Theater

The Life and Death of Dallas Theater Center's Jack Ruby, All-American Boy

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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."

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner