Jane And Joan: West U. Resident Reminisces About Her Days As A Famous Twin
Joan Ryba Gillis is about as local as you can get. She moved with her parents and twin sister Jane to West U. when the girls were 7. They attended West U. Elementary, and were cheerleaders at Pershing Middle School, Lamar High School and Rice University.
Although Joan and Jane lived in many places throughout the years – Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Puerto Rico and a long stint in Chicago – they never sold their childhood home, where Joan now lives with her husband Don Gillis.
Joan and Jane were cheering for Rice during the 1954 Cotton Bowl game against Alabama, when Alabama’s Tommy Lewis came off the bench to tackle Rice’s Dickie Maegle. The twins gained notoriety for pointed and yelling, “He did it!” when Lewis came back off the field and tried to hide among teammates.
The pair appeared on a game show in New York, and won some money, but declined when they were asked to take part in the game how $64,000 Question, which was eventually part of a game show scandal that involved rigging games.
“We didn’t think we were qualified enough they told us that that wasn’t necessary,” said Joan. “We could see where they were going with it but we didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Eventually, Bud Adams called Joan and Jane and offered them a job as the “Oiler Twins” to help promote the new American Football League. The twins traveled with the team and did television and radio interviews. Joan says Rice Coach Jess Neely thought is was a “betrayal” that Jane and Joan went to work for the Oilers.
Joan says her mother loves Las Vegas, and would take the girls there on summer vacations. One summer, the sisters met a dancer/showgirl, and were fascinated by her. They later entered a contest to select Texas Copa Girls for the Sands Hotel – even though Joan and Jane couldn’t make it to the auditions, after a meeting with the Sands producer Jack Entratter, they were chosen.
Their dance experience included four years of tap dancing and two of ballet. Their tap dance teacher also taught Tommy Tune. When Jane and Joan were seniors at Lamar High School, they performed in the Frontier Fiesta at the University of Houston. Their routine involved a skit in which the audience thought there was only one tap dancer – but, of course, it was the twins.
Their first performance as Copa Girls was “Here Comes Another Song About Texas – Pass the Cotton,” performed in gold cowboy hats, boots and gold holsters with cap pistols. Joan says it was a very glamorous time in Vegas – the hotels were smaller, celebrities didn’t mind autograph seekers, men wore suits and women dressed up. Joan and Jane also danced for Donn Arden at the Desert Inn for eight months, until the showroom was closed for remodeling.
The twins met almost every big name in Vegas during their time there – the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dan Martin, Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis and Peter Lawford), Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Lena Horn Red Skelton, Danny Kaye and Jimmy Durante.
Joan says Dean Martin could tell the sisters apart by their noses.
“We didn’t know there was any difference, but in profile, the tips were slightly different,” she said. Sammy Davis called both Miss Ryba, because he couldn’t tell them apart. According to Joan, once night Davis asked the sisters to go to the Don Rickles show at the Sahara. At first they said no – but changed their minds when a friend insisted.
“In the big booth, Jane and I were seated on each side of Frank Sinatra with Dean Martin on Jane’s left and Sammy on my right,” said Joan. “Sinatra said to us, ‘great set of cufflinks!’ Leave it to him to come up with an original. We had always heard bookends, but never cufflinks.”
Joan and Jane did photo assignments for the Las Vegas News Bureau, were co-queens of the Ladies PGA Golf Tournament and the Celebrity/Amateur Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe. They got the twin role in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” when the Broadway cast came to the Riviera Hotel, which they also performed at the Arena Theater in Houston. At that time, the sisters had moved to Las Angeles.
In LA, Jane and Joan did a movie at Paramount called Gunn with Craig Stevens. Joan says they passed Robert Redford on a narrow walkway, and he spoke to them.
“We swooned, but not in his presence,” said Joan.
For a year, Jane and Joan lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico to be in the Barry Ashton revue at the Americana Hotel. The sisters agreed they would not take the job if there was quarantine for their cat – there wasn’t.
Eventually, the sisters settled in Chicago for 26 years, working trade shows and conventions across the country.
“We really enjoyed these times when both of us were hired, since there was someone to go to dinner with,” said Joan.
In 1992 Jane started exhibiting the first symptoms of what would be diagnosed as cerebellar ataxia, which led to the loss of all motor skills. By the time Jane’s condition has deteriorated to the point that she was a quadriplegic with a feeding tube, Joan had moved them both back to their childhood home in West U.
At one point, Joan said, she told her sister she wasn’t sure if she could take care of her anymore – Jane was incapable of movement. That night, Joan says, during her prayers, she heard God tell her it wouldn’t be much longer. The next day she told her sister they should just keep on as they had been.
“I am so glad I did,” said Joan, whose sister was soon transferred to the hospital due to bed sores. “I couldn’t heal those sores.”
After Jane’s death in 2001, Joan said she was “just incoherent.”
“The grieving was ferocious,” said Joan. “They said life goes on, but I wasn’t thoroughly convinced of that.”
Joan threw herself into her work, traveling and doing trade shows. Ten months after her sister died, an old friend from Rice, Don Gillis, contacted her after hearing of her loss. They had Thanksgiving dinner together in 2001, and were married the next year.
“The blessing is Don coming into my life,” said Joan. “Since we knew each other we didn’t need to have a long engagement – there was no reason to. We really go ton with our lives.”
The couple lives in Jane and Joan’s childhood home on Robinhood.