Shirley Jones Talks Frank Sinatra, Gordon MacRae at TCM Opening Night Gala

Shirley Jones at the opening night
Tommaso Boddi/WireImage

Old Hollywood glamour was in the air on Thursday as Shirley Jones, Maureen O’Hara and Kim Novak turned out for opening night of the TCM Classic Movie Festival.

The fifth annual fest kicked off with the world premiere of the restoration of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” at the TCL Chinese Theatre.

Prior to the screening, TCM host Robert Osborne invited Jones, who made her film debut in “Oklahoma!” at age 18, onstage for a Q&A.

Jones said she had not planned to go into show business at all when was asked to participate in an open audition for the lead.

“I was in New York and I was on my way to college to become a veterinarian,” Jones explained. “I went and auditioned for the casting director, and he in turn called Mr. Rodgers in to hear me personally and he called Oscar Hammerstein to hear me personally, and that’s how it all started.”

Though she was a high school girl with very little experience, Jones’ voice made her stand out from among all the other actresses who auditioned.

“The thing about me is I was always able to sing. It was a gift,” she said. “I thought everybody could do it. I thought everybody sang. And when they heard me sing, they got very excited about the way I sang, I guess.”

Jones also shared that she had long been a fan of her “Oklahoma!” co-star Gordon MacRae and would wake up to listen to his radio show every morning.

“I love all the scenes with Gordon. Gordon MacRae was my favorite singer of all time,” she told the audience. “For me to have the opportunity to sing with him…was very, very exciting for me.”

Just one year after her breakout role in “Oklahoma!” Jones starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” alongside MacRae. Frank Sinatra was originally cast in MacRae’s lead role of Billy Bigelow, and Jones said she only recently found out why the singer left the film.

Jones said she and Sinatra had completed all the rehearsals and pre-recordings, but when he discovered that there would be two separate shooting processes, he said, “I signed to do one movie, not two,” and headed back to the airport. The producers then asked Jones to contact MacRae, who responded, “Give me three days. I have to lose 10 pounds.”

Though Jones said that Sinatra never talked about his decision to leave “Carousel,” she learned the reason why he quit at a press conference a few years ago.

“Ava Gardner was doing ‘Mogambo’ with Clark Gable in Africa and she called him and said, ‘Unless you get your fanny down here I’m having an affair with Gable,’” Jones recalled. “Apparently, that’s the reason he left the movie,” she said as the Q&A wrapped.

Following the screening, attendees were shuttled over to the after-party at the W Hollywood where guests including Alec Baldwin and Novak mingled on the rooftop of the hotel and chatted by the pool while scenes from “Oklahoma!” played on screens throughout the night.

The TCM Classic Movie Fest continues through April 13.

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  1. Edmond Mills says:

    I agree with Myles Garcia. Why is Shirley Jones telling this inaccurate story? Mogambo was indeed released two years before Carousel started filming and at this point in time, Ava Gardner’s next movie, The Barefoot Contessa, had already also been released. And it was common knowledge that it was Grace Kelly who had an affair with Clark Gable during the filming of Mogambo.

  2. Myles Garcia says:

    This seems more like Jones creating her spin against all acknowledged versions of the CAROUSEL/Sinatra casting story. If Ms. Jones’ version stated above were true, I don’t know how legally valid it would be for Sinatra to break his contract “…because his lady love called”? Whereas shooting CAROUSEL twice would’ve been requiring double the hours he thought he had initially contracted for.

    Also, the timelines don’t match at all. MOGAMBO was released in 1953; therefore shot around 1952. OKLAHOMA! filmed around mid-1954-early 1955. Then CAROUSEL also started filming in mid-1955 — so that’s even 3 years later than if Sinatra had indeed been first signed for OKLAHOMA! So how could Sinatra have used the Gardner-MOGAMBO story? Poor Shirley; her memory is also starting to fade. The above is really an apocryphal story.

    • John Heery says:

      Poor Shirley is not the only one whose memory is starting to fade,so is poor Myles Garcia….Frank Sinatra never signed for the role in Oklahoma….try Carousel!!!

      • mylesgarcia says:

        John Heery — WHERE did I say that Sinatra signed for OKLAHOMA!? If you know how to read English, I did wrote…IF Sinatra had indeed signed for OKLAHOMA? The woman who first clued me into this story put down as Sinatra signing up for OKLAHOMA! So, if wasn’t me, Mr. Heery. Duh.

    • cadavra says:

      Exactly. And how is it double work anyway? Isn’t ten takes of one version equal to five takes each of two versions?

      Aging stars’ memories often scramble timelines. I once heard Charlton Heston talk of his relationship with Franklin Schaffner and describe three of the director’s films–THE WAR LORD, PLANET OF THE APES and PATTON–in reverse order of production. And Pat Boone is given to say that JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH’s profits wiped out the losses caused by CLEOPATRA–which began shooting two years later and in any event made money.

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