Earl Twins


Jane and Elizabeth Earl, Hollywood, Calif., stopped yesterday for a short visit with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Fred A. Earl, 930 Ash, on their way to Dubuque, where they will appear with the Eugene Loring Dance Players.  The twins have often danced for Ames audiences.


By Bill Duffy, reprinted with permission

The 1950s and 1960s were times when artistic stage dancing swept America.  Television brought dance routines into everyone’s home.  Hollywood splashed brilliant dancers onto the movie screens and made them household names.  That spawned a wave of dancing megastars: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Gwen Verden, Cyd Charisse, Vera Ellen, Gene Nelson and Shirley MacLaine.

It had started in the 1930s, and by the ‘50s those dancers were everywhere in bright color on film screens and living room television sets.  They spilled out from Hollywood into places like clubby Las Vegas.  America was loving it.  It was also a time when two fresh-faced, long-legged girls from Iowa danced onto the scene.  They were the identical twins Ruth and Jane Earl, known more professionally as the Earl Twins in Hollywood and Vegas for the next 12 years or so.

They learned basic dance skills at the Ann Dirksen Morrison Dance Studio in Ames, then a small college town in central Iowa.  They were high school cheerleaders.  They had those dancers’ legs, great smiles, and auburn hair.  They drove to Hollywood only a few days after graduation from Ames High School.  They had stars in their eyes, and nothing would stop them. Ruth and Jane paid their dues in Hollywood, winning scholarships and taking daily instruction at Eugene Loring’s American School of Dance.  Their daily routine often included dance class followed by practice sometimes lasting up to ten hours.  In the mornings, they worked as file clerks in downtown Los Angeles.

Like a lot of stage wannabees, the twins hung out in a coffeehouse near the dance school.  Aspiring young performers were all around them, and so were budding screen actors, singers and choreographers.  For awhile, a French street artist sat in that coffeehouse sketching scenes.  He saw the two Iowans get up and perform rousing, spontaneous dance routines for the evening dinner crowd.  He surprised Ruth and Jane by gifting them with a painting that showed them in one of their dance routines. The painting now hangs on the wall at Ruth’s house, in Tarzana, a city in the San Fernando Valley.

After more than two years in dance school, the twins began to get their chances.  Hermes Pan, a choreographer who worked with the legendary Astaire befriended them.  “He really was the one who got our careers going,” recalls Ruth.

Their first professional job was in a group performance on The Edsel TV show, a network special introducing the Edsel car.  Then came a series of television appearances that included the “CBS Show of Shows,” NBC’s “Bell Telephone Hour,” the “Fred Astaire Show” and “The Steve Allen Show.”

Ruth and Jane developed a parallel career doing opening acts and dance solos with top-level stars on the Las Vegas strip.  They performed with Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Johnny Carson, Judy Garland and many others.  It was an understatement to say that the girls from Ames knew almost everyone on the Hollywood and Las Vegas scenes.  “Frank Sinatra was a good friend,” said Ruth.  So was Frank Sinatra Jr.  When the twins rented a house in Laurel Canyon, the younger Sinatra would visit.  “He’d play the piano for hours,” Ruth recalled.

Ruth married Henry Silva, a movie actor in America and Europe who was also part of the “Rat Pack,” including Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior and Peter Lawford.  They were sensations in Las Vegas.  All of them were friends with the pert Earl Twins.  Videotapes show how the twins developed a stunning symbiosis, noted by many dance critics.  Dance movements melded into a sort of same-body art.  “Breathtaking,” said many who watched.

“They were real troupers,” gushed Buster Keaton, a megastar whose career spanned silent movies and talking pictures.  Keaton and his wife, Eleanor, took the twins under their wings.  The girls spent many weekends in the Keaton home.

United Press International, a major news syndicate, published a feature story about Ruth and Jane. “Talking to the identical sisters is somewhat unsettling,” the story noted.  “One will begin a sentence only to have the other complete it…without missing a beat.  Twins are rare in show business for the simple reason that few film stories crop up requiring double roles.  But the Earl girls are top-flight dancers and do not rely on drama to earn a living.”

Since Ruth’s husband Henry appeared in dozens of movies in America and abroad, often as a lead actor, Ruth spent some time living in Europe while Silva was filming.  They had two sons, Mike and Scott, who now live near their mother in California.  The Silvas eventually divorced.  Ruth lives in the Hollywood-style house in Tarzana where the couple lived for 20 years.

Sister Jane married big band musician and film score writer Dee Wells Barton, who died about ten years ago.  Jane lives in Starkville, Mississippi, and keeps in close touch with Ruth. The Earl twins appeared in several notable movies.  They danced and shared scenes with Frank Sinatra in “Can Can!”  They played the roles of promiscuous Zebra Girls with Jack Lemmon and the rising star Shirley MacLaine in “Irma La Douce.”  They appeared in the Warner Brothers film “Damn Yankees!”

They joined the iconic comedian Bob Hope on a Christmas entertainment tour for American troops stationed in the Near East desert.  “I remember one time when the wind came up in the desert in Libya and we all ran around picking up sheet music,” laughed Ruth.

The twins’ lives in Hollywood and Las Vegas had all the trappings of success and glamour.  But even today, Ruth and Jane enjoy reminiscing about the growing-up years in Ames.  Their house at 930 Ash Avenue, near the Iowa State campus, was always a gathering place for the class of 1954 at Ames High School.  Their father, Frederick, and mother, Beth, embraced their roles as class social directors.  Ruth and Jane were little Cyclone cheerleaders.  “Fridays were exciting days,” said Ruth, “Jane and I took our cheer squad outfits to school in the morning.  After classes, we dressed for the school pep rallies, and then the football and basketball games.”

“Dad headed out to officiate at high school games in the area those Fridays.  He worked most weekends in central Iowa.  Ames was a very sports-oriented, involved town.  It was wonderful to grow up there and enjoy it.” 

Undoubtedly, the girls’ love for music and dance benefited from living near the Iowa State campus.  On spring Veishea celebration weekends, on college homecoming weekends and other times each year, Ames kids went to the Iowa State Memorial Union building and hung over the balcony rails during semi-formal dances featuring the best big bands in the country. They listened to the bands of Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Ray Anthony, Ralph Flanagan, Claude Thornhill, Count Basie and others.  The grand era of big bands was beginning to wind down in the Fifties, but those bands were still roaming the country playing for appreciative college audiences.  “We all loved watching that, hearing those great bands,” said Ruth of those dreamy evenings on the campus.

In summertime, the twins worked as lifeguards at the Ames Golf and Country Club, near their home.  Older brother Tom worked there, too. Even as high school students, Ruth and Jane taught swimming in the old Men’s Gymnasium at Iowa State.  They were favorites of Jack McGuire, the fiery Iowa State varsity swimming coach who developed many outstanding swimmers and teams in the old Big Six and Big Seven conferences.

Dad Earl helped make the twins good athletes.  He was a professional recreation director who sometimes sold athletic equipment.  As for the girls in their younger years, they loved it all.  Theirs was a life of dancing, swimming, singing, tennis, golf, table tennis, bowling, volleyball, fishing, boating…and billiards. “At the back of our house there was a special room where you could find anything,” recalls Ruth.  “I mean baseball gloves, hockey sticks, basketballs, golf clubs – everything.”

Mother Beth, meanwhile, taught the girls sewing skills.  More than that, she designed and sewed their dance costumes.  She continued that for years and long into the twins’ Hollywood careers. “NBC gave us some bad costumes for shows.  Mom and Jane and I just re-did them and made them better,” said Ruth.  The elder Earls kept their home in Ames, but made frequent trips to California to see the girls and work on costuming.

“It was never just one parent more than the other helping us – both of them helped so much with our getting better at everything we did in Hollywood,” she added.

The twins adapted quickly to the fast-paced life in California.  But they always had so much to remember from the Ames years. Athletes from Ames High came to the Earl house, took field melons and used them to play bowling games on the Earls’ lawn.  The house was also a place where the high school kids came for popcorn and Coca-Cola and basketball games in the Earls’ driveway.  Ruth and Jane picked popcorn from fields near their home.  Sometimes they climbed a yard tree and ate lunch up in the limbs.
 Just days after high school graduation, Ruth and their parents made that long drive to Hollywood, and the girls started practicing their dance skills and rehearsing, under scholarships at the Eugene Loring American School of Dance.

For awhile, Jane and Ruth lived with an uncle and aunt near Hollywood, who drove them to the dance school.  Then the twins’ career took off.  Did the girls suffer a case of California culture shock then in their new life?  “Oh, no,” said Jane.  “Going into show business just seemed natural to us.  It was time to move on, and we just did it.  We were good at what we did, and we knew it.” “We were lucky to start our careers when we did,” added Jane.  “It was just such an exciting time.”  The twins might not have fully realized it then, but those were historical years in the movie, television and entertainment businesses.  Ruth and Jane were too busy to wonder about those things.  And performing with people like Frank Sinatra and Steve Allen?  Well, it was just part of their job.

The Earl twins’ decade-plus time as dance professionals was a long period of grueling practice, hard work and travel.  Once there was even a trip from California to Dubuque, Iowa where they had roles in the musical “Pal Joey!” at Loras College.  They made an early movie in the Philippines.

Asked if they ever thought of quitting during those years when family life was also beckoning them, Jane said: “Oh no, as time went on we were very fortunate.  I think if things hadn’t worked out for us, we probably would have just stopped and gone back to Ames and gone to college.  But our lives couldn’t have been better.” Speaking in concert like those young twins who used to finish each other’s sentences, both Ruth and Jane said, “For us, it was like, isn’t this so much fun?"

With all of the fascinating moments in their careers, what stands out most for the dancing twins from Ames?  Maybe the top moment came in 1964, when they were in their mid 20s. “Hermes Pan, choreographer for Fred Astaire who also helped us, called and said that Fred Astaire wanted Jane and me to perform with him on the final ‘Astaire Time’ series show on NBC-TV,” recalled Ruth recently. The result was a playful dance skit on the theme of mischievous twin dancers, performed for the national TV audience.  Ruth and Jane danced alone on the stage with Astaire, the most famous modern dancer of all time.  The twins still treasure their video copies of the dance.

“It was the biggest thing in our lives at the time,” recalls Ruth. Astaire was born just across the Missouri River from Iowa, in Omaha, and died in 1987, at the age of 88.  He left a legacy that seems to grow with the passing years; in 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him the fifth greatest male movie star of all time.


Most teen-aged girls are certain they will become dancers or actresses.  but when career-time comes along, it's more realistic and convenient to become a secretary or teacher or nurse.  Not so with the Earl twins, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Fred A. Earl, 930 Ash Ave.  Ruth and Jane Earl have been dancing and acting in television shows and motion pictures for three years.

The girls headed for Hollywood after graduation from Ames High School and "were very fortunate" to receive scholarships to the American School of Dance in Hollywood, the only two full scholarships given nationally.  The scholarships didn't bring three years of strictly glamour and excitement.  It was hard work.  For the first months Jane and Ruth lived with an aunt and uncle in Pasadena.  This meant arising daily at 5:30 a.m., getting to Hollywood for classes which began at 11:30 a.m. and ended about 8 or 9:30 p.m.

Before coming to Ames to visit their parents July 1, the twins finished work on the movie "Let's Make Love," starring Marilyn Monroe.  Other recent shows have been "Twilight Zone," the "George Burns Spectacular" on television, a Frank Sinatra television show and the movie "Can Can," starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.

For the past six years, an average day's work has meant eight hours of dancing.  "For 'Can Can,' the costumes weight about 40 pounds.  When we got out of the studio at night we felt like we were floating," laughed Ruth.

"We try to arrange at least a week between jobs.  It's very tiring," said Jane.

Chasing about the Earl house while the twins are home are Busie and Ellie, Siamese kittens.  The kittens were birthday gifts from the actor, Buster Keaton, and his wife.  They presented them at a party celebrating the twin's birthday, which is May 28 and the Keatons' 25th wedding anniversary, which was May 29.

"They were so tiny I could hold one in my hand and they wore great big bows," said Ruth.

Mrs. Earl visits her daughters at their apartment near Beverly Hills for "a couple of months every year."  She sews clothes for the girls and "at night we see things they think I'd like to see."  When Jane and Ruth get back to Hollywood next week they will begin the two to two and one-half month of rehearsals for a Fred Astaire television show which will probably be released about November.


Two of the can can girls in the motion picture of that name are Jane and Ruth Earl, dancing twin daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Fred A. Earl, 930 Ash Ave.  The movie will be seen here next week.  The filming of "Can-Can" was nine months of exhausting work for the girls, recalls their mother.  "They would go home after a day's work and sleep for several hours before even thinking of food.  The can can costumes weighed 30 pounds."

The show was filmed from Easter to December of 1959.  The stars are Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan.  Hermes Pan did the choreography.  "In fact, he's done the choreography for everything the girls have done recently.  They do admire his work," Mrs. Earl said.

When Nikita Khrushchev visited Hollywood, the twins were with Sinatra in a scene from the movie, which was presented for the premier.

Jane and Ruth plan to fly to New York City shortly to work on a television show.  "They want to go early to study a little and see a few shows," Mrs. Earl said.  "When the girls were in school here, Joe Gerbrach used to let them go in and watch the dancing in any movies that came.  They didn't stay for the whole show, just for the dancing, as often as they wished," Mrs. Earl recalls.  Gerbrach is owner-manager of the Ames theatres.  "Can-Can" will be shown at the Collegian and New Ames theatres simultaneously Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.


Ames Daily Tribune, March 18, 1961

"Snowbound" became more than a poetic experience to many who on Saturday evening found themselves stranded in gas stations, restaurants, hotels and homes of friends or relatives.  A few dared the winter's biggest snow storm and slowly slid toward their destination.

Ray Smalling, physical education instructor, and his family left Ames for Des Moines at 5:30 to attend the finals of the girls state basketball tournament.  The weather forced them to turn for home at Ankeny, but visibility conditions made it compulsory for them to stop at Paul & Min's cafe near the Alleman turnoff on highway 69.  Don Toms, junior, and his family also found lodging at the cafe along with Mr. and Mrs. Fred Earl and their twin daughters who graduated from Ames High in 1954.

To make the evening worthwhile, the Earl twins, professional dancers just returned from an appearance at the Miami Beach Hotel in Miami Beach Fla., combined their talents with those of amateur dancers Nancy Smalling and Ann Toms in producing a midnight floor show.  After that was over, the single evening tenants found rest on the floor, benches or cafe counters.  The Smallings arrived home late Sunday morning...