Ruth Hale

Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage," and Ruth Hale took it literally. This grand lady of theater wasn't content resting on the laurels of her Glendale Centre Theatre in California when she and husband Nathan "retired" to Salt Lake.

"We'd been in the theater business almost 48 years," says Nathan, still the distinguished leading man. "We wanted to come back to Utah where most of the family lives."

But it wasn't long before this pair of thespians, then 70-plus-years old, again felt the allure of the greasepaint. "We moved to the ranch in Grover," says Ruth, "and it was so lonely there. We loved it, but no one was stopping us to ask, 'What are you doing at your theater?' So we decided to move up to Orem and live with our son Cody and his wife. We helped them cover a couch, we braided a rug, and then we thought, 'Now what do we do?'"

The answer came unexpectedly in a Safeway parking lot when a woman from Glendale recognized the pair and jumped out of her car to talk to them. "She asked what we were doing up here," explains Ruth. "'You haven't sold that theater in Glendale, have you?,' she said. 'I'd die if I couldn't go there.' We told her that our daughter was still running it. 'Oh, thank goodness,' she said, jumped in her car, and away she went.

"Nate looked at me and said, 'Honey, let's open one here.' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Oh, at our age?' But once you get an idea, it won't leave you alone."

Ruth leans back in her chair and rests her hands on the dining room table. It's obvious from her animated conversation and unabashed sincerity that she doesn't really believe the message proclaimed by her pink "Bah, Humbug" sweatshirt. Of course, she wears it in deference to the traditional Hale production of A Christmas Carol, which has played to sold-out audiences ever since its premiere six months after the Hales opened a theater in Salt Lake City. In fact, this was the turning point for the theater, just as Scrooge's dreams were a turning point for him.

They opened the Salt Lake Hale Center Theater with their daughter and son-in-law, Sally and Bob Swenson, and their grandson and his wife, Mark and Sally Dietlein.

"We found this building in South Salt Lake," says Ruth. "It was called the Church of God. We had to go on Sunday because we couldn't find the minister any other time. We walked in, and he had only ten people there. He came up to us with open arms and said, 'Oh, welcome Brother, welcome Sister.' He thought he had two new members. But when he found out we were interested in the building, he was even happier, because they were going bankrupt. So we bought it.

"At first no one came to the plays except our relatives. I'd go out and try to twist people's arms and get them in off the street. If we had 28 people there, we thought we were fortunate. But then at Christmastime we decided to put on A Christmas Carol, and a miracle happened. The people came in hordes, and they've been coming ever since." In fact, the Hales have had to remodel twice to add more seats. They've also helped their son Cody and grandson Cody Swenson open another Hale Center Theater in Orem.

Ruth felt the call of the theater early: "When I was a little girl, I could hardly wait for ward plays to come. There was no television. My eyes would just be glued to the stage. They had an old curtain with the Rhine River on it and a castle. This curtain hung from a crooked pole. When they'd roll it up, you'd see the actors' knees, and then their shoulders, and finally their heads.

"When I got to be a teenager I was allowed to be in some plays. A wonderful woman directed us. She let us do pretty much what we wanted. The only direction she ever gave was, 'If anyone gets in front of you, move out.' So we were leaping around the stage like gazelles."

In high school Ruth was in a play. She says, "I caught diphtheria the night it opened. I kissed the leading man, but he didn't catch it." After playing that night, she missed the rest of the run.

In spite of her enthusiasm for the theater, Ruth didn't head off to drama school. She studied at the University of Utah for two years and became a teacher. She taught until she was 19 and then served a mission to the eastern states. "In those days, girls could go when they were 19," Ruth explains.

It was also at this age that Ruth learned she was adopted. "Adoption in those days was usually hushed up. It was generally thought that adopted children never turned out to be worth anything because they took after their mothers. The day I found out, it took me a long while to find the courage to go home. Mama was cooking doughnuts, and I could smell them through the door. I thought 'Nothing's changed, and yet everything's changed.'" Ruth wanted to find out who her birth mother was but was unable. In typical Ruth Hale fashion, she matter-of-factly states, "I'll find out in the hereafter. And I'll thank her for not having an abortion." She looks at Nathan, and they both laugh. Then she adds more seriously, "But the mother who raised me was quite a lady."

When Ruth returned from her mission and later married Nathan, they began writing and producing ward plays. "We finally went to our first Broadway play, only it wasn't on Broadway," Ruth says. "It was at the Capitol Theater. Gertrude Lawrence, a very famous English actress, came through Salt Lake. We sat like two kids in a candy store. I said, 'Honey, look how fast she moves.'" Ruth's voice gets faster as she continues: "'Listen to how fast they talk. Oh my word, they talk fast!' So we went back to the play we were directing at the time and told the actors, 'Talk very fast and move fast.' Our ears weren't trained to catch the fact that it was the way they were phrasing their lines and not the speed. No one understood a word in our play, but people said, 'Well, we got out early.' So we learned acting and directing by trial and error."

According to her children, growing up in a house with Ruth Hale was unique. "The neighbors always thought we were crazy -- or even weird -- because every month we would change our furniture," says Sally Swenson, Ruth's daughter. "We'd have to take it out to be in shows, so we had three sets of furniture."

"We always had actors living with us who were down and out," says the Hales' oldest daughter Sherry. "Mother would feel sorry for them. We often held rehearsals right in our living room, so people were always coming and going. My parents were extremely compassionate, not only to actors but to everyone. I can remember being booted out of bed in the middle of the night. On the way home from judging roadshows, Mother had stopped and picked up a family of hitchhikers. Having brought them home, she needed to put them in my bed. This sort of occurrence was not unusual."

The children always had great fun in the Hale household, even when they had to work. "Mother made everything a game," says Philip, the oldest son. "She would organize squads and offer little rewards whenever there were jobs to do."

Sally recalls that life with her mother was "never, never dull." Her sister Sandy agrees, "My childhood was so much more interesting than anybody else's."

When she wasn't at the theater checking receipts, making costumes, finding props, or directing shows, Ruth was writing. She has some 70 plays to her credit. Some have been sold to Samuel French for distribution, and one was produced for the Kraft Theater on television.

"She would read shows to us that she had written and ask us what we thought," says Sally. "Every once in awhile she would have a contest to see who could come up with the best title of a show. She never carried a purse, so whatever was in her pocket was the prize. We got to choose the pocket. Sometimes we'd get a penny, sometimes ten or twenty bucks, and sometimes nothing."

The royalty checks earned from Ruth's writing were of great interest to the family. "We just couldn't wait for Mother's royalty checks to come in each year because we'd use that money to take our family vacation," Sherry says. "The amount of the check would determine how long we could stay away. I remember going to Canada once for six weeks. We always camped out, and Daddy loved fishing. We have good memories."

"In many ways our children had a unique experience having us as parents," says Ruth. "It's a wonder they didn't turn out completely lopsided, thinking that the only really important thing in the world is to open a play on time."

The children don't particularly remember their mother as a risk-taker, but leaving Utah with four young children and traveling to California for Nate to make it big in the movies certainly qualifies her as one. Nathan Hale explains this important move in their life: "I was working out at Utah Copper after we got married. We had four kids already. I didn't like my work. It was smoke and dust and all. We'd already been doing plays for a long time in our ward. So we were out for something better. Ruth read a newspaper article -- this was during the war -- and the article said that they were getting short on leading men in Hollywood because they all were in the army. Ruth said, 'Why don't we go to California and see if we can't get you into the movies.' I said, 'Me? We'd have a better chance of getting you and your plays in than we would me.' Anyway, we thought we might go, even with many people trying to dissuade us.

"We went to talk to Elder Joseph Merrill, the Apostle, about going," Ruth explains. "He came to our stake conference, and we got brave and asked his opinion about going. He said, 'It's a wonderful thing to make your living doing the thing you enjoy. My advice to you is to go. But remember this: always put the Church first.'"

Recalling the ill feelings many of their neighbors harbored toward California in those days, Ruth remarks, "When we decided to go, their general reaction was that we'd decided to settle for hell instead of the celestial degree.

"We didn't dare tell our folks of our wild ideas," Ruth continues, her eyes shining like a schoolgirl's. "We simply told them that we'd decided to go to California on our vacation instead of going fishing in the summer. At first we left the children with Mother and caught a Greyhound bus. We arrived in the middle of the night and got us a room in a hotel on Main Street." She laughs at the thought of this. "Main street was where all the prostitutes were. But, the rooms were cheap, so . . ." She shrugs her shoulders and chuckles.

Nathan began his acting career working as a milkman so that he could be available days and evenings for rehearsals and performances at Pasadena Playhouse. After several years, Ruth and Nathan were discouraged with this arrangement. "We found out that Hollywood was a land of promises seldom kept and that to survive in that city of make-believe we had to have the hide of a rhinoceros," says Ruth.

Ruth continued writing and began selling her plays for $100 apiece. Her work was often unpleasant. "Writing was a time-consuming task," she said. "It was as if someone were holding a heavy black whip over my head. If a day went by and I'd washed, ironed, cleaned the house, and even helped a neighbor -- but hadn't written -- I felt my day was a failure."

But Ruth's days weren't failures. With a dream and hard work, Ruth and Nathan opened a theater in Glendale, California. At first the theater was a partnership with another couple, but several years later -- when they built a larger theater with their daughter Sandra Dietlein and her husband Allan -- they bought out their partners.

Life at the Hale house quickly turned into a constant flurry of activity: building sets, casting and staging shows, and drawing in audiences. "As children, we had to be in the plays whether we wanted to or not," says Sherry. "We usually wanted to, and it was a nice family activity because so many members of the family were in a play at once."

When asked how he felt about being in the plays, Phil says forthrightly, "I hated it. It wasn't my thing. But Dad told me, 'If I was a farmer, you'd have to go out and irrigate in the fields. But since I'm an actor, you get out and act!'"

"We were particularly hard to live with around openings," Ruth remembers. "Opening night, if we came home and dinner wasn't on the table, there was an explosion that shook the rafters. No wonder Phil wrote in Hales' Angels that he was the only person he knew of who ran away from the stage to become a doctor."

The Glendale Centre Theatre opened in 1947 and had 125 seats. It wasn't too many years before so many people were coming that they had to present two shows a day just to accommodate the crowds. In theater circles, people were surprised at their success. "We just followed the pattern we had become accustomed to in MIA: we eliminated profanity, illicit love, and so on," explains Ruth. "As a result, non-Mormon churches booked evenings at our theater. One night we'd play to 100 Grandview Presbyterians, the next night to the Methodists. Later, when we had a theater that seated about 400 people, most of the house would be booked by clubs during the week: Job's Daughters, Catholic groups, and various civic clubs. All of the churches came to us because they knew they wouldn't be offended. I think that's the reason for our success."

In Glendale, as in Salt Lake City, the name "Hale" has become synonymous with good theater. Perhaps that is why, at 85 years of age, Ruth hasn't been able to retire. She brushes a wisp of silver hair off her face and talks about actors. "For nearly 50 years now our closest friends have been 'theater folk,' who are a breed all their own. If I'm lucky enough in the hereafter to select my neighbors, I'll want the entire block to be made up of Mormon actors. I can hear even the actors saying, 'You must be kidding!' I'm not. You see, we actors came to earth overcharged with emotions. We love more, get upset more, feel more, laugh more. Oh, true, we may be eccentric, childlike, self-centered, but we're never dull. We live life to the hilt. We love the gospel with a passion. At times we're a little explosive in our views. But believe me, once an actor gets a testimony, he's firmly anchored."

Ruth and Nathan Hale have influenced actors and audiences alike with their performances and plays. Ruth has taken the bits and pieces of her life, embellished them, and magically transformed f them into two-hour slots where r people can laugh and cry, and then e go home feeling uplifted.

"Most of our plays have been taken from our lives or incidents in our friends' lives -- or from something that's pretty close to us," says Nathan. I think because of that, it's good family entertainment."

Lilacs in the Rain, for example, was based on the story of a young man Ruth actually knew in her early years. He insisted she accept his diamond ring before she left on her mission. "He told me that whenever he thought of me he thought of lilacs in the rain," she says. "I was embarrassed when I got home and had to give him back all the things he'd given me because I didn't want to marry him. The diamond ring was cracked, and a robe he'd sent me was faded because I'd washed it. But in my play," she laughs, "the boy ends up getting the girl."

One play that has turned out to be a favorite of both of these octogenarians is Thank You Papa, written about life with Ruth's feisty English father. When former Deseret News theater critic Joseph Walker saw the show, he said, "The real reason to watch this production is the chance to see Ruth and Nathan Hale play off of each other on stage. There is a chemistry that exists between them that you just won't feel from any acting team this side of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. They operate with an understood shorthand that comes from years of living, working, and loving together, and it gives their performance an added dimension of reality, pathos, and poignancy. You'll not see anything quite like it anywhere."

Nathan's favorite role is playing his father-in-law in Thank You Papa. According to Ruth, this is because he knew Papa so well. "Papa was a most interesting man. I was frightened of him, and yet I adored him. He was so strict. He'd scold me and praise me all in one sentence. He'd say, 'Ruth, you haven't got the sense God gave geese -- now hand me my paper, Luv.'" Her voice is very animated as she imitates her father's British accent, with her pitch rising on the word "geese." You can almost see Papa sitting there when you hear her mimic his voice. She chuckles, then smiles, remembering, "He'd say to me 'You always get everything Ahss Backwards.' And I did too."

When it became apparent to the Hales that their theater in Glendale was simply too small, they decided it was time to build a larger one. "We just outgrew it," says Nathan. "So we built one that was twice as large." Of course, it couldn't have been quite that easy.

"To get the money to build the theater, Nathan talked me into selling the land in Granger that Papa had left me," said Ruth. "Papa had told me, 'I'm leaving you my land, Lass. I want you to promise you'll hold on to it. Because if you do, I'll have it in the resurrection.' Now I'm afraid to die and meet Papa." Then with a chuckle she adds, "He can live on the ranch, though. It's nice."

The "ranch" is located in Grover, Utah, and for years the Hales have held reunions there. When Ruth told Nathan and the rest of the family that she wanted to build a theater there -- in a county with a population of less than 2,000 people -- Nathan responded, "Honey, you'll want me to build an ice cream parlor at the North Pole next." But build it they did. And, just as in Field of Dreams, people did come.

As if six days a week in the Glendale theater weren't enough, the Hales started a new tradition -- Sunday plays with a gospel message. The tradition has followed them to Salt Lake City and Orem. On three Sundays a month audiences can see Are the Meadowlarks Still Singing or The Girl Who Came to Dinner at no charge. "The Sunday plays started when a returned missionary arrived home and saw that we were doing plays," Nathan relates. "He came to Ruth and asked her to write a play that would bring out the missionary lessons. We do these plays now on Sunday nights. They've brought quite a few people into the Church -- especially in California."

"And Meadowlarks is the longest running play in Utah," Ruth adds.

In 1980, Nathan and Ruth Hale were called on a full-time mission to Nauvoo. "We were sent there to bring the old cultural hall back to life," she says. "We acted as guides in the daytime and then did little five-minute mini-skits." They also produced some of their full-length plays. "That gave us an opportunity to bear our testimonies to people. We were not allowed to preach in that mission, but we could answer questions." The "Nauvoo skits" depicting life in the old city have followed them to Utah, and nearly every week the two can be found performing them at some church in Davis or Salt Lake County. It is one of the choice things they enjoy doing together.

When Nathan and Ruth left for their mission, Sandra and Allan continued to run the Glendale theater. "They had always wanted to do things that Nate and I didn't think could be done center stage," says Ruth. "They wanted to do children's theater, full-fledged Broadway musicals with a lot of scenery, and they wanted to teach classes -- in drama, in ballet -- you name it. After we left they could do what they wanted. We came home and didn't even know the place. We almost got mowed down in the halls by all the people rushing by. We hardly knew any of them. Sandra and Allan were doing so well, and we were in our 70s. So Nate said, 'Honey, let's retire and go up to Utah and visit with the family and enjoy the grandchildren and travel.' So I said OK." And thus the Hales brought their tradition to Salt Lake City.

The Hales have had a tremendous influence on aspiring actors. One grandson, attempting to get a start in film, credits them with his interest. Kurt Brian, Sherry's son, says, "As a film student, I'm riding on the shoulders of my grandma and grandpa. As a matter of fact, I adapted one of Grandma's plays, Educated Heart, for the screen, and I hope to do the others also."

Several actors who got their start at the Glendale theater later rose to some prominence in the field. Gordon Jump, famed television and stage actor, directly credits Ruth and Nathan Hale with the beginnings of his success. Talking about Ruth, he says, "From the day she first told me to put my cigarette out while I was sitting in her living room, she has had a marked influence on my life. She's one of the most peculiar women I've ever met, in the finest sense of the word. She's a remarkable woman who has never stopped influencing me. Honest and direct, she has always been straightforward, telling me exactly what she thinks about me. She gave me the opportunity to be seen by agents who would represent me and help start my career. There's no question about it, my career began at the Glendale Centre Theatre."

Others who started at the Glendale Centre Theatre and later went on to become Hollywood successes are Mike Farrell, Connie Stevens, Richard Hatch, Melissa Gilbert, and Ellen Wheeler.

Ellen was a young 18-year-old when she began to do plays for the Hales. When she left the Glendale theater, it was for a dual role on the soap opera Another World, a role for which she won an Emmy award. "I've never met anyone who is able to inspire more goodness in the people around her than Ruth," Wheeler says. She's able to encourage a kind of hard work that's still a happy kind of hard work. Ruth is able to get people to love what they do so much that this comes through in their performances -- or even in the way they answer the phone or take ticket orders. She has really touched people's lives. Not only does she mean a lot to me, but I know that she means as much to every person who meets her. That's what's so amazing."

When asked whether she prefers acting or writing, Ruth said, "I get the greatest thrill out of writing. I think I like it best because it's more lasting. Years from now maybe our family will still be doing our plays. And yet -- oh, I enjoy being on stage. I've said I wouldn't mind dying on stage. But, it would be a little hard on the actors. They'd have to ad-lib." Both she and Nathan laugh heartily.

The Hales always refer to the plays as "our plays." Did Nathan help with the writing? "Ruth would read the plays to me," he says, "and if I saw some spot that could be cut, or made a little better, or done in a different way, with different lines . . ."

Ruth quickly interrupts, "Oh, he'd say, 'Where's your comedy? You haven't much comedy.' Or 'Well, Honey, what about these characters? Have you forgotten them? When are they going to come in?' He was very critical." She tosses her head back and laughs, "Some days I'd write and thought I'd done well . . ."

"But she's the one who did the writing and thought up the plots. Admittedly, I helped her with plots sometimes."

"I got so mad once," Ruth confesses, "I threw the script at him and didn't write for three years!" They both laugh wholeheartedly at this remark, sharing an inside joke.

When asked who the boss of this family operation is, Nathan responds without hesitation, "Well, I let her be the boss as far as the writing is concerned. Of the whole operation, I try to be boss." They both laugh again. "Sometimes I don't make it though -- she has such good ideas."

Ruth describes their teamwork. "One of us supplies the ammunition and the other one shoots it. I'll say, 'Honey I've got to have a window seat on this,' and he'll say, 'It won't work.' And then in the morning he'll say, 'I've got it figured out. I think I can do that.'"

Sandy corroborates the fact that her parents work as partners. "Mother was always the driving force, but she was always backed up by Daddy. She had the ideas, and he'd make sure they came to pass. She is really the catalyst for the whole family."

Philip adds, "Dad was more the quiet type, although he was still very much -- well, when she got too weird, he would say, 'Honey, that's enough.'"

Brigham Young University is currently producing a documentary about the Hales and their accomplishments. Bryce Johnson, producer of the film, explains how he got interested in the project. "The most fascinating part of the Hales' story is that they never realized their dream. The thing they went to California to do never happened to them. They were still trying to get into pictures while they ran their theater. But the business they started in order to make ends meet turned out to be their real niche in life. It's a story of the American dream come true unexpectedly."

"At the age of 85 my mother accomplishes more now in a day than I would dream of doing," says daughter Sherry. "She has boundless energy. We used to laugh because her favorite thing to do was to get on the motorcycle we had at the ranch -- even when she was in her early 70s. And she has to bat a ball at least once a year just to prove to herself she still can."

Perhaps Gordon Jump best sums up the spirit of Ruth Hale. "She exemplifies everything that a woman should be or can be. She has a wonderful family and has mothered that family with incredible skill. There's not a loser in the group. She has loved and nurtured the man of her life -- he'd be the first to admit it.

"She has taken the great talents God has given her -- writing and acting -- and touched the lives of thousands and thousands of people. In the theater industry, she's been a leader, an innovator, and an executive. She's always stayed dose to her religious convictions and has shouldered all her church assignments with skill and dispatch.

"Not only did she introduce me to the temporal benefits of hard work, but to the spiritual benefits that make my life even more rewarding. I have great love and affection for her and everything that she stands for."

When asked about his fondest memories with Ruth, Nathan responds quickly, "Well, I believe they're now." They both laugh. The wonderful thing about his answer is that if he'd been asked the question 20 or 30 years ago, it would have been the same. With the mischievous smile on his face he must have had when they were courting more than 60 years ago, he insists, "Yes, they're now. Of course, I would naturally say when we were courting and all that. But I think that's wrong, don't you?" He turns to Ruth for affirmation.

"Yes," she quickly replies. "The only thing about now is that we can't do as many plays."

"Not as many as we'd like," Nathan concludes. But it's still a big part of our life. What we've had has been such a good life. We've been blessed so much that I have to say, it's now."

At age 90, Ruth Hale is still active in theater. In October of 1998 , Ruth and her family opened a new 10 million dollar theater in Salt Lake City, Utah.

[This article came from elsewhere, but is no longer online. If anybody knows the source and/or the author of this article, they are welcome to write to us and provide this information.]

Web page created 1 August 2002.