Me and Ms. Jones

Partridge-under-glass with Shirley Jones

In honor of Mother's Day, here's lunch with the ultimate TV Mom. It's not June Cleaver, not Carol Brady, not the tortured alpha female from Malcolm in the Middle-- no, the honor has to go to the hip, bus-driving, back-up-singing, ostensibly keyboard-tickling matriarch of The Partridge Family.

Not that this is the angle I take in chatting with Shirley Jones, who played Shirley Partridge on the ABC preteen favorite from 1970 to 1974. A friend of mine has convinced me that if I can get through lunch without bringing up the series, Jones will love me. So after we order salads in Bistro 24 at the Ritz-Carlton, where Jones is staying, I ask her what she regards as the highlight of her career -- is it, by chance, the second-best-known phase, about a decade and a half before Partridge, during which she was the sweetheart of lushly produced American movie musicals?

Not really, it seems. "The musicals are one thing," says the actress, who's in the Valley on a promotional tour for American Movie Classics' new slogan ("Great Movies. And the Stories Behind Them."). "But I have to say that winning the Academy Award for Elmer Gantry has to be the number one. It really changed my whole career, gave me the longevity I've had. You know, I was the musical princess, and they stopped making musical films. So my career was over."

But as it turned out, it wasn't over, not by a long shot. She would ride the boost she got from her Gantry Oscar through the '60s, and then, just as things were perhaps starting to cool off again, along came . . . well, that certain '70s show.

I've still managed to avoid mentioning that show by the time our lunches arrive: a fine-looking Cobb salad for Jones and a fine-tasting chicken caesar salad for me. Instead, I've dropped into the conversation that I, like her, am from the state of Pennsylvania. She brightens up as she talks about Smithton, the tiny town from which she hails in the Monongahela Valley south of Pittsburgh.

"It was great," she says fondly. "Eight hundred people." Her family owned Jones Brewery, makers of Stoney's Beer.

Small-town girl though she was, Jones was exposed to the big city, as well. "It was a steel town, and filthy," she says of the old Pittsburgh. "I remember we used to go to shop in Pittsburgh, or go to the movies, or I'd take a singing lesson. And you'd be covered with black by the time you'd leave the city. But it's a beautiful city now, and very cosmopolitan, but friendly."

She also admits, with a smile, that she had to work to overcome the distinctive Three Rivers accent: "Yes, I still, every once in a while, do it. Everything goes up at the end. . . . I remember my father answering the phone: 'Hel-LO? Hel-LO?' . . . and 'Y'uns.' -- 'Y'uns goin' to the show?'"

She had to drop the accent quickly; her rise to the big time was truly meteoric. After reigning as Miss Pittsburgh and studying briefly at the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of Drama, Jones was getting ready to start college when she sang for Rodgers and Hammerstein's casting director while on vacation in New York with her parents. Within a few weeks she was in her first Broadway show, and within a year she was playing Laurie in Oklahoma!. She landed the same role in the film version of Oklahoma! -- shot not in the titular state but here in Arizona, around Nogales -- and followed this impressive debut with ingénue duties in Carousel, and with a few other, less memorable movie credits. By the end of the 1950s, with big-budget musicals on the wane, Jones was working regularly in TV, and it was there, in an Emmy-nominated role on a Playhouse 90 show called The Big Slide -- opposite Red Skelton -- that Gantry star and co-producer Burt Lancaster spotted her. He campaigned to get her the role of hooker Lulu Bains in Elmer Gantry, over the reservations of director Richard Brooks.

Working with Brooks proved difficult at first. "His reputation came before him that he was a hard nut, difficult on actors; on crew, extras, forget it. He was tough," Jones recalls. Brooks gave her no direction on her first day of shooting, though it was her most difficult scene in the film.

"I just thought that this man hated me. And I went home, and I was in tears. . . . I didn't have to work the next day. He called me at home. He said, 'Shirley, I want to apologize. I just saw the film that you shot yesterday. You're going to win an Academy Award.' From then on, he was my champion, and used me in another film he directed, Happy Ending with Jean Simmons."

While she admits that she "got letters saying 'How dare you?'" and that "the Bible Belt was upset," Jones is quick to call this departure from her sweetheart image "a godsend." Still, a couple of years after Elmer Gantry she did one more large-scale musical, playing Marion the "spinster" librarian opposite Robert Preston in the superb film version of The Music Man. Of her musicals, Jones says, "They don't make 'em like that no more, as they say. They'll be around forever. Even young kids come up to me, and call me Marion, and Laurie. It's very gratifying, 'cause it's a three-generation audience for my concerts now."

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