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Ruth Hale is still hearty, still writing

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When you hear that a woman of 93 suffered a stroke, the news is not too shocking. But on Feb. 18 of this year, when Ruth Hale had a stroke, it came as a surprise to everyone.

The actress, playwright and founder of Utah's Hale Center Theatres is one of Utah's most irrepressible citizens. It happened on a Sunday, the day after she had been tooling around town in her pickup truck.

"I was speaking in church," Hale said, "and as I got up, I remember a boy saying, 'Better watch her; she faints.' And I thought, 'No I don't.' But when I got up there, I got dizzy, and before I knew it, every man in the room had run up to grab me."

Hale was rushed to the hospital, where it was determined she had had a stroke. The doctors told her that, as a result, she had lost major values of the left side of her body and it was more than likely she wouldn't walk anymore.

So, she tackled those problems the only way she knew how.

"She decided that each day was a rehearsal for an upcoming performance," said Hale's granddaughter-in-law Sally Dietlein. "She was used to practicing over and over for long hours for plays, so she brought that strength to her therapy."

Although it has taken time and a lot of work, Hale has steadily regained many of her old talents. She used to get raised-eyebrow glances as she cruised around on her motorcycle while in her 80s, and she still feels the need for speed. At her last care unit, she won the wheelchair race by furiously pushing herself along with her feet. She also recently got a Jazzy Power Wheelchair, and there is a definite motorbiker-glint in her eye when she gets it moving and maneuvering.

With Hale's zest for life and passion for the theater, she already has thrown herself back into projects. She's entertaining offers from television shows and commercials, and she talks about "The Curious Savage," "Meadowlarks" and other plays she has written that can be staged at the assisted living center where she now lives. And she's carefully looking at what roles she can play from a wheelchair.

Even though she has already penned more than 80 plays and musicals, which have been performed all over the world, Hale still has the itch to write more. She had written a play about a woman in a care unit, and she says she plans on looking the play over again to see if she can strengthen it.

Hale's daughter, Sherry Hale Brian, said that when inspiration hits, her mother grabs whatever paper is close and starts writing, leaving it up to Brian to round up the variety of scrap papers and type the scenes into the computer.

The theatrical journey of Ruth Hale and her husband Nathan, who died in 1994 of cancer, is now practically a Utah legend. The Hales left Utah for California in the '40s to try to get Nathan Hale into the movies. When that didn't pan out, they founded a theater in Glendale, Calif., where the Hales and their children worked together to entertain thousands, day in and day out.

"Growing up in the theater was such an interesting way of life," Brian said. "Mom always said that if we were on a farm, we'd have to milk cows, so since the family was in the theater business, we had to be in plays."

When the children had grown and taken over the running of the theater, Nathan and Ruth Hale came back to Utah to peacefully retire . . . or so they thought.

"We got to Utah and were so bored and unhappy without the theater," Hale said. "I told Nathan that retirement just makes you sick and that I thought we should start another theater. So at 75 years old, I went to the mayor of South Salt Lake and asked about starting a theater. We were so old that I think he thought we were a front for something."

There are now three Hale family-oriented theaters in Utah — the Hale Center Theaters in West Valley City and Orem, and the Hale Summer Playhouse at the family ranch in Grover.

With so much already accomplished, Hale said there is still a lot she wants to do, and being wheelchair-bound doesn't stop those dreams. It just changes them a little.

"I'm thinking we could do a stage version of the old Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly 'Rear Window,' " Hale said with a grin. "Only in this one, I'm the one in the wheelchair."

E-mail: pthunell@desnews.com