BY CARY GINELL
Shirley Jones was born March 31, 1934 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh. Blessed with natural singing talent, Shirley started singing at age 6. Teachers told her parents she had astounding coloratura abilities, but after graduating from high school in 1952, she decided she wanted to attend veterinary school. It was at this point that fate stepped in, and Shirley became one of that rare breed: an overnight success in show business. We interviewed Shirley at her comfortable Encino home, where she talked about her career in Broadway and in films and television.
VCOS: Were you a singer or an actress first?
SHIRLEY: I was born singing. It was a gift. My parents sent me to a girls camp when I was about 12 and the counselor called my mother and said, “Do you know what you have here? This is an extraordinary voice.” Then she started me in singing lessons in Pittsburgh and the teacher told my mother I had an unbelievable coloratura soprano voice. An opera singer’s voice. He wanted me to be an opera singer. Then I entered a contest for Miss Pittsburgh, sang an aria, Il Bacio, and won. But I didn’t want to be an opera singer. If I was going to sing, I wanted to sing on Broadway or in movies. I didn’t want to travel all over the world and learn new languages. I had a very definite personality because I was an only child. I was very difficult to raise, I’m told (laughs). I still can hit a high C and I’m almost 80.
VCOS: Did you have a favorite singer when you were growing up?
SHIRLEY: Believe it or not, I loved Gordon MacRae. He had a Saturday morning radio show called the “Teen Timer’s Club.” And I was about 16, and every Saturday morning I would tune in to that radio show to hear that man sing. I was such a fan. Much more than Frank Sinatra. I adored Gordon MacRae’s voice.
VCOS: I can imagine the thrill when you were cast alongside him in Oklahoma!
SHIRLEY: Are you kidding? I was so thrilled to meet him and sing with him.
VCOS: Tell me about your big break in New York.
SHIRLEY: Every summer, we spent our vacation driving to New York for a week or so. I was going to enter college to become a veterinarian. That’s what I wanted to do. But during my high school years, I went to the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which, during the summer, had acting and dancing and singing, and so I performed there every summer while I was in high school. Plays, musicals, everything. These were new projects by people who were working there. I knew this pianist who I worked there with whose name was Kenny Welch. So the summer after I graduated, they said, “Let’s go to New York and have a holiday.” Kenny was living in New York then. So I called him, and he said, “Come on up, we’ll sing a couple of tunes.” And I did. And he told me, “Listen, Rodgers and Hammerstein are having open auditions for anybody who wants to come and sing for them.” They had three shows running on Broadway at that time, and their shows ran so long that they had to keep replacing chorus people all the time. Now I barely knew who they were. I’m this very young, naive girl who lived in a town that had a population of 800. And I said, “Kenny, I’ve never done this before. I’m on my way to college.” He said, “Oh, c’mon, give it a try.” Well, I did. I stood in line with everybody else, went in, and sang for the casting director. And he said, “Miss Jones, what have you done?” And I said, “Nothing.” (laughs). And he said, “Could you wait a few moments? Mr. Rodgers just happens to be across the street, rehearsing his orchestra for ‘Oklahoma!'” It was about to open at City Center and go out on another tour. He said, “I’d like for him to hear you.” Now, as I said, I barely knew who this man was. I’d seen Oklahoma! as my first show in Pittsburgh when I was a kid and knew he was a songwriter of some sort, but I was so naive! So I waited. Then, down the aisle came this man. And he said, “Miss Jones?” And I said, “Yes – what was your name again?” He said, “Richard Rodgers!” I’ll never forget THAT moment! So I sang for him.
VCOS: What did you sing?
SHIRLEY: I sang “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” and I sang “Lover” in a very high key, and then a song that Kenny had written for me for the Playhouse. Then he said, “Miss Jones, could you wait about 20 minutes? I’m going to call my partner, Oscar Hammerstein, at home and have him come and hear you. So I said, “Yeah, I guess so.” But then Kenny said, “Shirley, I hate to do this to you, but I have an airplane to catch.” It was a holiday weekend. So Mr. Rodgers said, “Never mind, we’ll think of something.” So I waited and waited and waited by myself, and then, down the aisle comes this very tall gentleman and he says, “Miss Jones, do you know the score to Oklahoma!”? I said, “I might know the music, but I don’t know the words.” Of course, I was talking to the lyricist, you understand. He said, “Never mind, I happen to have the score.” And I said, “Mr. Hammerstein, I have no one to play with me. My pianist had to leave.” And Rodgers said, “That’s OK. We have the full City Center Symphony across the street.” I had never heard a symphony or seen a symphony, let alone sing with one. They took me across the street. I stood with a score in front of my face, and I sang “People Will Say We’re in Love,” “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “Oklahoma!” with the City Center Symphony. My first audition ever. Anywhere, anyplace, anytime.
VCOS: Were you nervous?
SHIRLEY: I was too naive to be nervous! I thought this happened to everybody! So Rodgers said, “Miss Jones, we would like to put you under a personal contract.” Now you have to understand that this was my first time doing anything anyplace. It just doesn’t happen this way. And he said, “Miss Jones, we have a show called South Pacific. We’d like you to go into the chorus.” So I didn’t get to college. I rehearsed for three weeks and became one of the nurses in the last three months of the Broadway company. The stars were Martha Wright and George Britton. They were the replacements for Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza.
VCOS: What were your impressions of Rodgers and Hammerstein?
SHIRLEY: Well…I had great admiration for both of them, but I liked Hammerstein as a person more. Rodgers tried to get me in bed with him. He loved blondes. After I signed the personal contract with them, he took me up to his office, sat me down in a chair, and went over and locked the door. Then he came over and put his arm around me and said, “We’re so happy to have you here. Do you have a boyfriend at home?” And I said quickly, “Oh, yeah. I’m engaged.” Of course, I had nobody. He said, “You are? He must miss you terribly.” And I said, “Oh, yes, he does. But you know, now that I’m away, it’s so nice to know that I have somebody that can be a grandfather to me.” (laughs) That did it!
VCOS: That was very quick thinking. So much for the casting couch.
SHIRLEY: Exactly! (laughs).
In the next installment of our interview, Shirley talks about rehearsing with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and making the film versions of Oklahoma! and Carousel.