It’s the late 1990’s. I should be home watching the Super Bowl. The Patriots are facing the Packers, and it promises to be a sterling matchup.
But instead, I’m driving to eastern Connecticut, with the hopes of interviewing a singer whose most popular songs never received a stitch of mainstream radio airplay. A person who, at the height of her fame, chose to walk away from the stage and take care of her children. A woman who rarely gave interviews – and who, for all intents and purposes, thought the world had forgotten about her.
Let me introduce you to Ruth Wallis.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Wallis recorded several big band tracks, with double-entendre titles like “The Dinghy Song” (as in, “He’s got the cutest little dinghy in the Navy…”) “Queer Things,” and “De Gay Young Lad from Trinidad,” among others. The songs made her a star on the cabaret circuit, and she played supper clubs from Miami Beach to Las Vegas. She toured Australia, and caused an international incident when her records were actually seized by government officials as she stepped off the airplane.
I actually knew of Ruth Wallis’ music by accident. As a teenager, I was helping my grandmother clean the basement of her West Roxbury, Mass. home. While hauling out boxes of this and that and assorted bric-a-brac, I came across a collection of record albums – albums with titles like Ruth Wallis: That Saucy Redhead and How To Stay Sexy Tho’ Married. This from my grandmother, who barely listened to anything stronger than the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra?
Flash forward to the late 1990’s. I’m trying to put together new article pitches for the record collecting magazine Goldmine, and came across the idea of articles on “party records” of the 1950’s and 1960’s. By that time, I actually had some of the more common comedy records of that genre, including recordings by Rusty Warren, Woody Woodbury and Belle Barth, in addition to Ruth Wallis. Although I could not find any contact information on the first three artists, I did receive word of Ruth Wallis’ last known address. A formal letter request for an interview – and a few days later, a phone call from Ms. Wallis, inviting me to visit her for an interview. Nice.
I arrived at her tiny Connecticut house, where she lived with her son and her two small dogs. We talked for a very long time, my tape recorder rolling as our interview progressed. She recalled all her great recordings, and even mentioned that the A&E Network had licensed one of her tracks, a parody of the Arthur Godfrey show called “Dear Mr. Godfrey,” for an episode of the television show Biography.
A few months later, Goldmine ran my story on the life and times of Ruth Wallis. I got paid, and that was it.
Or so I thought.
During the interview, Wallis talked about the possibility of putting together a revue of her music, maybe having it produced in an off-Broadway setting. Now, with an article about her songs and career, she was able to shop her musical to an agent. And in 2003, I got to attend the off-Broadway premiere of Boobs: The Musical, The World According to Ruth Wallis at the Triad Theater in New York City. The place was packed, and the audience loved every minute of Wallis’ campy classics.
I stayed in touch with Ruth Wallis for several years, and even penned a set of liner notes for a CD reissue of her greatest hits. But sadly, her time on Earth was limited. By 2005, she was battling the onset of Alzheimer’s, and spent her last few years in a nursing home. On December 22, 2007, Wallis passed away at the age of 87. A very gracious woman and a wicked satirist.
And on that day, dinghies around the world were at half-staff. 🙂
After this piece ran this morning, I received a nice e-mail from Alan Pastman, Ruth Wallis’ son, who was able to shed some light on her final years.
“Just for the record: The State of Connecticut tried to gain conservatorship of my mother and put her in a nursing home. A wonderful law firm helped me to defeat their efforts and she was able to spend her last two years with me at home. My mother was in her own room when she passed very early in the am on December 22, 2007. I was at her bedside along with her nurse and another good friend who had come to help ‘see her out.'”