She was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada in either 1909 or 1910. Three years later, her family packed up and moved to New York City. There were six children, so although she was interested in taking dance lessons, her family simply could not afford to. Keeler attended a parochial school on the East Side of New York City. One period per week, a dance teacher would come and teach them all styles of dance. The dance teacher saw potential in Keeler and spoke to her mother about taking lessons at her studio. Her mother declined, apologizing for their lack of extra cash. This teacher wanted to work with her so badly, that she asked her mother if she would bring her to a class lesson on Saturdays. Her mother said yes.
During those classes, a girl she danced with told her about auditions for chorus girls. The law said you had to be 16 years old, and they were only 13. They decided they looked old enough, and that they would go to the auditions and lie about their age. It was a tap audition, and there were a lot of other talented girls there. The stage was covered up, except for a wooden apron at the front. When it was her turn to dance, she asked Julian Mitchell, the dance director for the show if she could dance on the wooden part so that her taps could be heard. He did not answer, so she went ahead, walked right up to the front of the stage, and started the routine there. He said, "who said you could dance up there?" She replied with: "I asked you!" Needless to say, she got the job in George M. Cohan's "The Rise of Rosie O'Reilly" in 1923 where she made forty five dollars per week to help her family.
During her days at Texas Guinan's nightclub, Keeler met legendary entertainer Al Jolson. The couple began dating and wed in 1928, (she was 18 and he was 42), Jolson got Keeler her next starring role in Florenz Ziegfeld's 1929 spectacle Show Girl. But alas, the marriage (in which they adopted a son) was a rocky one and the couple divorced in 1940. Keeler remarried in 1941 to John Homer Lowe, and they had four children; Lowe died of cancer in 1969.
In 1933, producer Darryl F. Zanuck cast Keeler in the Warner Bros. musical 42nd Street opposite Dick Powell and Bebe Daniels. The film was a huge success due to Busby Berkeley's lavish choreography. Due to the film's success, Jack L. Warner gave Keeler a long-term contract and cast her in such hits as Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Dames (1934). Her co-stars were usually Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, among others. Keeler left the studio in 1937 after her films started failing at the box-office. She was the sister of minor actresses, Helen Keeler and Gertrude Keeler.
Keeler was happy staying at home and living a quiet life. She was not anxious to be a movie star. However, in 1971, Keeler came out of retirement to star in the hugely successful Broadway revival of No, No, Nanette, along with Helen Gallagher and the late Patsy Kelly. The production was directed by Keeler's 42nd Street director Busby Berkeley. She became the first tap dancing star of motion pictures. Ruby Keeler was a Buck dancer. Both the shoes and the style was different from regular tap dance. Instead of metal taps on the bottoms of their shoes, the soles were wooden, and hard. They stayed in relatively the same place on stage, and their concern was the rhythm coming from their feet, rather than how they looked on stage. They stayed on the balls of their feet most of time, which meant that their torso moved very little, and the movements were isolated to below their waists. Because of this style of movement, the early Buck dancers often looked clumsy and out of place on stage, in comparison with later tap dancers.
Ruby Keeler died of cancer in Rancho Mirage, California at the age of 82 or 83, and was interred in the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange, California. She has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6730 Hollywood Blvd.
Frank, Rusty E. and Hines, Gregory (1994). Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900-1955, Da Capo Press, Inc.. ISBN 0-306-80635-5.
- Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) (Cameo)
- 42nd Street (1933)
- Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
- Footlight Parade (1933)
- And She Learned About Dames (1934) (short subject)
- Dames (1934)
- Flirtation Walk (1934)
- Go Into Your Dance (1935)
- Shipmates Forever (1935)
- Colleen (1936)
- Ready, Willing and Able (1937)
- Hollywood Handicap (1938) (short subject)
- Mother Carey's Chickens (1938)
- Screen Snapshots Series 19, No. 6 (1940) (short subject)
- Sweetheart of the Campus (1941)
- The Phynx (1970) (Cameo)
- Beverly Hills Brats (1989)
See also: Other Canadian pioneers in early Hollywood.