Thursday, January 6, 2011

Interview with Willie Ruff

On 1/3/2011 I had the opportunity to speak with Willie Ruff by telephone. He advised me that he wrote about Silly Putty in his autobiography A CALL TO ASSEMBLY. I immediately ordered two books. Today, 1/6/2011, I received two copies of his book. The book answered some questions that I had about the use of Yale students and how Silly Putty was produced in the early years.

Some of the things that Willie Ruff said to me in the interview, but which are not in his book, are as follows:

I asked him how he met Pete. He answered that he knew him through one of his Yale student friends even before he became involved with Silly Putty (In his book he states that this friend was Bob Cecil. Mr. Ruff, in his book, states that he was never on the Silly Putty payroll. Peter did, however, make him the musical director of Silly Putty - which I think was fantastic for everyone who was able to benefit from Mr. Ruff's vast musical knowledge**). He indicated that a number of Yale students were working for Pete.

I asked Mr. Ruff how he had come to know my father and he indicated that he met dad "entirely at Silly Putty".

Mr. Ruff had come to New Haven in 1949 to go to Yale. In his freshman year one of his friends got a job at Silly Putty, packing putty into eggs. Silly Putty had posted flyers for student workers as they had a great number of orders after the toy fair.

Mr. Ruff indicated that Pete had worked in 1939 for the World's Fair. He also worked for Mike Todd. His job for Mike Todd was to "tail" Bill Bojangles (and make sure he appeared at events). He then went to work for Wendell Wilke.

Mr. Ruff indicated that Pete was extremely interested in jazz. He would bring Willie to New York in his Hudson Convertible with the Modern Jazz Quartet "blaring on the" radio. Willie said that the first money that Pete spent was on the Hudson.

Mr. Ruff also mentioned another attorney who was involved with Silly Putty and/or Arnold Clark; Joe DeSessa.

Mr. Ruff indicated also that he learned of my father's death one day when he visited Pete and Margaret at their house and "what a shock it was".

Mr. Ruff said that the Silly Putty story "is a southern story". I'm going to have to question him further on this point*.

Willie Ruff conducted a concert at Pete's memorial service. Margaret had instructed that there was to be no speaking, no preaching, and no religious references - only music , and she wanted a concert featuring the music of an English composer who was a contemporary of Bach. Willie Ruff gathered a group of musicians and they performed the concert. The memorial service was held at Yale Divinity School. I wasn't present. I'm not sure why I wasn't able to make it except that I was living in Boston at that time and had a small child. Wish I could have been there.

* Willie Ruff is from Alabama. Even though Pete was born in Montreal, his parents were born in Virginia and he was raised in Virginia.
** My parents were both jazz fanatics.
Note: There are two Mitchell Ruff Duo videos on YOU TUBE, both good. Especially endearing, though, is the one that captures part of their experience in Shanghai - when they were the first jazz musicians to go there (in 1981) after the cultural revolution. The duo was made up of Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell.
Note: Also see Mitchell and Ruff: An American Profile in Jazz by William Zinsser.