Vocal skills got Shirley Jones to Broadway, films, TV

Shirley Jones wanted to become a veterinarian, but family and friends would often remind her of her
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Shirley Jones wanted to become a veterinarian, but family and friends would often remind her of her ability to sing, and how she ought not forsake such a wonderful talent.

“It was a gift that was given me, so I guess becoming a vet just wasn’t meant to be,” said Jones, a small-town girl from outside Pittsburgh who became an icon of American musical theater with performances in classic movies such as “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.” “I wanted to go to college. I really did.”

A two-week family vacation in New York when she was 18 ended up with Jones being signed to an exclusive five-year contract with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Instead of returning home and heading to Centenary College in New Jersey that fall, Jones stayed in New York, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. But if music was going to become her profession, she was going to determine the venue, not her family, friends or her vocal coach.

Making a choice

“My teacher in Pittsburgh wanted me to go into opera, so everyone was saying, ‘Shirley, go into opera,’ ” remembered Jones, who will be in concert Monday night in Pittsfield at the Barrington Stage Company. “But I told them no. I didn’t want to go into opera. If I couldn’t be a veterinarian, I wanted to be on Broadway.”

Shirley Jones

WHERE: Barrington Stage Company’s mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday

HOW MUCH: $45, $75 tickets include a post-show reception with Jones

MORE INFO: (413) 236-8888 or www.barringtonstageco.org.

Jones got to Broadway quickly, after landing a chorus part in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific,” from an open audition during that family vacation. She was the only performer ever signed to an exclusive contract by the prolific songwriting team, who obviously realized what a great find they had in the attractive young blonde from western Pennsylvania.

While Jones was learning the ropes in “South Pacific” in 1954, Rodgers and Hammerstein were already working on the movie version of “Oklahoma!,” their 1943 Broadway smash. Stage stars Joan Roberts and Patricia Northrup had played Laurey on Broadway, but a new face, that of Jones, would play the ingenue role on film. Her co-star playing Curley was Gordon MacRae, a singing actor who had already enjoyed some moderate success on stage and in film. But with Jones as his co-star, MacRae became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Rodgers and Hammerstein had hit pay dirt.

Screen stardom

Following their 1955 success with “Oklahoma!,” Rodgers and Hammerstein paired up Jones and MacRae again the following year for “Carousel.” Jones didn’t become the Broadway star she had hoped to be, but instead had found superstardom on the big silver screen. She went on to make “April Love” in 1957 with Pat Boone and “The Music Man” with Robert Preston in 1962, two musicals not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. “The Music Man,” with book, music and lyrics all by Meredith Willson, is Jones’ favorite musical.

“I think ‘Carousel’ had the best music, and Richard Rodgers used to say it was his favorite score, but I can’t say that was the best motion picture musical,” said Jones. “For me, the best all-around movie musical, is ‘The Music Man.’ It’s the best musical ever written as far as music, the characters, the story. Everything about it was great. It was foolproof.”

Unfortunately, the movie musical was changing in the turbulent 1960s, and Jones no longer fit the type producers were looking for. But in 1960 with the help of Burt Lancaster, Jones landed a role in “Elmer Gantry,” a non-musical about a con man turned preacher (played by Lancaster). Jean Simmons was the female lead in the movie, with Jones in a secondary role as a prostitute and Gantry’s former lover. The movie was nominated for five Oscars and won three, including Lancaster for Best Actor and Jones for Best Supporting Actress.

“If you were a musical star, they didn’t really think of you as a serious actress,” said Jones. “Times were changing and it seemed like my career was virtually over. I decided it was time to start doing some more dramatic roles, so I did a ‘Playhouse 90’ production and that’s what got me the part in ‘Elmer Gantry.’ Burt saw it and he liked it, and he was a co-producer of ‘Elmer Gantry’ and really pushed for me. The other producer didn’t want me in the movie, but Burt really fought for me. So, I got the part. I didn’t have to read for it or do a screen test. It was just given to me because Burt Lancaster had faith in me, and in my mind it’s the movie that saved my career and gave me my longevity.”

Now that people knew Jones could act and not just sing, she found plenty of work in television and the movies throughout the remainder of the 1960s. Then, in 1970, she was cast in “The Partridge Family,” a new television show about a widow [Jones] and her five children who toured the country as musical performers. Her stepson David Cassidy played Keith Partridge and became a recording star thanks to the show. Also in the cast playing Jones’ children were Susan Dey, Danny Bonaduce and Suzanne Crough.

Hesitant TV star

Jones, who became a star to a new generation of fans, had some trepidation about taking the role and still has mixed feelings about the experience — even though the show was a hit and ran for four years on ABC.

“They told me that if the show was a success, the rest of my career would be over, and they were right,” said Jones. “I was very hesitant to do it because at that time if you were in the movies, doing a television series was a big step down. But I have no regrets. I had been all over the world making movies, and at that point I had three young sons so I wanted that to stop. I felt like I wanted to stay home and be with them, so I think it was the right thing for me to do.”

Jones had married actor Jack Cassidy back in 1956. They divorced in 1974 and Cassidy died in a fire at his home in 1976. Jones married comedian Marty Ingels in 1977 and while they have been separated a handful of times — Jones even filed for divorce but then withdrew the petition — they remain married.

“I’ve had two crazy husbands and I’m still married to one of them,” said Jones.

“They made me laugh, and Marty is still making me laugh. I’ve had some ups and downs and tragedy, but everyone has some tragedy in their life. I consider myself a very lucky person. I have three wonderful sons, and a wonderful step-son.”

And, despite some slow years after “The Partridge Family,” Jones still has a very busy career. She performed on Broadway again with her son Patrick in “42nd Street” in 2004, and often works in regional theaters around the country, sometimes giving concerts like the one scheduled in Pittsfield on Monday night.

“I show about eight minutes of film clips from my career, I talk for a while and then I sing,” said Jones. “I have a lot of fun and the audience seems to enjoy it.”

Personal favorites

Jones says that Jeanette MacDonald and Broadway star Barbara Cook were among her favorite singers when she was growing up, while these days she enjoys listening to “Wicked” co-star Kristin Chenoweth. As for her favorite male singers, no one’s better than MacRae.

“Nobody ever had a voice like Gordon,” said Jones. “I think his voice is the most beautiful of all time. He had an instrument that was just remarkable.”

Jones has also found the time to guest-star in an episode of “The Cleaner,” an A&E series about an ex-addict played by Benjamin Bratt who becomes an extreme interventionist.

“I play a real boozer, so it’s a lot of fun getting to play these older, more serious roles,” she said. “I wear a black wig, get drunk a lot, and have a blast. It’s a wonderful show.”

No matter how much further acclaim she receives as an actress, Jones will always be remembered for her singing voice. And, according to her, at the age of 75 her pipes are still pretty darn good.

“I have to vocalize all the time now,” said Jones, referring to her daily routine of voice exercises.

“I never had to before, but when you hit my age your voice deepens a little bit. I used to able to get up at 3 in the morning and hit a high C. Now, my stretch from the low end to the high end is a harder stretch. I have to work harder at it, but I still do pretty well. Nobody’s complaining.”

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