“Ruth Hale: High Drama and a Great Sense of Humor,” Ensign, Feb. 1977, 60
In one recent month, she gave a Relief Society lesson, a talk at Laurel Night, a talk in stake conference, and wrote a Bicentennial play for a regional conference. She also spoke in a community church, did six performances of a special Church play for investigators, performed in another play and directed rehearsals for yet a third, and participated in a Bicentennial production for the community. And on top of all this, she was sick for a week! Playwright, director, actress, wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, servant of the Lord—each term aptly describes Ruth Hale, who, with her husband, Nathan, founded the Centre Theatre in Glendale, California, a playhouse dedicated to the production of family entertainment.
Sister Hale’s life has been a unique combination of family, Church, and career. This meshing is evident in the history of the Hale family’s theatrical ventures. Unlike many dramatists who find that formal education is the road to the theater, the Hales’s first exposure to drama was when they were called as ward drama directors shortly after they were married in 1933. They began writing plays out of necessity when they found that the ward budget couldn’t pay the royalties on any commercial play. They wrote a play, Handcarts West, based on pioneer stories gathered from the Granger, Utah, area. Although in retrospect Ruth admits that it was poorly written, it was a popular success.
Their second play, It Shall Keep Thee, was performed before members of the Council of the Twelve and the MIA general board at Brigham Young University—where they received thirteen curtain calls—and was later produced for June conference. “That sort of launched us,” Ruth reminisces. “In the Church you get assigned to jobs in fields that you are not at all familiar with, and suddenly you’re faced with doing something you haven’t done before. You do it because you have to do it, and then you find out you enjoy doing it!” The Hales were hooked on drama.
The Hales continued putting on Church plays into the 1940s, performing three times a week all over the Salt Lake Valley. This demanding schedule, coupled with Nate’s job at a copper mine and the responsibility of four children, was impossible—and Ruth responded with characteristic vitality: “Let’s do something about it!” They packed up the family and headed for Hollywood, where there was a shortage of leading men for the movies.
“We were advised by some of our friends that that wasn’t the kind of life for Latter-day Saints to get into—that we would leave the Church if we did. We sought counsel from Elder Joseph F. Merrill, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. I remember that he put his arms around our shoulders and said, ‘You can go into practically any profession there is and make a success of it if you’ll remember one thing: Put the Lord and the Church first.’ We’ve tried to remember that and have been very blessed.”
In California the Hales continued writing and producing Church plays. Their play What Doth It Profit? won a contest sponsored by the Improvement Era during Utah’s centennial celebration, and they spent the summer of 1947 traveling throughout the Church with that production. They also became involved in making motion pictures for the Church before Brigham Young University had a studio for that purpose. But roles in Hollywood pictures seemed to elude Nathan.
Finally a friend suggested that Ruth could have a market for all her scripts and Nate could have his pick of leading roles if they would open their own theater. Although they didn’t plan it as a long-range career, they eventually realized the advantages of their situation. Not only had they placed themselves beyond the beck and call of Hollywood with its pressures, but they also had an environment where the family could be together. And they controlled their own productions. When anyone asks, “Why do you do so many of your own plays?” Ruth quips, “Because nobody can stop us!”
The theater has expanded through the years from a former printing press-private dwelling-dancing school that seated 110 to a beautiful, modern theater that seats 440. A daughter and son-in-law, Sandy and Allan Dietlein, have been co-owners of the theater for the past seventeen years. Ruth writes and directs plays and sews costumes; Nate serves as critic and set-builder and with the Dietleins takes care of administrative affairs. And, of course, all of them act.
Ruth chuckles now as she recalls the hard years that led to their present success, and she appreciates the lessons they learned: “We learned that obstacles are something you climb over—that you just don’t give up! It’s 10 percent talent and 90 percent fight that gets you into this business. You have to have the hide of a rhinoceros and bounce back like a rubber ball!” But she becomes suddenly serious as she says, “You know, I don’t think the Lord ever intended Nathan to get into the movies. We have been of far more service to the Church doing what we’ve done.”
From the beginning the theater has been a family Venture—a “delightful togetherness project,” as Ruth says—involving all six children in acting and the various aspects of production. When anyone showed a reluctance to be involved, Ruth would say, “If we were on a farm you’d pitch hay; we are running a playhouse, so you act!” One of her sons, now a successful doctor, quipped, “I think I’m the only person who ever ran away from the stage to become a doctor.” There’s more truth to that statement than one might think: once when he arrived home from college three days before Christmas, that same son was met at the door by his mother and a script. “Sorry, but you have to go on tonight. The juvenile lead is having his appendix out.”
Ruth grew up in Granger, Utah, where her father, William Hudson, a strict and well-read Englishman, always wanted her to be a writer. He disapproved, though, when she turned to drama. He once asked, “Ruth, when are you going to get out of this silly business and give someone else a chance to make a fool of himself?” Ruth comments, “To this day, I think I work better for opposition than for praise. Praise makes me too comfortable; criticism makes me work to improve.”
Ruth (and her brother Gene) took over the family farm at age sixteen when her father fell ill, then taught school at age nineteen to earn money for her mission to the eastern states. When she returned home, she married Nathan, who had also recently returned from a mission. Their missionary zeal has stayed with them to this day, and they use their theater as a missionary tool. Prominently displayed in a hall in the theater is a poster reading, “The family is eternal. Is yours?” At least twice a year they put on a production at the theater that represents what the Latter-day Saints believe. Five hundred complimentary tickets are given away, and in order for a Latter-day Saint family to attend it must bring a nonmember family. Missionaries from all over the area bring investigators. In recent years they have produced a play called The Girl Who Came to Dinner, a comedy-love story in which the entire series of missionary lessons subtly unfold. One mission president was so impressed by the missionary potential of the play that he promised he would pack the house with investigators for twelve nights.
Not only members of the audience but many of the actors themselves have joined the Church as a result of these productions. Ruth has observed that the Latter-day Saint actors will take the nonmember actors aside during rehearsal for gospel discussions. Upon completion of their last production of The Girl Who Came to Dinner, three of the strong Catholic actors asked, “Hey, can I get a copy of the Book of Mormon?” Ruth believes that drama will be a new vehicle for taking the gospel to people.
The regular offerings of the theater have also produced missionary results. About 90 percent of the audiences at the theater are non-LDS. Ruth says they come because they know they won’t be offended by the productions. Several patrons have joined the Church after having been impressed by the clean quality of the plays and then learning that the Hales were Mormons.
Ruth is often asked to speak to many different organizations around the community, and she never fails to somehow bring up the Church. “If I am talking about a play based on the pioneers, I’ll say, ‘By the way, I must tell you about those pioneers …’”
With all her success and community plaudits, what means most to Ruth in her life is that all her children are married in the temple and are active in the Church. Amid all her activities, her family has always come first. Several years ago the Hales and Dietleins purchased a ranch in Grover, Utah (“I’m like Scarlet O’Hara—I’ve got to have my land”), so that the Hales’s children—Sandra, Phil, Sherry, Sally, Tanya, and Cody—twenty-four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren could all be together for parts of the summer. Those are very happy, hectic summers at Hidden Valley Ranch (formerly known as Carcass Creek Ranch). “Sometimes we have forty people for a meal. I remember one time when it was raining and we had seventeen children under the age of ten in the house! Nate and I read that there was an Education Week in Provo, so we packed up and left! There are advantages to being a grandparent.”
Ruth comments, “Each time in your life is special. The cost of a house has nothing to do with happiness, but love and unity and family togetherness sure do. Some of the most fun times of our lives were probably the teenage years when we’d take summer trips with the money earned from the royalties on our published plays. But the very best time of your life is when you’re grandparents, your family is raised, and you can be such good friends with your married children.”
A recent summer experience in Grover illustrates what is perhaps the secret to the Hales’s success—they aren’t afraid to try. “Our family wasn’t musical, but someone in Wayne County heard that we were in the entertainment business and asked us to sing. My mother always said, ‘Never say no,’ and so we made up a song and sang it. When repeat performances were requested, some of the grandchildren took music lessons.
“Now they win the Wayne County talent contest frequently—because they tried.”
Ruth sighs and her eyes take on a far-away look as she says, “I think what thrills me the most is at the end of the family firesides we have every Sunday night we are in Grover when all the grandchildren get together and sing ‘I Am A Child of God.’”
Would she change anything if she had it to do all over again?
“I think if I had to do it over, I would have gained a strong testimony of the gospel earlier in my life. I had what I thought was a testimony, but the true importance of it didn’t come through till later in my life. I appreciate the gospel more now than ever, especially temple work. Your priorities change as you age and realize more fully the importance of the gospel. Developing the pure love of Christ is the most important thing we must do. If you do your Church duties first, He helps take care of other problems.
“I love the theater and love what it can do for people. I’ve watched people light up during shows; the tears and laughter of the individuals in the audience make it beautiful. My children say it feeds my ego!
“I read a quote by Brigham Young once where he said something about music and drama being gifts that are too great to turn over to Satan for his use. It makes me indignant and angry to see the way these media are being used today.
“When you see Church growth, it’s nice to be able to think you’ve contributed in some way. We hope we’re helping to build the kingdom by giving a good image of our beliefs in the plays we present and by providing an environment where Latter-day Saint actors and nonmembers mingle. We’re trying to get LDS actors, directors, and others in the business together to harness that talent for preaching the gospel.
“I love it. It couldn’t be a more interesting life.”