One actress that did play Dolly who I never saw but God, do I wish I had is Ruta Lee. I have always loved Ruta.
All those television appearances throughout the 60s and 70s, and then her recurring role on Roseanne in the early 90s.
Certainly one of Hollywood’s most glamorous ladies, Ruta Lee is also one of its most multifaceted and top-notched civic contributors. Born in Montreal, Lee is the daughter of a Lithuanian tailor. While at Hollywood High, Lee’s career in show business began at the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theatre… as an usherette, then candy girl. She was quickly promoted to box office cashier and just as quickly fired. Her dancing was better than her math. She vowed to return to that famous courtyard (years later, talent and serendipity placed her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, directly in front of that box office from which she was fired). (Source: Ruta Lee’s website)
Ruta’s assistant, Judy Diamond, was able to get a few answers for me regarding Dolly!
On March 18th of 1971, Variety reported, ” Dolly’ In Fort Worth”
Ruta Lee has been signed by producer Melvin 0. Dacus to legit “Hello, Dolly!” at the Caaa Manana. Fort Worth, for three weeks starting May 24. It will be Miss Lee’s sixth appearance
That would be the first of many productions of Dolly! over the years.
The one quality that Ruta brought to Dolly that separates her from the others is the quality that she is still very much known for…her energy…which is still enough to illuminate the entire west coast with enough brilliance for us to see it here in New York.
Ruta’s approach to Dolly was that she was a forward thinking woman who cared little for public opinion. She was an Irish Catholic girl who had been married to a Jew when that was a “no no”.
The first time Ruta played Dolly, she was in her 20s. By her own admission,
she says, ” My first time..oh Jesus, I was frankly too young for the role ( in my 20’s)…but I made it mine and continued to do so for over 40 years. ”
From Variety, November 22nd, 1971: Ruta Lee Wins 4th Ft. Worth Legit Nod
For fourth time in six years, Ruta Lee has won annual Fort Worth “Best Actress” award for her stellar appearance In “Hello, Dolly!” at Caaa Manana Theatre last May. Her previous nods were for “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “South Pacific” and “Hello, Suckers!”
One of Ruta’s favorite memories happened at Casa Manana, her favorite theater in the country. Upon her entrance into Harmonica Gardens…as she came down the stairs singing “It’s so nice to have you back where you belong” the audience stood, burst into applause and continued to do so for 4-5 minutes. The conductor Joe Steko got tired of keeping his arm up and gave her a knowing smile which meant…when it’s over… they would resume.
This was without a doubt her most thrilling night in theater.
I asked Ruta what one thing she learned during her stint that moved her to the next level as an entertainer: “When my worth as an entertainer meant my name above the title provided me with the privilege of telling a musical director “ NO I can’t do it in that key…LOWER IT!” Now I no longer get laryngitis.”
Ruta loved ALL of Her Horace Vandergelder’s. Peter Palmer stands out because he was this huge, burly man for her “little Dolly” to push around. Great Comedy.
When I asked her about Jerry Herman, she said, “I worship at his shrine!” She goes on to say that Gower Champion was a sensational choreographer.
The first time she heard the score was over the radio in those days were DJs played cast albums.
Debbie Reynolds, Freyda Payne and Ruta Lee
‘The Thalians’ 53rd Annual Gala honouring Clint Eastwood, held at The Beverly Hilton
Los Angeles, California – 02.11.08
Credit: Fayes Vision/WENN WENN/Fayes Vision
The one major change that Ruta has seen in the industry since she first did Dolly is that music of most of the new shows is no longer “humable” and the lyrics are not on everyone’s lips.
Ruta has only seen two other women play Dolly: Carol Channing and Carole Cooke.
Ruta says, ” It was lovely to play a role that is so international famous and will continue to live in musical history.”