Hollywood starlet-cum-Fort Worth legend Ruta Lee shows off her ‘Steel’

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DO YOU HAVE TRACK LIGHTING? | Lee plays salty Clairee in ‘Magnolias.’ (Photo by Samuel Rushen)

Arnold Wayne Jones

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Ruta Lee is such a down-home celebrity filled with such plain spoken Southern charm — she drops F-bombs during interviews, and conversation repeatedly turns to martinis — that you just assume she’s a Texas girl, a native who headed out to Hollywood from a cattle ranch in West Texas. And you’d be wrong.

“There are those who will get into a fistfight if you say to them I’m not from Texas!” she says. “But no — I’m Canadian-born of Lithuanian parents, which makes me a real oddity.”

Like Greer Garson, Lee became a transplant when she married a local man decades ago, making North Texas “my home away from home,” she says. “People are wonderful here — the hospitality and the warmth and the generosity of spirit you feel as a performer. The audiences don’t defy you — they want to enjoy themselves.”

And audiences are anxious to enjoy Lee at Casa Manana, when she returns for a nine-day run in Steel Magnolias. Lee plays Clairee, the flamboyant small-town liberal doyenne in the crowd-pleasing tearjerker. It’s a delicious role full of classic one-liners, most delivered by Lee.

“Let’s face it,” she says conspiratorially. “Magnolias is the show of the gay world. I don’t know a single gay person who doesn’t know every line in that show. My hairdresser, and every hairdresser I know — my fairy godchildren I call them, cuz I’m their fairy godmother — quotes not just my lines to me, but the entire show!” (Her own favorite zinger among the show’s many standouts is actually spoken by Ouiser: “I bet he takes the dishes out of the sink before he pees in it.”)

Lee has heard these lines countless times over the years; this is at least the third time she’s played Clairee. The fit is a good one: Both are glamorous but salty, the kind who get called “broads” and enjoy it. But every time she takes it on, it’s a new experience — in part, because she keeps having to learn the show all over again.

“I’m one of those showpeople who, the moment the curtain comes down, everything leaves my brain,” she laughs. “My lines sound vaguely familiar, but I have to learn the cues. And the girls [in this production] are just wonderful. It’s funny how each time you play something like this, the dialogue takes on entirely different meanings depending on what mouths it’s coming out of. I’ve never done that many plays where I can sit back and say, ‘That feels new to me.’”

At 79, Lee certainly has done a lot of shows she’d need to make room for, from the Oscar-nominated classic Witness for the Prosecution to Funny Face to one of the Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and countless TV guest spots since the Golden Age of Television. But Magnolias holds a special place in her heart.

“I like the fact that it has so much heart and so much lived-in humor — everyone can identify with it,” she says. “The simplicity just touches hearts and keeping it going.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 27, 2015.