Thursday, March 28, 2002

Readers respond

Light shed on mystery of dancing mom

        Bunny Peters always wanted to learn more about her mom's career as a dancer.

        Now she knows.

        Thank the kindness of my readers.

        They've shared stories. They've sent faded programs from dance recitals. One man, an old flame perhaps, left just his last name, “Mushaben,” and this message:

        “She was a knockout.”

        Last month, I wrote a column about Bunny's plight. Her mother, Ruth Brocker, never talked much about the brief career she had on stage and on her toes. She danced and taught ballet in the 1930s at Hessler's Studio in Mount Adams.

Ruth Brocker
Ruth Brocker
        She even went to New York and danced at Radio City Music Hall.

        But only for three weeks.

        Daily letters from John Costello in July 1936 quickly wooed her home. John and Ruth got married. Ruth hung up her dancing shoes and became a mother of five girls. Bunny, a teacher at Ursuline Academy, is the youngest.

        Until the day she died, on New Year's Eve 1998, Bunny's mom remained closed-mouth about her short-lived career. She simply put it behind her and raised a family.

        Bunny, always the curious one, wanted to know more.

        Now she knows plenty.

        “Look at all this stuff,” she said, happily pointing to papers piled on the dining room table of her Hyde Park home. Photos of dancers from the '30s mingled with programs and scribbled-on scraps of paper.

        “I'd come home from school and the phone would be ringing,” Bunny said.

        “Someone would be calling to talk about my mom. I'd grab whatever I could find and start writing.

        “I could have had the worst day at school. Then I would hear something about my mom and I'd be higher than a kite.”

        Sorting through notes jotted on the backs of envelopes and Post-it notes, she recited names of special callers — Catherine Ralstin, the Sandman sisters, Jane and Charlotte.

        All were in “their 70s or 80s.” Each wanted to talk. “My shortest call lasted 30 minutes.”

        Bunny learned that her mom rode home from dance lessons with Jane Ralstin and her twin sister, Violet. Her mother's former dance students remembered how their teacher made lessons fun with her sense of humor. One woman said the younger students were in awe of her mom. “She looked like a movie star.”

        Ruth Brocker danced with future film stars. Bunny has proof, something she never had before.

        Jane Ralstin sent recital programs from 1932, '34 and '36. In the 1932 recital at the Taft Theater, her mother shared the spotlight with Doris May Kappelhof, now Doris Day, and Vera Ellen Rohe, who became Vera-Ellen, song-and-dance co-star of the film White Christmas.

        Several callers explained why Bunny's mother passed on a dancing career. “To climb the ladder of dance in New York City,” she heard them say, “you might have to do things you may not want to do — change your life completely, and not always for the best.”

        As Bunny listened, she felt she was “in the fifth grade again, telling my mother that I wanted to be an actress. She advised against it. But she never went into detail.”

        Bunny felt these conversations benefited her callers. “They gave people a way to touch base with a wonderful time of their life.”

        The conversations also gave something to Bunny.

        They allowed her to learn more about the life of a wonderful woman. Her mom.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; e-mail


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