals, films and plays – she has done pretty well everything except dance in the ballet in her long career. She approves of the little theatre – it pays people who perform there the Equity rate. This is not the first time she has appeared at the King’s Head, but they did not pay her then, she says.
Her career was at its peak in the sixties when she was starring in Fiddler on the Roof with Topol and in Cabaret with Judi Dench, the actor she has enjoyed performing with most. Tactfully, she refuses to say who were the difficult ones. She admits, however, to thinking of at least two names. “I enjoyed all my leading men,” she adds, then collapses in laughter at what she has just said.
“I have not done my one woman show for two years and I thought then it would be my farewell performance, but here I am at 91. I asked my singing teacher – I still go every week – and she said – ‘Go for it.’ In the show I talk about my life in the theatre. I was terribly shy as a child. I wanted to be an actress – my mother had a beautiful singing voice – and there were two mirrors in my bedroom. I used to practice stage acting in front of one and film acting in front of the other. We were evacuated to America during the war and I got a scholarship to Finch Junior College in New York. They asked what I wanted to be, and my father said he thought I should be a writer. But the Principal said they had a fine theatre arts department and for the next two years I studied there and went on the stage.”
One of her big successes was the legendary revue For Amusement Only which ran for two years from 1956 to 58 at the Apollo and had a cast of some of the funniest men of the time including Ron Moody, Hugh Paddick, Ronnie Stevens and Barry Took.
“In those days you got no time off,” she says. “Now you have to take a holiday and give the understudy a chance. Ron Moody and I never missed a performance. Several of the women in it are still around and we meet up sometimes for lunch. All the men, however, are dead.
“Being in a long run is hard work and sometimes, when it is not such a good audience and you do not get your laugh, it can be difficult. But you have to say to yourself – this audience has never seen the show before so I must keep it fresh and sparkling. The biggest problem is giggling when things go wrong. The thing then is not to look the other actors in the eye. If you are getting laughs it helps with a long run, but serious plays can be a problem because you don’t necessarily know if you are getting across. You just have to be in the moment.”
One of the men in her life – she had a long and happy marriage to the director Peter Fry – was the Hollywood star, Tyrone Power. “That was a very glamorous time,” she says. “I was the leading lady in For Amusement Only so I had the Number One dressing room and he came back stage. Lots of interesting people did. Charles Laughton came for one. I actually first met Tyrone at the London Palladium. We were doing a charity show, Night of a Hundred Stars, and a lot of well known people were doing the chorus line and he came on and sang Chatanooga Choo Choo in front of us while we sang Woo Woo Woo. It all went well at rehearsal until he had a line in the last verse about meeting “a certain party at the station” and he said ‘at the wedding."
“The director told him it was good until he got to the wedding. ‘That’s life,’ Tyrone replied. I met lots of famous people through him like Van Johnson and Jack Hawkins. Tyrone – we had a little romance.”
Her other shows include playing Goneril at the National Theatre to Michael Hordern’s Lear, appearing with Phil Silvers in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, playing Mistress Quickly in Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles as Falstaff, and two Palladium pantomimes – Sleeping Beauty and Dick Whittington – with Charlie Drake, Norman Wisdom and Bruce Forsyth. She was also in the musical Once Upon A Mattress with Max Wall. It has been a life in the theatre in the fullest sense.
“I am going to drive to the King’s Head to look at the stage – I am a little bit worried about the placing of the seats,” she says. “I want to be able to look at the audience. I want them to see my face, not the back of my head. I do worry because they seem to have changed the layout since I was last on stage there and I need to see the audience."
“So here I am at 91. I live alone – I am lucky. I can cope. I can shop and get food and get my meals. I do not go to the theatre or cinema much now, but I am addicted to watching television – you can find lots of good things there.”
Thelma Ruby is appearing as part of the King’s Head’s two week Festival 46, a curated season of 20 plays and performances. Her show is taking place at 1.30pm on Sunday July 24 and Sunday July 31.