Interview: Shirley Jones – still going strong, but now without Marty Ingels

Shirley Jones

Today we learned of the passing of Mary Ingels, who contributed endless happiness and joy to his partner, Shirley Jones for some 40 years. He died Wednesday at Tarzana Medical Center following a massive stroke. He was 79.

Ingels made his mark as a comic actor in the 1960s with his zany style and rapid-fire, raspy-voiced delivery. In later years he worked as an agent and as a voice artist in cartoons, in addition to producing.

“He often drove me crazy, but there’s not a day I won’t miss him and love him to my core,” Jones said.

Shirley Jones and I had a wonderful chat five years ago before an appearance in the Berkshires.

THE PRESS AND POSING FOR PLAYBOY

Shirley and husband Mary Ingels, always the joker.

Not too long ago, the gossip columns tsk tsk’d that Shirley Jones had plans to pose nude for a Playboy photo spread. Explanations have been that her husband, Marty Ingels, made the announcement mainly to make the point that the actress is still one immensely attractive woman at 75 and a sight to behold.

Not being a celebrity reporter, I eased into the subject rather obliquely. Having seen an ad that showed Ingels inside a cage with Jones and her dog keeping watch outside, I asked if that was her way of putting Marty on notice not to spread rumors. She laughed. “Yes, exactly. We tried that but it doesn’t always work, but we keep trying.”

Repeating the old saw that there is “no such thing as bad publicity,” she confirmed that this “is exactly the way he feels, you know. And of course I am not going to pose nude in Playboy. But the truth is that Playboy is considering doing like a one page photo spread. Yes, they will take pictures, though not nude, but flattering ones. The idea is to say that at 75 a woman can still be in Playboy and be beautiful. And all of that was Marty’s idea.”

Shirley Jones with her beloved Golden Retreiver, and Marty in the dog house for starting the Playboy rumor.

Of course what the press did with this was something else again. Jones and Ingels have had their run-ins with the tabloid press. They took on The National Enquirer over the 1979 story “Husband’s bizarre behavior drives Shirley Jones to drink”. It took eight years for the case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. In the end, Jones and Ingels received the apology they were looking for, plus an undisclosed payment from the tabloid. Justice Rehnquist wrote the unanimous opinion (Calder v. Jones).

Nobody is more closely identified with the musicals Oklahoma and Carousel than Shirley Jones. It is she who created the role of Julie Jordan on screen half a century ago. “Carousel is both my favorite show and favorite music.” Jones likes to use the medium of song to share her remarkable life, and her place in the history of theatre, motion pictures, and television. In concert appearances she often sings “If I Loved You” taking us all on a trip back in time. Jones is a legend, and in all three branches of show business.

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Oklahoma

Currently her concert appearances are her top activity. She will appear in her Holiday Spectacular on the west coast with son and Broadway star Patrick Cassidy. Jones explained that “I travel with two people, my music director Ron Abel and and my friend and technical genius, Trish Mahoney.” Abel is a multi-award winning composer, producer, arranger, orchestrator, conductor and musical director who has worked with such luminaries as Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters, Rita Morena, Tyne Daley, Bea Arthur, Carol Burnett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kim Basinger and Jerry Herman.

“He plays the piano like a symphony orchestra, and is just an incredible artist in his own right. He has written many of my arrangements. Doing lights and sound is very important, too, and my good friend Trish Mahoney is in charge of that.

“The show is part cabaret, part everything else. I’ve done it with symphony orchestras, and on a bare stage with just the piano. The music is the thing, and along with it will be some eight minutes of film clips which are beautiful, if I say so myself. There are snippets from many of my movies, plus so much more. I have sung for six Presidents. We’ve included historic moments from Broadway and Hollywood, everything I’ve done. ” Clearly audiences who may know her best from just films, or TV will enjoy this peek into the many other parts of her amazing life and career.

“I open the show with “If I Loved You” from Carousel, and then do songs from all the movies – Music Man, Oklahoma – and then a series of love songs, plus Steven Sondheim and Broadway classics, like my first show, South Pacific. There is also a medley of songs which have won Academy Awards, like “You Must Remember This” so the music covers quite a substantial period.”

THE EARLY DAYS: FRANK SINATRA QUITS CAROUSEL

There are clips of many of her early films in this extraordinary ten minute “tribute” put together by Penny Luedtke.

Shirley started her career on Broadway when she was barely 17 years old in South Pacific. At an audition Richard Rogers fell in love with her voice. She played one of the nurses. She was soon plucked out at 18 to star in 20th Century Fox’s major motion picture of Oklahoma. She then went on to also star in the films Carousel and The Music Man. Our conversation immediately turned to Carousel.

She pointed out that she had the worst crush on Gordon MacRae when she was a teenager growing up. “He had a radio show called the Teen Timers Club and every Saturday morning at 11 o’clock I would turn on the radio to listen to Gordon sing.” Radio was the all-powerful medium in those days. “I wasn’t sure if I had a crush on the man, but I sure had one on his voice. His instrument was remarkable. It was the most beautiful voice I had ever heard in my life, and by the way, I still feel that way. There’s never been a singer before or since like him.”

The story of how she finally met and worked with MacRae, became lifelong friends is fascinating. “Gordon and his wife Sheila are the Godparents of my son Shaun, you know. So we’ve stayed friends forever, and Sheila, even though she is not well these days, we stay in contact with each other.

Frank Sinatra walked off the set of Carousel the first day of shooting.

“Gordon was my idol and having an opportunity to work with him was incredible. But you know, Frank Sinatra was supposed to be the leading man in Carousel, ” she explained. “We had done all the pre-recording of the music – and who knows where those are – plus the rehearsals, the costume fittings, and was aware that we were shooting in two different processes, and assumed everyone else did.

“So we all got to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where the singers and dancers had been rehearsing forever. Frank and I were to shoot our first dramatic scene that day. Frank showed up, got out of the car, and asked: ‘Why the two cameras?’.”

Henry King the director explained that they might be shooting a couple of the scenes twice for the two separate processes, regular Cinemascope and Cinemascope 65. “So Frank said, ‘I signed to do one movie, not two.” He got back into the car and went back to the airport. I lost my leading man on the first day of shooting.”

What a mess. “Total disaster. Stuck in Boothbay Harbor, ready to shoot, with no leading man, no Billy Bigelow. So the producer Henry Ephron came over to me with tears in his eyes, asking: Shirley, where is Gordon MacRae?

“Well I think he is in Lake Tahoe doing a nightclub act with his wife,” she answered.

“Can you get him on the phone?” asked Ephron.

“So the director gave me a quarter and pointed towards the one pay phone on the dock. These were the days before cell phones, of course. I managed somehow to reach Gordon.

“Gordon, it’s Shirley, how would you like to play Billy Bigelow in Carousel,” she asked.

“Give me three days, I have to lose ten pounds,” he replied.

“And that is how he got the job. He did a great job on the part, too. But I think Frank would also have been terrific in that role, but as far as I am concerned, he never would have sounded as good as Gordon.”

It is interesting to speculate what the two voices would have sounded like together, sometimes magic happens when they blend, sometimes not. Most everyone agrees that Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones were splendid together.

HER OSCAR FOR ELMER GANTRY

By the late 50’s, Hollywood musicals had faded in popularity and talent like Shirley Jones were thought of as singers first, actors second. Today you see Harry Connick, Jr, and Queen Latifah being cast in acting roles, but back then, singers were never offered straight acting parts. So she reinvented herself and took the role of prostitute Lulu Baines in Elmer Gantry, for which she ultimately won an Oscar as best supporting actress. In a strange twist of fate, Elizabeth Taylor also won her Oscar that year as best actress playing a prostitute of sorts in BUtterfield 8.

Shirley Jones wins an Oscar in 1960.

After receiving the Academy Award there were many reports in the fan magazines about how it affected her life. Taking these accounts and condensing them into one rather long list, I asked her to verify that – following the Oscar – if it was true that her salary doubled, her friends tripled, her children became more popular at school, her butcher made a pass at her, and the maid hit her up for a raise. There was a pause and then she answered simply “more or less” and laughed heartily.

“You know, many in the business say winning the Academy Award was a downer for them. It didn’t enhance their careers. On the contrary, the expectations became so strong they weren’t able to live up to them. But that didn’t happen with me.

“Instead, when I picked up the award, I was eight months pregnant with my middle son Patrick, and I was in the middle of doing The Music Man. So, I had a lot of offers to go into other roles right after that, some like Lulu Baines, but I couldn’t accept them because I was too busy having a baby.

“But, yes, the Oscar did enhance my career, because my career had been over, they weren’t making musicals anymore. And even though you were singing, you were acting out a role at the same time. These are characters, people living out their lives. ” Producers certainly didn’t seem to see that at the time, though things are different today. Hollywood has also taken another look at musicals again with a glitzy, Oscar winning Chicago and Sweeney Todd.

Oddly enough, it seems that the Oscar actually opened the door for Shirley Jones’ entrance into the television world.

MOM AND THE BOYS

At first the roles were on the famous dramatic series, Playhouse 90 and Lux Video Theatre. “They were wonderful acting roles for me that I wasn’t getting in films,” she recounted, “and back then television was a no-no for film stars.” Indeed it was considered the kiss of death for a film star, partly out of a desire to keep the two worlds separate, partly because much of television was considered lightweight.

Shirley with grown up son Shaun (l) and stepson David (r).

When you mention the name Shirley Jones to people, most remember her as the “good” Shirley, the Partridge Family mom with the perky personality who drove a bus while always solving the problems for the children. Desperate kids whose mom’s were not nearly as selfless would find out where she lived and camp out on her front lawn hoping she would work her magic on them, too. And more than one mom would track her down to ask her how to solve a family problem. That’s a pretty big burden to bear.

Shirley Jones is the mother of three sons, Shaun, Patrick and Ryan and the stepmother of David. They are all involved in show business too. She has appeared on Broadway with son Patrick in 42nd Street. She met her first husband Jack Cassidy through a show they were doing. Brothers David and Shaun Cassidy teamed up in Blood Brothers which I saw in London, Patrick Cassidy has appeared in Assassins and 42nd St. and Ryan Cassidy works more behind the scenes than on camera. The sheer number of shows this family has been involved in is simply too overwhelming to give more than a sample. But they are so numerous, hey make the Osmond and Jackson families look like part-timers.

When we spoke the latest project the boys were doing was Ruby and the Rockits. “My son Shaun wrote the pilot which ABC Family bought. I go every Friday to watch the taping and the series premieres July 21. They’re talking to me about coming on as grandma, and this has involved the whole family. Of course, my stepson David, and son Patrick who is just wonderful on the show, and my youngest son Ryan is the set decorator on it as well. My daughter-in-law is the choreographer. I am so proud of all of them.

When David Cassidy declared his independence, and Rolling Stone ran his nude photos, the innocent days of the Partridge Family soon came to a close. That and being scheduled against the new All in the Family.

“The show is hysterical because of the premise,” she explained “it is about two guys who were rock stars in the 80’s and it’s now twenty years later, one now has a car agency and the other is still in show business. Of course, David is the one still in show business, and he has an illegitimate daughter Ruby who shows up and she likes to sing. The two siblings are still fighting all the time, because David wants Patrick back in the business but he is married with two sons. Anyway, it’s a very cute show, very funny, very original.” The show has since been ended.

Asking for an update on family statistics, Shirley Jones happily noted that there are now ten grandchildren, and her youngest son, Ryan just got married, for the first time, at age 43. “For someone who raised as an only child,” she noted, “this is a really big family.”

Are the grandchildren following in the show biz footsteps? “Yes, Juliet appeared in school in The Music Man and sang my ballad, “Goodnight My Someone.” She was just nine years old when she did it, and she was adorable.” Any other surprises? “You know Patrick went on the road with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and his two sons and his wife were all in he show.” In show business where families are often pulled apart by conflicting engagements, that surely is one way to keep families together. “He sold his house out here, and his car, and they toured for a whole year. He also asked me to look after his dog, and after he got back, he moved into a condo that wouldn’t allow pets, so I finally said, Patrick, you’re not getting this dog back. And the little mutt bonded with my Golden Retriever. That’s why I have two dogs. Separating them would have been unthinkable.”

ANIMALS, VEGETABLES, VETERINARIANS

“Animals are the love of my life, not only the dogs, but a cat too.” She acknowledged that, like me, she once had aspirations to be a veterinarian. Her golden retriever is a rescued dog, found down the street from her house five years ago and never reclaimed by anyone.

“I’m a big outdoor person, and I love going up to my house in the mountains. At first it was to ski. We have 13 acres and now I take my dogs and we walk. I love it up there.

“Marty says my dream in life is to sit on the deck with a Martini in one hand and a box of candy in the other, talking to a coyote. And that’s the truth.”

Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae in Carousel.

This certainly appeals to her a lot more than learning about computers, “I can work them ok, but I can’t bring myself to even think about sitting in front of one all day,” she noted. There’s another bit of unfinished learning, too. Bob Hope called her “The first lady of American song,” but I had heard that like many singers, she hadn’t gotten around to reading sheet music.

“No, I still can’t. Of course, I can see notes, and I know scales and stuff like that, but my ear is good enough that I can learn a song in a minute.” Clearly it didn’t stop Rodgers and Hammerstein from thinking of her when they wrote music.

People who are passionate about rescuing animals often show their concern in other ways, too, like becoming vegans. “Oh, I am far from a perfect vegetarian. Every once in a while I will have a steak or some chicken, I am not as strong as PETA is, for example. But make no mistake, I care a great deal about animals. I fight for the way they are raised, for all the rescue places.” There was real passion in her voice. She has been described as politically outspoken, and this was clearly one of the areas she holds near and dear. Got it.

ON LIFE, DEATH AND BEING HAPPY

In the Springtime of her life, Shirley starred with Pat Boone in the musical film, April Love.

Changing subjects, we asked what she thought about growing older. She admitted that she didn’t like thinking about it. “My seventy fifth was real hard, just looking at the numbers, you know. But thank the lord I’m so healthy, and I hope to remain that way, don’t we all?” Some speculate that it is because she follows her own advice – she did some health related commercials a few years back. “I go to Curves, you know, the woman’s gym, five days a week. I try to eat as healthy as I can, and keep my mind active. Stress is our common enemy, and a disaster to health, so I try to avoid that as much as I can.”

HUSBANDS VS. KIDS

Isn’t humor one of the best antidotes to stress? “You want to know something? That’s one of the reasons I have stayed married to the man I married 31 years ago.” That would be Marty Ingels – her first husband Jack Cassidy passed away in 1976, and while they divorced at the end, they remained friends, partly for the children’s sake.

“My kids – who don’t like him (Ingels) at all – and don’t understand him or their own father (Cassidy) – have asked me ‘why do you marry the kinds of men you’ve married?’ Of course, I point out that they wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t married the first one, Jack Cassidy. Marty is a comedian, but Jack was a comic too – and all of his friends were comedians. Obviously that is what attracted me, and still does. I figure as long as I laugh more than I cry, we’ll keep together, that’s the essence of it.”

Having heard that she likes to read, especially mysteries, I asked what was on her night table. “I just finished a book that I loved a lot called The Shack.” Written by William P. Young, it is very popular, but not without controversy. Jones reveals one reason. “It’s about God, and a man who is in an accident, and then his daughter is kidnapped and murdered. It’s set in a shack in the mountains, and explores the devastation the man and his wife feel. He receives a note that tells him to come to this shack to learn what happened. He arrives there, and inside is God. And God is a very big African American woman. So it is very interesting.”

We talked about current pop music and whether it has lost its way. “Maybe it’s me, but I just can’t listen to it,” she sighed. She did see a ray of hope in the form called emo, as in emotion. “There the lyrics are full of meaning and you can understand them.” It appears that she may not care for some of it, but she does manage to keep up with music’s twists and turns after all.

WHAT’S NEW

Shirley sees no need to reinvent herself yet again to conform to the times, “I don’t even have an email address, and besides, the fans still write. I wade through piles of mail constantly. And they send me not only pictures but all sorts of things to autograph.” It’s become a big business, especially considering all the items offered on eBay. There are a number of minor actors who make money going to formal autograph signings, often collecting $20 a pop. But she just signs the stuff and sends it back.

Shirley Jones still sparkles.

But this chore doesn’t prevent her from continuing to work as an artist, being edgy and trying challenging new roles. She has filmed an episode of Benjamin Bratt’s A&E series, “The Cleaner” in which she played a faded, boozing chanteuse. She has picked up music by Stepen Sondheim and she isn’t afraid to try something new.

About six months ago, she did six episodes on Days of Our Lives, the soap opera. “Let me tell you, it was the hardest job I have ever done. I mean six different shows in six days. I played a 90 year old Irish lady with a thick brogue, dying of cancer.”

So they shoved a new script in front of you every day?

“Exactly, And what I did was hire a marvelous young acting teacher and have him come to my house at seven every morning to work on it. The call was for nine. And we would chew on the words for the day.”

Having tried to memorize scripts I sympathized at the difficulty of stuffing new piles of words into the brain every day. Especially as one gets older and memory is not as crisp. “Pages and pages,” she laughed. “It was a hard job, and I enjoyed doing it, but I couldn’t have done it without him.”

Life is more than being about who is most handsome, and she noted that “I like people who are a little off the edge, because it keeps me on my toes.”

But isn’t there something comforting about being a plain Jane that is appealing, too, like not being noticed, not being bothered much. “I do wish that at times, especially now. For some reason, people recognize me more now than 20 years ago. Maybe it’s because the grownups today used to be the kids that watched the Partridge Family, and they still recognize me all the time.

“And while sometimes I wish I could just be anonymous, there is something very wonderful about strangers coming up to me and telling me that I changed their life. Sometimes they see something in my career, or spirit, of roles that have touched them. When they tell me their stories, sometimes I wind up in tears, because it’s something real that connects their experience to me. Despite my own ups and downs, I feel very fortunate.”

Variety is reporting that Jones is working on a special for PBS, “Shirley, at 75, With Her Friends,” and a concert tour with Florence Henderson that kicks off in Indianapolis in August.

This show business legend is not yet ready to rest on her laurels.

(This interview has been edited and updated. It first appeared in Berkshire Fine Arts in 2009.)

2 thoughts on “Interview: Shirley Jones – still going strong, but now without Marty Ingels

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