This Baltimore-born `acro-comedian' rose to great heights

WAY BACK WHEN

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May 20, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

No one recalls the name of Stanislaus Theodosius Rubanowski -- the vaudeville gymnast born and raised in East Baltimore -- but they might recognize the name of Jimmy Rae.

Rae's death April 30 of renal failure in Daly City, Calif., sparked several obituaries recalling his show business career.

He was 89, and for the past 26 years, he and his wife managed a seaside apartment complex in Pacifica, Calif., near San Francisco.

After changing his name from Stanislaus Rubanowski to Jimmy Rae in the late 1920s -- family members say he needed a shorter name to fit on theater marquees -- he went on to thrill audiences worldwide during the 1930s and 1940s with his cleanly executed somersaults, flips, dives and other acrobatic antics such as diving off a springboard into a bucket of water.

He was known during those years as the "Human Dive Bomber" and was dubbed an "Acro-Comedian," by another publicist of the time. Variety described him as a "knockabout acrobatic comedian." One of Rae's more terrifying exploits was a one-handed handstand that he performed atop the Eiffel Tower in 1935, while wearing a carefully pressed business suit, tie and shirt, and loafers.

"He was totally fearless and not afraid of heights, yet I'm afraid to go up on the roof and clean out leaves from the gutters," said son Jimmy Rae Jr. with a laugh during a telephone interview the other day from his Framingham, Mass., home.

The elder Rae appeared in print ads for Fisk Tires ("Perching on Death's Shoulders") and for Ovaltine ("I depend on Ovaltine for steady nerves," he said).

Born in 1917, the son of Polish immigrants and the second of six children, Rae grew up near Bond and Gough streets, and later moved to Caroline Street.

His interests in gymnastics began in his childhood when he honed his skills at a nearby YMCA and then performed stunts in front of patrons in his father's tavern.

Rae was 12 when he quit school and turned professional in order to support his family after his father's death. By 16, he had made enough money in vaudeville and performing in the circuses that he was able to purchase a home for his mother and younger siblings.

"Wherever he went and whatever he did, he always attracted a crowd, including agents, who guaranteed him work," his son said.

With a polished act that was in demand by the time he was in his 20s, Rae was performing at New York City's Rainbow Room, the Empire Room in Chicago's Palmer House, the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, Savoy Hotel in London and the Sporting Club in both Cannes and Monte Carlo.

He performed on the stage of Radio City Music Hall, the Paramount and Roxy theaters in New York City, the Palladium in London, and theaters in Germany, Scotland and Austria.

"He even headlined at the Hippodrome in Baltimore," his son said.

"Jimmy Rae has appeared in almost every fine entertainment spot in American and abroad. His distinctive style and presentation are outstanding and audiences everywhere have applauded his act," reads a promotion of the time.

With his handsome, swept-back blond hair that was parted in the middle and a wide smile, Rae bore more than a passing resemblance to Nelson Eddy, the 1930s film star.

He appeared with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's bands and toured with Eddy Duchin and his orchestra.

"My sister was going through some of his trunks the other day and found a letter from Eddy Duchin that said he was a great performer and could come back and tour with them any time he wanted," his son said.

While appearing at the Latin Quarter nightclub in Boston, whose owner was Lou Walters, Rae fell in love with Jane Gail McWhorter, a singer and dancer from Minneapolis whose stage name was Jane Margo. They married in 1943.

"They were baby-sitting Lou Walters' daughter one day, and that daughter just happened to be Barbara Walters," the son said.

Rae, who had taught himself to fly and survived a 1942 plane crash, flew as a pilot during World War II for a military transport company.

While living in Minneapolis during the 1950s, where he was a pilot for Northwest Airlines for a decade, Rae abandoned the more physical side of his act for the soft-shoe and a running monologue with a few jokes added, his son said.

He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and Arthur Godfrey Show, both variety show staples of 1950s TV.

"With the coming of TV and the end of vaudeville and the closing of so many nightclubs and theaters, he started to wind down," his son said.

During the 1960s, Rae moved to Falls Church, Va., where he opened the Jimmy Rae Trampoline Center to teach adults and children his former tricks.

Rae was a man of many interests. He designed and built houses in Minnesota and Virginia, and proposed that an alternative canal be built across Mexico as a replacement for the Panama Canal.

With his wife, he designed a rotary hamburger broiler for fast-food restaurants and proposed a polyethylene shield for sanitary napkins.

"They were a real team, and my father always had the spirit of a boy. He was constantly looking over to the next horizon. He really was a wonderful guy," his son said.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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