Shirley Jones :: Beyond the Partridge Family
The Sinatra snafu
The chemistry of Jones and her leading man, Gordon MacRae is magical in Oklahoma! As well as in the subsequent Carousel. Though she didn’t almost work with MacRae on Carousel - the part of the ne’er-do-well Billy Bigelow was originally given to Frank Sinatra, who dropped out at the start of shooting in Maine.
"We got to location in Maine and Frank came on the set," Jones recalled. "We were doing the film in two processes, Cinemascope and Cinemascope 55. Frank, who is known for doing only one take said, ’Listen. What are the two cameras for?’ The director said, ’We may have to shoot a couple of the scenes twice because of the two different processes.’ Frank said, ’I signed to one movie, not two...’ He got back in the car, back to the airport and we lost our leading man. Gordon got the part.
"There’s been nobody before or since who sings like Gordon," she continued. "He was the all-American guy and that’s really what he was. But," she added, "he was a great Curly (Gordon’s lead part in Oklahoma!). But Billy Bigelow wasn’t really quite right for him.
It was her previous film role - as Laurie in the film version of Oklahoma! - that catapulted her into the limelight. How did it feel to be a movie star so early in her career?
"It happened so fast. I never had a moment to say, ’Hey, I’m a movie star.’ It’s a lot of hard work. That was before the unions came in and said, ’You can’t work actors like this.’ On location in Oklahoma!, we worked 15 or 17 hour days, seven days a week. You really don’t get it... until it’s over. Then you say, ’Hey! Yeah, I did star in this movie.’ (laughter)."
Does she have a favorite song that she has loved performing the most? Immediately Shirley responds, "Yes, ’If I Loved You’ from Carousel. It’s my favorite score."
New CDs and concerts
By the late 1950s, film musicals were waning at the box office. The public wanted more of an edgier and realistic form of escape. Jones successfully made the transition with her Oscar-winning turn in Elmer Gantry, then returned to musicals for the film adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man in 1962 where she played Marian the Librarian opposite Robert Preston. It was a success, and one of the last big Broadway-to-Hollywood adaptations to do so.
"They stopped making musicals," she recalled. "They were too expensive. My career was virtually over at that point (the late 1950s). They said, ’she sings, she doesn’t act.’ So, I started doing other things.
"Fortunately for me, it was the time when they were doing powerful live television shows. If I was going to have to prove myself as an actress, I was going to have to do it that way. I did a Playhouse 90 with Red Skelton called ’The Big Slide.’ I played an alcoholic sunshine girl during the Mack Sennett comedies of the 1920s. Both of us were nominated for an Emmy Award.
"Burt Lancaster happened to see that show. He called and said, ’We’re going to do this movie called Elmer Gantry and could you come in to meet Richard Brooks, the writer and director? I have a feeling that you would be wonderful in this part.’ I didn’t know anything about the film. I couldn’t believe they were thinking of me to play the prostitute."
Continuing Shirley explains the process of reading for the part and doing her first day’s work for writer and director, Richard Brooks. "I read the part and I couldn’t believe it. I said, ’Wow. I’ll do it for nothing.’ After seeing the first day’s rushes, Brooks said, ’Not only are you going to be great in the film, but you are going to win an Academy Award."
After her triumphant entry into a different style of movie acting, Jones went on to make numerous films starring opposite such very talented leading men such as Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart, Richard Widmark, Glenn Ford, Gig Young and David Niven. When asked to name a favorite leading man, as she thinks back on an amazing array of co-stars, she candidly responds, "Oh gosh. It’s awfully hard. I fell in love with Richard Widmark. He was the one leading man that I actually did fall in love with. The film was Two Rode Together, directed by John Ford."
But it was one role - that of Shirley Partridge - that (for better or worse) Jones is best-remembered (at least by me). I was 10 at the time of the series debut and, oh, I use to dance around and sing-along to their first The Partridge Family album. Just think of it as pre-Glee for a young blossoming homosexual. Shirley shares a memory of her time on the series and what she considers her favorite episodes.
"I love the skunk episode when the skunk got off the bus. We had a lot of wonderful people on the show. Jodie Foster premiered on the show playing Danny’s girlfriend. We did a show with Richard Pryor and Lou Gossett Jr. about doing our show in a firehouse. That was another on my favorite episodes."
Going back to her great skills as a vocalist, which are still out in full force. Shirley Jones has upcoming performances in San Diego at Welk Resorts, Costa Mesa at The Orange County Performing Arts Center and continuing through 2011 in Arizona and Texas. She has a great dramatic ability with a lyric. There are a lot of people who don’t like sopranos. I am not one of them. Laughing, she says, "You’re right about that. My own musical director doesn’t like sopranos!"
She also has recently released a pair of new CDs, one seasonal, the other a tribute to her great mentor Richard Rodgers on Encore Records. The holiday set A Touch of Christmas, features such songs as "O Holy Night," "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and a new holiday song, "A Touch of Christmas," co-written by Jones’ producer, Les Brown Jr. Brown, the son of the late bandleader Les Brown, who contacted Jones about the possibility of doing the albums in 2009. She traveled to his studio in Branson, Missouri to record both sets, first the holiday CD, then the Rodgers.
Brown pushed her out of her comfort zone with the Rodgers CD by focusing on the songs that Rodgers wrote with his first famous collaborator, Lorenz Hart, including such standards as "It Never Entered My Mind," "Spring Is Here" and "Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered)."
"Shirley’s an actor," Brown Jr. explained to Ventura County Star recently. "She’s a great actor. She allowed me to be the director. If she started to slip back into her Broadway voice, I would tell her, ’Intimate. You’re whispering into Marty’s ear.’ (Jones’s husband for 33 years.) Boom! She got it immediately. She knows how to tell the story. That’s what I like about it."
To get her to best sing the song, Brown lowered her voice to her alto range. "You’re not an ingénue now," he told her, and he lowered the keys. "She said, ’Absolutely, let’s do it.’ She just put herself in my hands and was a trouper."
"I was thrilled to do it," she added. "Les gave me a whole new way of singing."
To purchase Shirley Jones’ latest CDs visit the Encore Music website. Her upcoming concert appearances will be January 5 - 9, 2011 at the Week Resorts, San Diego, CA; February 10, 2011 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Costa Mesa, CA; February 21, 2011 at the Regal RV Resort, Mesa AZ; February 22, 2011 Valle Del Oro RV Resort, Mesa, AZ; and April 8, 2011 at Texas Christian University, Forth Worth, Texas. For more information about Shirley Jones, visit her website.