Standing before 650 friends, family members and arts power-brokers at a lavish 1988 Toronto dinner in her honour, Susan Douglas Rubes understatedly attributed her success to “luck and people.” Luck, she said, had been a recurring theme in her life. When she founded Toronto’s acclaimed Young People’s Theatre in 1966, “it was a lucky time to start a theatre,” she told the crowd. “And you need luck in life.”
An objective view would place little stock in the role of serendipity in her life.
Rubes (pronounced Roo-bish) was a barely five-foot-tall human dynamo once dubbed the Pied Piper of children’s theatre in Canada. With her “joyously unrestrained passion” for family fare, as one writer put it, Rubes almost single-handedly and certainly single-mindedly transformed the world of Canadian theatre for young audiences. She took a former Toronto Transit Commission horse stable and built it into a $3.3-million institution – the first professional theatre in North America dedicated to performance for young people.
She was the wife of singer and actor Jan Rubes but never lived in his shadow. Journalists couldn’t lay off describing her as “cheerful,” “a whirlwind,” “petite” and “pert.” Another oft-used adjective was “relentless.”
Rubes, who died in Toronto on Jan. 23 at the age of 87, put the Young People’s Theatre (YPT) on the map through sheer force of will. She pleaded, bullied, cajoled, yelled and even cried for funds. (“Certainly I’ve been known to cry,” she said, unrepentant. “There are good things to being a woman and I’ve decided that I will trade on them.”) To serve on the theatre’s board was to give blood, went one quip. A friend once mused that if Rubes was ever seated next to a Ford executive at a dinner party, the first thing she would do is ask him for a bus.
“When she was building YPT, whether she was fundraising or dealing with the city or working with designers, she just wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said her son Jonathan. “She wouldn’t leave until she got her way, one way or another.”
Together, Rubes and the YPT hired, mentored and shaped dozens of Canadian performers, directors and playwrights, and showed kids and teens there was more to entertainment than movies and TV. Her challenge, as a 1975 article stated, was to convince Toronto audiences that children’s theatre was respectable. “They all thought that kids’ theatre was what you did if you were unable to do anything else,” Rubes said. “They were timid.”
Which actors are not, by nature. As a performer herself, she hobnobbed with the cream of Hollywood during its golden age, and perhaps gained her greatest fame as Kathy on the soap opera Guiding Light, a role that generated fan mail well into her 80s.
She rarely spoke of her early life, even to her sons, who suspect it may have been a source of some pain. Born Zuzka Zenta Bursteinova in Vienna in 1925, she was raised in central Czechoslovakia, the only child of affluent Jewish parents. Her grandfather owned a nearby rural estate, where Zuzka learned to ride horses sidesaddle. The family would take frequent trips to the culture-rich city of Brno and back to Vienna, where her other grandfather managed the famous Burgtheater.
“Zuzka spent many hours watching rehearsals and plays, kindling her lifelong love for theatre,” noted a 1988 profile in The Globe and Mail’s Toronto Magazine.
The fairy-tale life ended with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Zuzka’s father, Alfred, joined a Czech army unit fighting with the Allies and later made it to London. She and her mother, Charlotte, with one suitcase apiece and little money, fled to Paris and, in 1940, to New York on the last trip the liner Ile de France made before the fall of France. “Sometime later,” the magazine article bluntly noted, “all four of Zuzka’s Jewish grandparents, who refused to leave their crumbling world, were gassed.” It was an abrupt end to an idyllic childhood.