The Shirley Jones success story could not have been more perfect if it were concocted by a studio press agent. Born in tiny Smithton, PA. (pop. 877), the only daughter of the Jones family, (brewers of popular “Stoney’s Beer”) the feisty and precocious Shirley Mae was an early handful, but showed signs of a particularly mellow vocal range. Her church, her teachers, and her parents were all savvy enough to see her talent and Shirley’s local music lessons opened the door to summers at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Someone suggested that 18-year-old Shirley Mae sign up for the “Miss Pittsburgh” competition. It was not Shirley’s passion, but she went along, and took the crown in 1952. Here the plot thickens some, because through all this conspicuous show business calling, Shirley Jones alerted the world around her that she had decided to be a veterinarian. And so, with all other bets off, she enrolled in New Jersey’s Centenary College and prepared for the journey east with a one-week vacation stopover in New York.
With her week, and her money, spent, Shirley received a call from a friend who told her that the Rodgers & Hammerstein show South Pacific, then on Broadway, would be having open auditions to replace two parting chorus members. And so, Shirley took that fateful bus ride downtown to the St. James Theater and the line of umpteen showbiz hopefuls where the stage had been meticulously set to deliver Smithton’s Shirley Mae Jones not to a veterinary college but to the time and place of her remarkable million-to-one public destiny. Shirley got to the front of the line and sang her song, “The Best Things in Life are Free.”
“Please wait,” the man said. Another line and another trip out front to sing followed. Finally, almost exhausted, the line whittled down to a handful, a fourth performance, Shirley heard a voice from the back of the darkened theater. “Thank you, Miss Jones, for being here so long. If you don’t mind, I’d like to call my partner, Mr. Hammerstein, and ask that he come down and hear you.” “Oh, sure,” the always gracious Shirley said, “And what is YOUR name?” His name was Richard Rodgers.
Mr. Hammerstein arrived and the Shirley Jones whirlwind began. Put under immediate “personal management” contract to the Rodgers & Hammerstein partners—the first and last time ever—it was not fully a year later that 19 year-old Shirley Mae Jones was screen testing in Hollywood along with the heavyweight likes of Kathryn Grayson, Debbie Reynolds and Jane Powell for the coveted role of Laurey in the 1955 film version of the long running Broadway play OKLAHOMA!. She got the part and many others followed, including roles in Carousel (1956), April Love (1957), The Music Man (1962), an Oscar for her role as Lulu Bains, the prostitute opposite Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry (1960), to the harried head of television’s The Partridge Family.
Her movie, television and stage roles, a record breaking Broadway run, two recent Emmy nominations, and an ongoing career of symphony concerts and speaking engagements world wide has earned Shirley Jones an incandescent place in the heart of all America that doesn’t ever seem to go away. And so, the only question left in the glorious Shirley Jones American icon story is, “Did anybody ever call Centenary College to tell them Shirley isn’t coming?”