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Creator of Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre credited luck for her success

Susan Rubes stands in the old TTC repair shed, soon to become her new theatre, the Young People's Theatre, Feb. 24, 1977.

Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

For 11 years after its founding, the YPT bounced from one venue to another (it was one of the very first companies to stage plays in schools). In the mid-1970s, Rubes found an unused brick building on Toronto's Front Street, a former TTC stable turned streetcar repair shop. The place was a dump, with water flooding the floor and a rotting foundation. The city agreed to its use as a theatre, charging annual rent of $40,000, and the place needed $2-million in work. She got it all, squeezing $500,000 from the federal government and $1.1-million from the province, even persuading architect Eb Zeidler to design the place.

Already by 1975, her success in children's theatre was recognized with her induction into the Order of Canada.

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The theatre's maiden production in its new home was on Dec. 22, 1977, an adaptation of the Prague theatre Laterna Magika's The Lost Fairy Tale. After that, Rubes seemed determined to show that she took young audiences seriously, with such offerings as John Hirsch's Twelfth Night, The Miracle Worker and The Diary of Anne Frank, starring her old friends Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.

"We all loved working with her," said Eli's daughter Roberta Wallach, who played the title role. Rubes "had boundless energy … sparkling eyes and a radiant smile. She and Jan had the kind of love that I see in my parents' marriage as well."

YPT was more than just a stage. It grew into a centre, with a year-round drama school for youth added in 1969, teachers' resources and a community outreach program. Today, said artistic director Allen MacInnis, the theatre stages eight productions a year before 60,000 children and adults. It is still guided by Rubes's motto: "Only the best is good enough for children."

Some of Canada's best-known actors appeared on YPT stages, including Kate Reid, Eric Peterson, Brent Carver, Gordon Pinsent and Martin Short. Albert Schultz, founding artistic director of Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, played Daniel Richler in a 1984 YPT production of Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. "It was there that I first met Susan and experienced, as a very young actor, her generosity and warmth," he recalled. "[She] was a pioneer and those of us lucky enough to make our living in the Toronto theatre community owe all we have to a handful of brave souls such as she."

Rubes's influence extended to critics. In time, noted Patricia Keeney, a York University expert on children's theatre and literature, theatre for young audiences became a legitimate category for the prestigious Chalmers new play award each year, juried by Toronto's Drama Bench (later the Canadian Critics Association).

Weary of fundraising, Rubes became head of CBC radio drama in 1980, a natural fit given her love of the medium. "I haven't totally adapted yet to the first large corporation I've ever worked for," she confided to The Globe midway through her tenure. "Why, it's all about power. That's new to me."

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Still, she boosted drama programming, hired a casting director and script editor, and set up a training program that drew hundreds of applications from writers across the country. But she quit six years later because, as she told Thomson, "they wouldn't give me any more air time and they wouldn't give me any more money." She served as president of the Family Channel when it debuted on Canadian pay TV in 1987, until 1989.

Largely driven by the success of the YPT, today there are some 80 theatre companies in Canada targeting young people.

Rubes's final request was to have no memorial service following her death.

She was predeceased by her son Christopher in 1996. Jan Rubes died in 2009. She leaves her sons Jonathan and Anthony, three grandchildren and two half-brothers.

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