Ruta Lee proudly comes from the school of saying whatever pops into her head, filters and volume level be damned.
Sitting in a booth at Cook Hall, a restaurant in the Dallas’ W Hotel, following her appearance on a local morning TV show, Lee has already used several naughty words and colorful phrases within the first few minutes of the interview — did we mention she can be loud? — that make her tablemates look around to see if other diners or wait staff have noticed.
They might have glanced our way during such moments, but it’s more likely because of Lee’s fabulous red babushka hat — it was thundersleeting here, after all — and larger-than-life personality.
She’s one of those people who doesn’t have to try to be the center of attention, because she just naturally is. Eyes and ears are drawn to her.
Lee has never done anything quietly or subtly, and that is a large reason Fort Worth audiences at Casa Mañana have loved her for about five decades. That brassiness has served her well for the title roles in musicals like The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Annie Get Your Gun, Mame and Hello, Dolly!
“I love Texas audiences because they are going to be willing to go with you to whatever place you go [in a role],” Lee says.
She’s back in town to play Clairee for the third time (the second at Casa) in Robert Harling’s much-loved Southern dramedy Steel Magnolias, which opened Saturday. Lee was a staple at Casa in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and her most recent role there was as Miss Mona in 2010’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
It all began when frequent Casa director Michael Pollock had been following a remarkable story in the press about Lee’s quest to get her Lithuanian grandmother, who had been sent to a Siberian prison and was currently in Moscow, to America. (To give the short version, Lee called Nikita Khrushchev to have her released for travel, and got his secretary, who just happened to be Lithuanian, so they talked in that language — and the grandmother was released shortly after.)
“Mike Pollock had been following this adventure, and he met me when we arrived in New York on the way to L.A.,” Lee says. “He said, ‘Any girl who has the chutzpah to do what you did is Molly Brown.’ He talked me into it, and I came to do the show.
“That’s when this love affair between a girl and this city [Fort Worth] began.”
It didn’t hurt that the show’s composer/lyricist Meredith Willson (of The Music Man) saw the production and told Lee that if she had been Molly Brown in the original New York run, it would still be on Broadway. (The show opened there in 1960 and had a two-year run.)
Lee, of course, had already become a name in Hollywood. Born Ruta Mary Kilmonis in Montreal to Lithuanian immigrants, she and her family moved to Hollywood when she was young. She attended the famous Hollywood High and began working in film.
After several bit parts, her break came when, at age 16, she was cast as the youngest bride in the 1954 film musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Many film and TV roles followed.
One of her most famous was as Diana in Billy Wilder’s 1957 film of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, and she became a fixture on talk shows like The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.
In case you’re too young to know that she is famous, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to prove it. (Not to mention one in Palm Springs, her longtime home.)
In Fort Worth, where outsized personalities are cherished, audiences loved her. She played the larger-than-life roles like Molly and Dolly Levi, but also ingénues like Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. It wasn’t just the audiences who reacted with wild enthusiasm — so did the press.
Star-Telegram critic Elston Brooks was a champion of hers, and others followed suit.
“My whole relationship with this city was all because of the press,” says Lee, noting that it was The Associated Press’ following of her Lithuanian story that garnered her attention from Pollock.
Another reason audiences love her is that she’s one of the last of a generation of stars in Hollywood’s studio system, and while stage acting has changed in many ways, even in musical theater, Lee still excels at a presentational style that is perfect for the roles for which she is best suited. (Think of the difference between the portrayals of Dolly Levi by the brash Carol Channing on stage, and the too-polished and entirely-wrong-for-the-part Barbra Streisand in the film Hello, Dolly!)
Oddly enough, Clairee isn’t the biggest personality in Steel Magnolias, a play that bolted to movie-quote infamy with the 1989 film version.
Set in a Louisiana beauty shop, it follows the lives of six women and friends, with plenty of memorable one-liners (“You know I love you more than my luggage”) and a tragic subplot that always has audiences complying with beauty shop owner Truvy when she announces, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
Lee played Clairee at Casa in 2008, with a cast that included Sally Struthers as Truvy and future Oscar nominee June Squibb as the cranky Ouiser, Clairee’s longtime friend.
On playing Clairee for the third time (the first was in an L.A. production), Lee says, “What I learned about her is in her response to other people.”
“I think in this case, I’ve let her be a little more wild,” she says. “I’m making her a little more outrageous with Ouiser. It’s wonderful fun because we love each other.”
As for the play’s endearing appeal with audiences, Lee knows exactly why that is.
“It’s so funny, people know the jokes that are coming, and they still laugh every time,” she says. “It also touches some place in every person’s heart. The women love it, but it touches the men, too — although the men would never admit it.”
During our Cook Hall conversation — also at the table was Mary Stout, who plays Ouiser in this Casey Hushion-directed production — many showbiz stories were shared, resulting in laughter and sometimes eye-welling emotion, such as when Lee described the time she played Peter Pan at Kansas City’s Starlight Musicals on the night of the first moon landing.
That’s appropriate for a woman whose career — and life story — has always been about nothing less than shooting for the stars.
▪ Through March 8
▪ Casa Mañana Theatre
3101 W. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth
▪ 817-332-2272; www.casamanana.org