At the age of 91 actress THELMA RUBY is returning to the stage for her one-woman show That’s Entertainment, part of the Festival 46 events at the King’s Head, Islington. Here she talks about her long and very varied career…
You presumably inherited your acting talents from your mother who was a music hall singer, billed as ‘Dainty little Paula Ruby’. However, your first ambition was to be a writer. What changed your mind?
It was my father’s idea I should be a writer, as I had written some poems as a child, but I always wanted to be an actress. I was too painfully shy ever to say so, until I went to college in New York at the age of 15. It had a great Theatre Arts department.
Having got the acting bug, you really wanted to be in plays rather than musical shows, to avoid comparison with your mother’s work, until you met a singing coach. How did this come about?
In my late twenties I met a lady at a party called Betty Alvarez, who was a coach/accompanist, and she persuaded me to try to sing. She got me started.
You worked for ENSA entertaining the troops. Was this an advantageous way of getting good experience in the business?
ENSA was a wonderful experience for my first professional job. Seventy-two years ago!
You worked with Evelyn Laye early in your career. Was she a great help in advising you on stage technique?
My job with Evelyn Laye was my first job after ENSA, it was a touring show. She was very, very helpful. I remember she taught me how to handle a costume with a train behind!
You have appeared in many prestigious productions over the years including Terence Rattigan’s Harlequinade in 1948; High Spirits in 1953; Sandy Wilson’s The Buccaneer in 1955; Chimes at Midnight with Orson Welles in 1960; Stop the World – I Want to Get Off in 1962; the first London production of Cabaret with Judi Dench in 1968; The Beggars’ Opera with Edward Woodward; King Lear with Michael Hordern at the National in 1970; A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum with Phil Silvers; and Fiddler On the Roof with Topol. Do you have particularly fond memories of these productions?
High Spirits was a revue staged at the Hippodrome Theatre in the Coronation Year, 1953, and it starred Cyril Ritchard, Diana Churchill and Ian Carmichael. It was my first West End revue and I have wonderful memories of it. It was a fabulous show, written by Peter Myers, Alec Graham and David Climie.
Your career has spanned across drama and comedy, musicals and revue, pantomime and concert performances. You are celebrated for your wonderful singing voice, so do you miss the music if you are doing a straight play and find yourself just aching to burst into song?
I always wanted to be known as a versatile actress, which is why I enjoyed straight plays and Shakespeare as much as musicals and revue. I did not have a wonderful singing voice, like my mother, but it was enough to see me through, and even do a skit on different sorts of sopranos in the cabaret I did in the 1950s.
Do you have any favourite playwrights, composers or lyricists whose work you have been in, such as Rattigan, Noël Coward, Steven Berkoff, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, Sandy Wilson, Kander and Ebb, Bock and Harnick etc?
No, I loved them all, although I have specially fond memories of Terence Rattigan, whom I got to know during the rehearsals of Harlequinade in 1948.
Once Upon a Mattress was always a big hit in the US from its premiere in 1959 and its revival in 1996, but it flopped in London with just two dozen performances. It’s a delightful show, so what went wrong?
Once Upon a Mattress was such a good show, with a great cast. The notices at the time said it should have been produced at Christmas time rather than the summer. A bit of the problem may have been that the composer arrived from America a few days before the opening night, did not like what the British director had done, and changed everything. He came to the dressing room on opening night saying “Have fun!”, which we didn’t as we had not had time to absorb the changes.
As well as stage work, you have always had a steady career in film and on television. On film you appeared in Room At the Top, The Man Who Liked Funerals, Invasion Quartet, The Wild and the Willing, Live Now – Pay Later, A Home of Your Own and Leon the Pig Farmer, among others. Did you enjoy the filming process or did you miss having an audience?
Although I have done a lot of television, I never made real headway on film. I feel that I had trouble scaling down my performance enough to be really good.
On television we have seen you in Armchair Theatre, Comedy Playhouse, Z Cars, Nicholas Nickleby, Doctor in Charge, The Fenn Street Gang, Minder, Doctors, The Last of the Blonde Bombshells, with Judi Dench again, and even Coronation Street. For you they were all mostly comedy parts. Do you think playing comedy is one of your main strengths?
Yes, I liked being known as a comedienne, and there is no greater pleasure than making an audience laugh. The revue For Amusement Only [two-year run at the Apollo Theatre] which was started exactly 60 years ago, got the biggest laughs I have ever heard in a theatre. People literally fell out of their seats, and the auditorium was full of people crying with laughter into their handkerchiefs!
You wrote a book with your late husband called Double Or Nothing, a joint autobiography about both your lives, which was published sadly after his death. It must have given you enormous satisfaction to edit it and finally see it in print after nine years’ work on the book?
My darling husband, Peter Frye, was an immensely gifted man of the theatre, he wanted something of himself to remain after he died. I am so glad I managed to finish the book after he died and get it published. It was a problem, because he died when we had only just started the editing, and it had been such a joint project. It was written by talking into a tape recorder, and listening to those tapes after he died, it was amazing that he could still make me laugh. I am still getting wonderful compliments from people still reading it.
After the King’s Head show, which is a journey through your public and personal life on and offstage, illustrated with musical excerpts, will you be going back into retirement, or can we expect more from the indefatiguable Thelma Ruby?
I had considered myself retired, and had to think carefully when offered the chance to perform again at the King’s Head, at the age of 91, but I could not resist the challenge. So this may or may not be my farewell performance!
* That’s Entertainment, with Thelma Ruby and musical director Jonathan Williams, is at the King’s Head Theatre on Sundays, 24 and 31 July 2016 at 1.30pm.
Compiled by Michael Darvell