Back in the mid-‘50s, when college-bound Shirley Mae Jones of Smithton, Pa., was persuaded to attend her first professional audition, the world lost what could have been a fine animal doctor.
What it gained, though, was a major movie, television, stage, and concert star whom Bob Hope famously dubbed “The First Lady of American Song.”
“I hadn’t intended to audition,” explains Jones, referring to the New York afternoon that changed her life.
“I was on my way to college to become a veterinarian. I had been given a gift of being able to sing from the time I was born. I’d come from this little tiny town in Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, where I was the youngest member of the church choir – at age 6 – and I’d sung for all the Lions clubs and Rotary clubs all through grammar school and high school. And then, during high school, I’d gone to a place called the Pittsburgh Playhouse, where I studied drama and dance. But I had very mixed feelings. I was an only child, and I had raised all kinds of animals during my childhood, and I thought, ‘I really want to be a veterinarian.’
“I was going to college in the fall,” she adds, “to Centenary College in New Jersey, to decide what I was going to do, because I wasn’t sure. My parents said, ‘Try that college, and if you decide you want to be a vet, then we’ll go from there.’”
That summer, her folks took her on the annual family holiday to New York. One of her friends from the Pittsburgh Playhouse, a young pianist, lived in the city, and on his invitation, she dropped by one afternoon.
“He said, ‘Rodgers and Hammerstein’s casting director is having open auditions today for anybody who wants to sing for him,’” she recalls, explaining that the famed duo had three musicals running on Broadway at the time, which meant that they needed a steady flow of chorus people.
Her friend encouraged her to give it a try.
“Now, I had never been to a professional audition of any kind, but he talked me into it, and I went in, stood around with a hundred other hopefuls, got to the stage, sang for the casting director, and he said, ‘Miss Jones, what have you done?’”
I said, ‘Nothing,’”
Shirley Jones was telling the truth; she had no professional credits at all. But within an hour or so, the casting director had called in both Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein to hear her sing. And when her pianist had to leave to catch an airplane, Rodgers offered the services of the City Center Symphony, which happened to be rehearsing just across the street for a new production of Oklahoma!
“I’d never seen or heard a symphony, let alone sung with one,” she says. “But they took me across the street, handed me the score, and I stood with the score in front of my face and sang ‘People Will Say We’re in Love,’ ‘Oh, What A Beautiful Morning,’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ with the City Center Symphony. Three months later, I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific, which was in its last six months. I was barely 18 years old.”
It was a small role – only one line – but Rodgers and Hammerstein knew they had something. She quickly became, as she notes, “the one and only, first and last person to be put under personal contract” by the duo.
“After South Pacific, I went into a show called Me and Juliet, which is another R&H show, one of their lesser-known shows, and they gave me the role of Juliet. We went to Chicago with the show, and while I was there, they called and said, ‘We’d like to screen-test you for the role of Laurey in Oklahoma!’ and they sent me to California. I screen-tested. I came back. Two weeks later, Richard Rodgers called me and said, ‘Hello, Laurey.’
“Within a year, I was in Nogales, Ariz., doing the movie. It was incredible.”
It is, of course, her portrayal of the beguiling ingénue Laurey Williams in Oklahoma! that brings her to the state as the celebrity guest for Destination Claremore, running April 29 through May 7. Claremore is the hometown of playwright Lynn Riggs, whose Green Grow the Lilacs provided the basis for Oklahoma!
There’s another intriguing connection between that northeastern Oklahoma town and Jones. Like Riggs, singer and actress Patti Page came from Claremore to make a significant mark on the world’s popular culture. (The city has streets named after both of them.) Last year, Page was the special guest for Destination Claremore.
The connection? Page and Jones starred together in 1961’s Elmer Gantry, the film that won Jones an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and set her on an acting career that led to many more feature films and her fondly remembered role as the singing matriarch of TV’s The Partridge Family.
Don’t ask her for any Patti Page anecdotes from their movie, though.
“I never even got to talk to her on that film,” says Jones. “I knew she was in it, but we didn’t have one scene together.
“Actually, now that I think about it, I think we met at the very end of the film – just to say hello – and goodbye,” she adds with a chuckle.
Those who’d like to say hello, and goodbye, to one of America’s great stars have several opportunities to do so during Destination Claremore. On Monday, May 2, Jones will be inducted into the Wall of Fame at the J.M. Davis Gun Museum; the 7-9 p.m. event is free and open to the public.
Tuesday, May 3, she’ll give a 6:30 p.m. concert at the Robson Performing Arts Center (918-699-7390), with the Sounds of Music Orchestra opening. And Wednesday, May 4, she’ll appear at a 7 p.m. dinner at Will Rogers Downs Cherokee Casino (918.283.8844). Tickets to the concert are $31, $42, and $53. Dinner admission is $15.