Susi Bernstein, as she was now known, spoke no English but was determined to learn it by seeing several movies a week. She graduated from George Washington High School, and depending on which bit of lore one believes, took the name “Douglas” either from the family for whom she babysat or picked it randomly from the telephone book. Susi’s mother obtained a divorce, remarried and moved to Pennsylvania, leaving her daughter, now 18, alone in the big city.
Having studied ballet in Prague, she yearned to be a dancer but choreographer George Balanchine said she was too short. Noting her flair for the dramatic, he suggested acting instead. While working as a clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue part-time, she trudged to 109 auditions (she counted) before landing a small role on the School of the Air radio show. In a matter of months, she was working on 27 different radio soaps, plays and series alongside the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Laughton and Rex Harrison. Radio would remain her first love.
Her big break came in 1946 when she appeared in the Broadway revival of He Who Gets Slapped. Rubes played the circus dancer and daredevil bareback rider Consuela, a role that won her the first Donaldson Award for best debut on Broadway and kudos from The New York Times, which called her performance “graceful and light.”
She was living in a tiny apartment on East 53rd Street when one day a young fellow actor with smouldering looks knocked on her door. “I need sheets,” announced Marlon Brando. She gave him the linens along with a stern request to keep the bongo playing down. They went on a single date.
A few months later, Rubes graced the cover of Life Magazine as one of Broadway’s rising stars. But Hollywood beckoned, and her movie debut was 1947’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami with George Sanders. After that came Boundaries with Mel Ferrer, in which she played a black teenager, and the sci-fi flick Five, in which the director ordered her to run with a real six-week-old baby. “Could I meet the mother that’s stupid enough to allow an actress to run with a month-and-a-half old baby?” Rubes wondered. The request was denied.
She met lanky fellow Czech refugee Jan Rubes while filming Forbidden Journey in Montreal. They did 27 takes of a single kiss, and fell in love. The couple wed in 1950 and settled in New York, where Susan worked on such live TV shows as Studio One and Kraft Theater.
For a decade, she played the role of Kathy Roberts in Guiding Light, first on radio, and starting in 1952 on live television. But Rubes kept having children – three in four years. Producers hid the first two pregnancies with strategically positioned furniture and by seating her in a wheelchair. But when she was expecting her third, they killed off her character, resulting in thousands of letters and calls deluging the network. “Kathy got hit by a bus,” her son recalled with a chuckle.
In 1959, the clan decamped to Toronto, where Jan had earlier worked for the Canadian Opera Company. Alone in a new city with three young children, Susan cried for the first two years but was determined to get back into gear once her kids began school.
That’s when she saw the paucity of arts programs for them. Also impelling her, as she told actor R.H. Thomson in a series of video interviews done for the Theatre Museum of Canada, were the “abominable” performances for children she had seen at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y. So she started the Museum Children’s Theatre in her suburban Toronto kitchen. Backed by some local businessmen, her first production, Alice in Wonderland, opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in January, 1963. Her first show for YPT was The Looking Glass Revue in 1966 at the Colonnade Theatre, aimed at kids age three to seven.