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

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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