Shirley Jones in the Lawrence Hall Ballroom at the Dec. 4 announcement of plans for the new Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Smithton, Pa. native Shirley Jones is an Academy Award-winning actress and celebrated Broadway performer who also gained lasting fame as America’s coolest mom in the TV series The Partridge Family. Her entertainment career began in 1952, when she won a two-year scholarship at the esteemed Playhouse Theatre School, allowing her to take acting, dancing and singing classes during the day, and audition for Playhouse productions that ran in the evening. “The Pittsburgh Playhouse is the reason I am in show business,” Jones said. “It was truly a wonderful place.” In the summer of 1953, at the age of 19, Jones borrowed $160 from her father and set off to New York City. She managed to get herself in line at a Rodgers & Hammerstein audition. She left with the only personal contract ever awarded by the legendary Broadway geniuses. Jones won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in the 1960 film Elmer Gantry, starring Burt Lancaster and directed by Richard Brooks. Over the course of her award-winning career, she has appeared in more than 40 films and 16 main stage shows. These include many of Broadway’s iconic hits, such as Carousel, Show Boat, South Pacific, Oklahoma!,The Music Man, and The King and I. Jones received an honorary degree from Point Park in 1991. The Point talked with in December 2014 when she returned to campus to participate in the unveiling of the plans for the new Pittsburgh Playhouse:
What role did the Pittsburgh Playhouse play in your own life and career?
SJ: The Pittsburgh Playhouse is a wonderful place! It’s responsible for everything that has happened to me in my career. I was a little girl from a small town. My dream in life was to become a veterinarian. When I was in high school, I originally thought I would go to college for that. But I had been given a voice, of course, and I began taking summer voice lessons at the Playhouse. And I just loved it. I met so many wonderful people there. Everything I know about dance, I learned at the Playhouse. Everything I know about acting, I learned at the Playhouse. So it played a very important educational role in my life.
What were some of your most memorable Playhouse experiences?
SJ: I had the opportunity to play so many wonderful parts. For example, for Playhouse Jr., I played Cinderella and Snow White. I just loved playing fairy tale characters and other characters. It was a great experience and I felt very gratified to be able to do that. We also worked hard behind the scenes, everything from operating the curtains to painting the sets. So it wasn’t just a matter of being an actor. We learned all aspects of the business and that’s one of the things I loved about it. Everyone was a part of making a show come together.
What was it like to return to the Playhouse in 2013 for Point Park’s Conservatory Theatre Company production of Oklahoma!?
SJ: Well, the opportunity to star in the movie version of Oklahoma! was a very important milestone in my career, of course. And it happened that I met my husband Jack Cassidy on a European tour of Oklahoma! He played the role of Curly. But it was wonderful to stand on the Playhouse stage again, with my son Patrick Cassidy (who directed the Point Park production of Oklahoma!). Patrick and I recently toured together doing a concert version of The Music Man, in which I tell stories and show photographs from the movie. The show has been very successful and we’ll be touring together again next summer.
What are your thoughts on the current generation of young artists who are performing on the Playhouse stage while studying at Point Park?
SJ: I’ve been very impressed with this up-and-coming generation of artists. I look forward to meeting many of them during this visit to Pittsburgh (Note: Shirley Jones spoke to Conservatory students on Dec. 3 when she returned to campus to take part in the announcement of the $74 million campaign for the new Pittsburgh Playhouse.) I have great respect for the Playhouse, and I think it’s a great teaching ground for young people.
Why did you decide to serve as honorary chair of the campaign for the new Pittsburgh Playhouse?
SJ: It’s very important that we rebuild the Playhouse, since it’s practically falling down. And that’s why I am here. I really want to see that happen. I want to see other young people have the same opportunities that I had. I believe so completely in what the Playhouse did for me, that I want to do what I can to provide that to young artists today through this campaign. I will always be here for the Playhouse, no matter what. That’s how strongly I feel about the need to build the new Playhouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.
You’re an alumna of the Playhouse and received an honorary degree from Point Park in 1991. Do you have any messages to share with other alumni and friends of the University?
SJ: Well, I just hope that everyone, from those who benefited from the Playhouse during the time I was involved, to those who were involved in the years that followed, will want to help this campaign as much as they can. And that extends to everyone who has ever enjoyed a Playhouse production, whether in childhood or as an adult. The Playhouse is for everyone! I encourage everyone to lend a hand and understand how important the Playhouse is to the City of Pittsburgh, and how marvelous the new building will be.
Interview by Cheryl Valyo
Photo by Chris Rolinson
The Point is a magazine for alumni and friends of Point Park University