Theater

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."

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner