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article imageMovie star Shirley Jones visits San Francisco for Elmer Gantry Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Apr 22, 2011 in Entertainment
It was a standing ovation of applause and much affection given by a packed house at The Castro Theater in San Francisco to movie-musical legend Shirley Jones on April 20.
Jones was the honored guest to speak at the special event screening of "Elmer Gantry."
The special event screening that Wednesday evening was part of Turner Classic Movies "Road to Hollywood" Classic Film Festival tour to 10 major cities across the nation. TCM cable channel host Ben Mankiewicz was also on the Castro Theater stage asking Jones questions in a "talk-show" type of format before the film started.
This reporter was late and so missed some of Jone's conversation with Mankiewicz that began at 7:30 PM. A limousine was parked outside with a driver chatting on his cell phone. That was the only indication that an event was taking place. All the doors to the theater were closed and there were no banners, or red carpet or fans milling about.
Yet, inside the Castro's little neighborhood movie palace all the seats were taken. It was standing room only. Everyone there listened intently-hanging-on-to-every-word as Mankiewicz and Jones chatted. The conversation was relaxed like that of old friends sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee.
Jones was stylishly dressed, elegant very much the legendary star. San Francisco does not get the chance too often to visit with stars of that caliber. At age 77, her blonde hair is now white as it has been more than 50 years since "Elmer Gantry" premiered in theaters in 1960. Jones earned an Academy Award for her performance of Lulu Baines the one who helps in the demise of the main character of Gantry.
Jones mentioned to Mankiewicz that at the time, she was not the first choice for the part by "Elmer Gantry" director Richard Brooks. "He did not give me any direction for that scene," said Jones. She had told Mankiewicz that night pretty much what she had said to Walter Addiego of the San Francisco Chronicle for an article that appeared in the Datebook section of the Sunday SF Chronicle on April 17.
The film was based upon the novel by Sinclair Lewis, first published in 1926. Like the book the movie caused a stir. Jones was cast against type. Until her role as Lulu, Jones was known for her wholesome performances in movie-musicals such as "Oklahoma," "Carousel" and "The Music Man."
Jones who made her film debut in 1955 in the film version of "Oklahoma!" was new to show business appearing first on Broadway. She was placed under special contract by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
She had to really prove to director Richard Brooks that she could play the part. It was leading man Burt Lancaster that wanted Jones for the part after seeing her in a dramatic role as a guest star in an episode for Playhouse 90 on television. "Television in those days, said Jones, was a step down from movies, but that's not so today."
Yet her performance on that TV show really made an impression upon Lancaster.
Jones explained, "I get this phone call, and Burt's voice says, 'Hello, is this Shirley Jones?' He said." "This is Burt Lancaster." And I said, "Sure it is," and I hung up," said Jones.
The audience laughed as Jones recounted this among several recollections. "Thankfully, he called back," she said. Richard Brooks was won over and later apologized to Jones for not believing in her. Jones went on to make 28 more movies after "Elmer Gantry."
To the Baby-boomer generation Jones is known as the widow-mother of five in the 1970's TV show "The Partridge Family." And in the 1990's, Jones appeared frequently in a recurring role on the situation comedy The Drew Carey Show.
Yet for this special event screening of "Elmer Gantry" Jones talked mostly about her movie career. Interestingly, for the movie version of "Carousel" the production, it seemed, like that of "Elmer Gantry" relied on an important phone call. This time it was Jones making the call rather than receiving it.
Jones told Mankiewicz and the audience that night as she has done in interviews before, that all had been set for singer Frank Sinatra to play the role of Billy in the movie. Yet Sinatra pulled out of the movie allegedly over a not wanting to do the movie at various scenes in two formats as a new film making process was being introduced called "Todd-AO."
"Sinatra said, why should I get paid for only one movie, when I am actually making two," said Jones. She mentioned that years later she would approach Sinatra to ask what was the real reason for leaving the film.
"We had done all the preliminary work both on location in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and in the studio with, the songs, soundtrack, etc. which took some time, said Jones." "Everyone on the set knew we were making this movie in the new process," Jones said.
"Yet, all Sinatra would say to me years later is, 'I don't want to talk about it' and that was it," said Jones. (The real reason some say was because Sinatra wanted to be with actress Ava Gardiner, of whom Sinatra was infatuated by).
So, at the time when Sinatra departed from the set of "Carousel" Jones was approached by the producers to make a phone call to Gordon MacRae, her co-star from "Oklahoma" to ask him to step into the role of Billy Bigelow for the film.
Jones noted that the producers of "Carousel" had tears in their eyes when Sinatra left the film. That is how much Sinatra had been sought after to be in "Carousel". Yet despite all attempts to retain Sinatra he would not stay. "There I was at a pay phone in Boothbay Harbor, Maine calling long-distance to Gordon MacRae who was in Lake Tahoe at the time." she said.
Despite the disappointment, MacRae and Jones together in the film was a success. And, perhaps (at least for this reporter and many other movie-goers,) it is hard to imagine anyone else in that role other than MacRae. The on-screen dynamics between Jones as Julie Jordan and MacRae as Billy Bigelow is magnetic and enduring.
Jones also recalled that for her debut film role as Laurey in "Oklahoma" co-star Gloria Graham was a bit reserved towards Jones. Yet Jones with the encouragement of Charlotte Greenwood who played Aunt Eller, persevered. And soon, Jones found herself well-established as a singing star in musicals.
Yet despite her Academy Award-winning performance in "Elmer Gantry" Jones had difficulties getting movie roles because as the 1950's ended and the 1960's unfolded, movie-making and the studio system changed.
The Golden Age of Hollywood faded away in the tumult of the 1960's as more realism took hold of audiences.This and the dismantling of the old studio system as a result set aside grand musicals and light-hearted feature films like "April Love."
In that movie Jones co-stared with singer Pat Boone and in other movies like "The Courtship of Eddie's Father", co-staring another notable leading man, Glenn Ford, Jones did well. But movie roles were not forthcoming.
Fortunately, for Jones like many actors of the post WWII generation, TV was an outlet. Even if at the time considered less gratuitous, television kept many actors working, by which some achieved even greater fame.
On television, Jones and many others at the time were able to work in made-for-TV movies and appear in guest spots on many dramas, comedies and variety shows.
After "The Partridge Family" ended in 1974 Jones continued to appear in many television movies and dozens of shows.
Still very much the alluring and talented personality and of course glamorous, Jones continues to shine. She embraced the audience on that Wednesday evening with her candid recollections, charm and warmth. Mankiewicz had many more questions to ask and like the rest of the audience (this reporter included) did not want to leave but to keep the conversation going.
Jones left the stage to a standing ovation. "She slipped off stage to the Green Room," said Castro Theater staff member Tony Talbert. Later, after Jones had been escorted to the limousine outside, he explained to this reporter, "from the Green Room there is access to the lobby without having to go through the theater aisle," said Talbert.
As Mankiewicz stepped off the stage walking down the theater aisle he mentioned that Jones had to leave because one of her grandchildren was ill and needed her.
Despite her hurry, Jones was gracious to stop even if only for a few moments to pose for a few photos and sign autographs. This reporter wanted to ask a few questions like, "if you had to live your life all over again, knowing what you know now, would you still venture from your hometown in Pennsylvania and pursue this career with all its ups and downs?"
Jones' magical career has not been without tragedy. Her first husband, Jack Cassidy whom she has said she was very much in love with, died in a fire at his apartment in 1976. Jones appreciated the applause from the audience when she mentioned his name. He was a very talented actor, singer, who swept Jones off-her-feet in a whirlwind romance. Their 18-year marriage produced three sons. One of whom became singer, actor and now producer Shaun Cassidy.
Her second husband, actor- comedian Marty Ingels was very smitten with Jones and their marriage in 1977 continues to be ups and downs. Ingels has had his share of troubles and misfortunes that have often put a strain on their relationship. Ingels wrote about their marriage in a book published in 1990.
This reporter also wanted to ask Jones if she missed being on television and is she eager to get back into the spot light with a movie or weekly show.
But those questions were not able to be asked, as this reporter struggled to take notes while snapping photos. Not easy to do both at the same time. Jones was just about within arms-length reach, perfect spot for a photo and a reporter's question when she was quickly escorted to the limousine.
The audience remained to watch "Elmer Gantry" and when Jones as Lulu Baines appeared on screen the audience cheered with lots of applause. It is clear to this reporter why Jones made such an impression in that film.
Her performance was radiant, conveying subtle nuance as she portrayed Lulu with complexity. Obviously Lulu sought revenge for Gantry seducing her. Yet Lulu expressed an unusual tenderness that was still very much in love with the con-man preacher Gantry. "Elmer Gantry" still holds up and is worth seeing.
Turner Classic Movies will continue its 10-city Classic Film Festival tour until May 1.
More about Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry, Castro Theater, Turner Classic Movies, San Francisco
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