The Life and Death of Dallas Theater Center's Jack Ruby, All-American Boy
Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24, 1963, in front of live TV cameras in the basement of Dallas police headquarters. He shot him again on April 23, 1974, before a live audience on the stage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
The moment when the paunchy, oily-haired Dallas nightclub owner fired one fatal bullet from his snub-nosed .38 Colt Cobra into Oswald's abdomen was meticulously re-enacted that night — opening night of a new play produced by the Dallas Theater Center called Jack Ruby, All-American Boy. It was a noisy, sexy, audacious three-act, three-ring circus of drama, comedy and satire, a bold and bizarrely fanciful biography of the man who killed the man who killed JFK. And it was an immediate hit.
Opening night ended with the audience on its feet. In the crowd were Neiman Marcus chairman Stanley Marcus and Dallas mayor Wes Wise, and they were standing too. Every performance after that was met with the same whistlin', hollerin', standing ovations.
The show ran for a month of sold-out performances. It garnered reviews in Time, The Christian Science Monitor and The New Yorker, publications that rarely cover regional theater. Writing for The Times of London, drama critic Irving Wardle called the play's slow-motion depiction of Ruby's fatal shot "the most brilliant single sequence I have ever seen on a stage." Even syndicated showbiz columnist Earl Wilson wrote about it.
Then, on May 14, 1974, CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite closed his newscast with a four-minute report on the play. It included an interview with DTC resident company member John Logan, who co-wrote the play, and footage of the seminal scene, which ended in that famous freeze-frame image from the Dallas Times Herald's Pulitzer-winning photograph.
That would be one of the last times the media ever mentioned Jack Ruby, All-American Boy. Despite the critical response, and public interest in all things JFK, the play was never produced again.
Why? And why, with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination a year away, isn't Jack Ruby, maybe the best play ever produced at Dallas Theater Center, on the 2013 calendar of any theater company here or anywhere else? Was it merely a one-shot wonder, a period piece whose moment came and went 38 years ago? Or is it worth reviving?
See also : The Best Plays about JFK
The play was conceived by Dallas Theater Center's founder and artistic director Paul Baker, who co-wrote it with Logan. It told the story of Ruby's life before and after his impulsive killing of Oswald, who was played by B.J. Theus. The title was a spin on the name of a 1930s radio serial, Jack Armstrong, All-American Boy, and the basic premise was that Ruby was a victim of his own struggle to achieve the American dream. The man born Jacob Leon Rubenstein always wanted "class." When he failed to achieve it as a Dallas nightlife entrepreneur, he thought he'd be a national hero by saving First Lady Jackie Kennedy the trauma of watching Oswald tried for JFK's murder. Shooting Oswald, in other words, was just another misguided attempt by Ruby to "be somebody."
Even by today's standards, DTC's production of Jack Ruby was a spectacular piece of live theater, packed with violence, profanity and nearly naked women. Directed by Baker, then 55 and in his 15th year running the theater, the play was written around a carnival theme. An emcee named P.T. (as in Barnum), played by longtime DTC leading man Randy Moore, was costumed in a red and white-striped jacket as he took "tourists" on a journey through Ruby's life, from his early days as a "clip joint" proprietor to his death, from cancer, in a Dallas jail cell at 56.
Ruby's place in history was framed as just one sideshow attraction on a bawdy romp through a theme park of Americana. A mime waved a torch as the Statue of Liberty, with cameo appearances by Abraham Lincoln, Buffalo Bill, General George Custer and Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld.
Interspersed throughout the play was dialogue taken verbatim from The Warren Commission Report and news accounts from 1963. Real-life local figures, including District Attorney Henry Wade (played by Tim Green) and Police Chief Jesse Curry (Barry Hope), were portrayed against a surreal depiction of Ruby as half Horatio Alger figure, half madman.
A massive set by the great scenic artist Peter Wolf placed an abstract carousel topped with red, white and blue streamers at the center of Kalita's revolving stage. (Ruby's Carousel Club was on Commerce Street, across from the Hotel Adolphus.) A dozen levels rose high in a pyramid shape against the back wall of the theater, with upstage ladders leading to platforms where a dozen young actresses playing Ruby's "Champagne Girls" were perched, go-go-dancing and slowly peeling down to pasties and G-strings. Those ladders, Baker said in an interview at the time, represented "the idea that Ruby was climbing toward success."
Theater in the 1970s was just starting to use "multimedia," so Baker incorporated news footage flickering behind the live actors and wall-size slide projections of Dallas landmarks, including the School Book Depository building from which Oswald shot. Overlapping layers of sound and music throbbed at high volume from speakers mounted overhead and beneath some of Kalita's 350 seats.
There were 35 actors in the cast, led by 35-year-old company member Ken Latimer, his hairline shaved back to look like 52-year-old Ruby. Most of DTC's resident acting ensemble and many of its graduate acting students were onstage, plus one special addition: a gorgeous 28-year-old professional Dallas stripper, stage name "Chastity Fox." Baker brought her in to play the major role of "Honey Suckle," a character based on Ruby's favorite girl, called "Jada" in the show.
"Foxy," as she was nicknamed by the other actors, also contributed "special choreography." For that, she had to teach the company's modest young actresses how to strip. In the two months leading up to opening night, she took the girls, chaperoned by Baker, on "field trips" to see the real deal at The Busy Bee and The Athens Strip, two of the Dallas burly-Q clubs where, like she would be on the Kalita stage, Foxy was a star.
These days, after curtain calls at DTC productions, Kevin Moriarty, the theater's current artistic director, often sticks around for "talkbacks" with patrons. A few months ago at one of these post-show chats, the Jack Ruby play came up, and Moriarty told the crowd how great he thinks the script is.
"Since I first came to Dallas in 2007 and began investigating DTC's history, one of the productions that has loomed largest and been most intriguing to me has been Jack Ruby, All-American Boy," Moriarty says. "It's an audacious script, a big, bold mash-up of history, circus, fantasy, politics, spectacle and theater, all tossed together. I can't imagine how intense it must have been when it first premiered, at a time when Dallas was still keenly aware of the scope and depth of the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination. Even today, it leaps off the page and grabs you by the throat."
Moriarty never saw that 1974 production; he knows the story from talking about it with Paul Baker, before Baker's death in 2009 at the age of 98. Moriarty has also read the play. There are copies, plus director's notes, in the archives at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in the Dallas Arts District, home of the Dallas Theater Center since 2009.
I did see Jack Ruby, and I thought it was brilliant. Growing up in Dallas, I had been deeply impressed by many of Baker's shows at DTC in the 1960s and early '70s, including his famous Hamlet ESP, which used a trio of actors to portray the moody Dane. But no play before Jack Ruby, All-American Boy — and not many since — resonated with such powerful visual and emotional wallops.
That particular period, from the summer of 1973 to the fall of 1974, was an especially fertile time for the Dallas Theater Center and its stable of budding playwrights. Paul Baker had hoped to see a hot new play like Jack Ruby thrust DTC into the national spotlight since opening his theater, with its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, in 1959. Baker already had presented 50 "world premieres" of scripts written by his own company members before teaming with Logan on the Ruby idea.
But there was something about that production and the entire 20-show season that is recalled by many who were there as the busiest, most creative and most critically acclaimed streak DTC ever had during the Baker years. (By comparison, DTC this season will produce seven plays, none by a local writer.)
By the time the curtain rose on Jack Ruby that April, Baker also had already presented a new rock-musical version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written by company members Randy Tallman and Steven Mackenroth, that would go on to an award-winning run in Chicago in 1975. (It was revived in 2006 at Shakespeare Dallas.) The same season also saw the debuts at DTC of Preston Jones' The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia and Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, the first two plays in what would become known as A Texas Trilogy. Written by Jones during his shifts in the DTC box office, those plays would later be performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and would briefly run on Broadway. Henry Fonda starred in a live TV broadcast of the third part of the trilogy, The Oldest Living Graduate, aired from the Bob Hope Theatre at Southern Methodist University.
But Jack Ruby was unique, remembered as a groundbreaking event by those who saw it or who were involved in its production. "Everyone felt it was important," says Robyn Flatt, who designed the lights for the show. Flatt is Paul Baker's daughter and the founder and artistic director of Dallas Children's Theater. "That production captured the energy, passion and artistry that we always strived for at the Theater Center. It was the level of work that we wished we could be doing all the time."
"I think Dallas audiences had more respect for DTC after Jack Ruby," adds Latimer, now 74 and retired from his post-acting career as a social worker. "It certainly gave me a burst of star status." (Latimer also played major roles in A Texas Trilogy.)
Playwright Logan, now 72, remembers an early rush of outside interest in the script, and the excitement of all the publicity and rave reviews.
"In terms of national focus and people coming in from all over to see the play — that kind of thing doesn't happen often," he says. After leaving DTC in the early 1980s, he taught English at Mesquite High School for nearly 20 years before retiring to Arkansas.
"When we were rehearsing Jack Ruby, Mr. Baker was at his best," Logan recalls. "He was really clicking. He had the ability to see large concepts and know where all the pieces needed to go. He was a fountain of creativity, coming up with new ideas constantly. He was having a blast directing that play. He sat down next to me at rehearsal one day and said, 'This is the most fun I've had in a long time.'"
In May 1974, during the show's run, Baker hosted one of three "PlayMarkets" he held at DTC. Conceived as a showcase to promote DTC's actors and playwrights beyond Dallas, the weeklong festival that year featured performances not just of the Ruby play, but the Midsummer musical, the two Preston Jones productions and three other smaller plays by DTC writers. Out-of-town critics flew in for the event, as did New York literary agents and several Hollywood producers looking for projects that could transition to the big screen or TV. (The renowned Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, founded in 1976 by Jon Jory, is thought to have been inspired by DTC's 1974 PlayMarket.)
It was during the PlayMarket that Audrey Wood, the legendary agent who represented Tennessee Williams, latched onto Jack Ruby, All-American Boy. She wanted to get it to Broadway, Logan says.
"She sent it to different producers and generally their response was that it would be extremely expensive to produce in New York," he says. "I'm sure it would have been in the form that we did it, with a cast of thousands. We were using graduate students and didn't have to pay them."
Months went by, Logan says, and Baker grew impatient with Wood. The relationship between the agent and Baker soured. There were brief negotiations with someone in Los Angeles for movie rights, but a deal was never made, Logan says.
The play enjoyed another short burst of publicity that August, when DTC brought it back as a pre-season encore for three weeks. Again, it drew sold-out houses and rousing ovations. Then ... nothing.
Logan still holds the performance rights — shared with Baker's estate — but the script has never been published. Publishers such as Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service print acting editions of plays and handle the leasing rights and royalties to playwrights. They also have online catalogs that theaters worldwide peruse to find scripts to produce. Logan still regularly receives royalties from another play he wrote, which is published by Samuel French. It's a favorite of high school competitions called Of Poems, Youth and Spring, which he wrote at 19 as a student at Baylor. But because Jack Ruby was never published, no other theater has ever asked to produce it.
Looking back on Jack Ruby, Logan says he thinks the play was important as "a way for people in Dallas to look at the theater in a different way and for Dallas to kind of look at what had happened in 1963 in a fresh light."
After a decade of shame as "the city that killed Kennedy," Dallas embraced the play as an opportunity for catharsis, a phenomenon noticed at the time by Time magazine critic Lance Morrow: "Dallas audiences respond with standing ovations — which may reflect not only enthusiasm for the performance, but also a civic relief, the comfort of elapsed time between then and now."
Logan says he remembers waking up during the run of the play, asking himself, "Is this really happening? All these people coming to town? Walter Cronkite?" And he fondly remembers the presence of Chastity Fox, whose sensuous strip routine in the show stunned and thrilled audiences and cast members night after night. "She was like Tina Turner, unreal, a force of nature," Logan says. "I can't say enough about how she contributed to the play. I'd love to know what she's doing now."
When Foxy's name comes up with old cast members, the conversations grow more animated. They all remember her. All of her.
"When Chastity Fox was hired for the play, she really let us in on that whole world, introducing us to strippers who had worked for Jack Ruby," says actor Randy Moore, who played the emcee. Moore was a lead actor in the DTC resident company for 33 years and now acts at the Denver Center Theatre. "Foxy had to teach the girls in the show how to be bar girls, how to walk and how to take off their tops. It was an eye-opening experience for everyone. She would stroll into the green room with very little clothing on. She'd open her dressing room door and be stark naked. She didn't think a thing about it. She was wonderful. She had real class and a great body. I'd love to know what she's doing now."
Linda Daugherty, now playwright-in-residence at Dallas Children's Theater, was a grad student when she played "Barbie Dahl," one of the young strippers in Jack Ruby. She remembers feeling terrified during private rehearsal sessions with Foxy in the locked studio above Kalita, working for weeks to get to the point where the actresses could disrobe onstage without blushing.
"Foxy was beautiful," Daugherty says. "Her skin was luminous, even without makeup. We'd never seen anyone like her. And she was classy and smart. We were all a little bit in awe of her at the time."
Chastity Fox's real name is Germaine Walker Brown. She just turned 66. She still lives in Dallas, retired from a short but still-talked-about career as a professional ecdysiast — the term she prefers over "stripper" — since the day she was cast as Honey Suckle in Jack Ruby, All-American Boy. She's still beautiful, petite and lithe, with chestnut hair scraped back into a ponytail. Her skin is still luminous without makeup.
Brown spent six years as one of the highest-paid stars on Dallas' small, union-protected strip-club circuit of the late '60s and early '70s. She was hired for Jack Ruby after Paul Baker saw her belly dance at a fundraiser for the arts charity group The 500, Inc. Working with Baker and the other artists at DTC introduced her to "polite society," Brown says.
She never went back to stripping after the play closed, turning instead to teaching dance at University of Texas at Arlington and acting professionally in productions of Gypsy, Cabaret and other musicals at the New Arts Theatre (which used to be downtown), the old Country Dinner Playhouse and other venues.
Brown and her husband, Danny, raised two children, a daughter who now lives in New Zealand and a son who's a sound designer. These days she dabbles in the metaphysical, doing "energy work" and the occasional astrological reading. She's held onto boxes of clippings and photos accumulated at the end of the era of old-fashioned burlesque. An avid photographer, Brown documented the rehearsal process during Jack Ruby. Her scrapbook of pictures of Baker and the cast is part of the Paul and Kitty Baker Papers Collection at Texas State University. Except for a few publicity photos, it's the only visual record of the show.
"I was perfect for this play and Mr. Baker was so gracious to me," Brown says in an interview at her son's apartment in the Dallas Design District. "He told me I had acting talent, but that it needed to be developed. He said, 'I want you to feel like you can use this venue to develop yourself.'" Baker sent her for diction lessons and dance classes, where she studied different styles of movement.
Brown was too young to have known Jack Ruby or to have worked in any of his clubs. She was still a student at a Catholic high school in Orange County, California, when he shot Oswald. But she knew some of Ruby's strippers, including Carousel Club headliner Tammi True and other girls who were getting out of the business as she was breaking in.
Brown was discovered on amateur night at the upscale Colony Club, where "exotic dancers" shared stage time with nationally known comics and singers like Tony Bennett. Back then, she says, legit strippers had to join the American Guild of Variety Artists. They were paid weekly salaries, covered by health insurance and treated like ladies by gents like striptease agent Pappy Dolsen and club owners Abe and Barney Weinstein (renamed the Greenberg brothers in the play). Customers weren't allowed to tip or touch. Except in Ruby's clubs, where non-union "B-girls" hustled men with overpriced fake Champagne, dancers were forbidden to fraternize with patrons.
As Chastity Fox, a nom de strip she says took her three days to come up with, Brown did her act as "The Mod Girl" to the "Theme from Peter Gunn" and Nina Simone's "Love for Sale." She worked at clubs called The Landing Strip, The Mermaid and The Diamond Doll, often in successive shifts on the same night. She called that "pulling a triple."
"Stripping was an art form then," she says. "You were always introduced as 'the lovely and talented.' It was creative, which was why I loved it. It was much more like theater than it is today."
After co-starring in Jack Ruby, she never went back to the clubs. "That door had closed," she says. "From Mr. Baker, I learned there is more to being an entertainer. You have to continue growing. He was very philosophical. He gave me practical advice. Back then I wanted to shatter people's preconceived notions about who and what I was. I worked a long time to get the word 'stripper' from being next to my name. I became an actress and singer. A stripper's career is 10 years max anyway. 'Chastity Fox' was a persona. It was a mask, an image. I did so well with it that it lives on today, without me even being behind it."
"I tried to make a dream come true," Jack Ruby says at the end of the play, when he is dying of brain tumors and lung cancer. "But it's too late now." But is it too late for Jack Ruby, All-American Boy to make a comeback? For it to become the major work of American theater that it seemed to be back in 1974?
As some critics noted then, the script has problems with its overlong third act, which doubles back to Ruby's Chicago childhood and then fast-forwards through his circus-like trial. It's also too big a show for most theaters to take on these days, at least on the scale DTC did it, with three dozen actors, many of whom played multiple roles.
Playwright John Logan says he'd love to see it revived. Actor Randy Moore, who played Falstaff in Dallas Theater Center's production of Shakespeare's Henry IV in 2010, thinks director Kevin Moriarty should take it on. "That's the natural place for it and that new space at the Wyly Theatre would be dynamite," Moore says. "It's the kind of show that Kevin could eat alive. His staging style is so kinetic. He'd have a ball doing it."
Moriarty says he thinks the play is "do-able," but he would like to see one of Dallas' smaller, alternative theater companies "take up the challenge." (Matthew Posey's experimental Ochre House comes to mind.)
Besides the problematic third act, the play also shorthands many of the details of the events of November 22 through 24 of that year; they needed no explanation in 1974, but they may now. Nearly 40 years later, younger viewers might not be so familiar with that history, says Moriarty.
"The play assumes a degree of historical and civic knowledge that has faded with time, and some of its most surprising theatrical gestures have since been seen in many other plays, perhaps lessening their impact ..." he says. "The mixture of sexuality and violence, the slow-motion physical sequences, the sideshow framing device."
In other words, Jack Ruby, All-American Boy was ahead of its time. And for now it remains stuck in history as one of Dallas theater's greatest achievements, waiting to be rediscovered. Waiting for its second shot.
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