Celebrating Seniors – Jane Powell is 87
Dancer, actress and soprano singer Jane Powell was borne Suzanne Burce on April 1, 1929 in Portland, Oregon. Powell has said she began dance lessons at age two and was soon tap-dancing on local Portland radio stations. She began taking singing lessons at age 10 and her amazing two-and-a-half octave range helped her get selected as the Oregon Victory Girl during World War II. At age 12, while still in grade school, Jane Powell was singing in two weekly radio shows and touring Oregon to sell Victory Bonds during World War II.
Below, Jane Powell in her heyday, and with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) co-star Howard Keel.
(Photo sources: Pinterest | Photo montage: Senior City)
During a 1943 family summer vacation in Hollywood, Suzanne Burce won a talent competition/radio show hosted by Janet Gaynor, Hollywood Showcase: Stars Over Hollywood. The next day she had two auditions with producers – one with David O. Selznick and another with MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who promptly signed her to a 7-year contract with MGM at age 14. Although reluctant, Powell has said she felt she owed her parents for the hardships endured while they paid for her singing and dancing lessons. She played the character of Jane Powell in her first movie, Song of the Open Road (1944), and took that as her professional name.
From 1944-1958, Jane Powell starred in 19 movies for MGM movie studios, and the other studios they loaned her out to. As a teenager, she attended the famous MGM backstage “Little Red Schoolhouse”, along with other child stars such as Margaret O’Brien, Elizabeth Taylor, Dean Stockwell; long-time friend Roddy McDowall, and frequent co-star Debbie Reynolds also attended this school.
Right, Jane Powell as she appeared in A Date With Judy (1948) (Photo: MGM | Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
Below, Elizabeth Taylor’s high school graduation photo on the set of the MGM movie Father of the Bride (1950) shows the camaraderie on the MGM lot with the young stars. The “little red schoolhouse” as it was called, was the place where lifelong friendships were formed, and special occasions celebrated with friends.
From left: Claude Jarman Jr., Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell, Tom Irish, Jane Powell, Elizabeth Taylor. (Photo: listal.com)
In a 2011 interview with the Chicago Tribune, octogenarian senior citizen Jane Powell reflected back on that time in her life:
“Roddy McDowall…was like a brother to me, the same way he was with Elizabeth…We’d meet at his house most every Sunday, and we’d dance, and we’d swim, and play badminton, and Roddy’s mother would make a big dinner. And that was the only socializing we did, really. We were terribly isolated…It was a lonely life.”
Jane Powell and Roddie McDowall appeared in the movie Holiday in Mexico (1946) together. Two years later, Powell starred as Judy in A Date With Judy (1948) alongside her schoolmate and friend Elizabeth Taylor, who played Judy’s boyfriend’s sister.
Friendship and fun is evident on the left, with pals Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor in front, followed by Jane Powell and Scotty Beckett (a co-star of Jane’s in A Date With Judy, and an alumni of the Our Gang and Little Rascals movies and television series). (Photo: Pinterest)
In a 2000 interview with Rex Reed for Observer, Jane Powell reflected that, “I made a great deal of money but I never got to spend it. My mother took everything. I don’t know what she did with it. Probably hid it under the mattress. After that, my first husband took half of everything I made. Everyone wanted to keep me young. I didn’t even know anything about sex until I was 21.”
Right, Jane Powell’s 1949 wedding to Geary Steffen, with friend Elizabeth Taylor as bridesmaid. Both girls look radiantly happy in this photo. (Photo: Pinterest)
The following year, Jane Powell was one of Elizabeth Taylor’s bridesmaids when she married Conrad Hilton, Jr. in 1950. That same year, Jane Powell starred in the first of three movies with actress Debbie Reynolds, who played her sister in Two Weeks With Love (1950); both Powell and Reynolds share an April 1st birthday. Co-incidentally, Powell also appeared in three movies with actor Vic Damone during her MGM career.
The classic musical-comedy Royal Wedding (1951) had Jane Powell co-starring with Fred Astaire as his on-screen sister. Royal Wedding was set at the time of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh’s wedding in 1947 London, and was popular with audiences at the time.
Jane and Gearhardt’s first child, son Gearhardt Anthony (G.A. “Jay”) Steffen III was born in July 1951; followed quickly by their second child, daughter Suzanne (Sissy) Steffen, born in November 1952.
Left, a 1950 (ish) publicity photo of Jane Powell. (Photo: MGM eBay | Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)
According to author Tony Benvenuto of Classic Images, after Sissy’s birth, MGM loaned Jane Powell to Warner Brothers to film the movie Three Sailors and a Girl (1953). Below, Gene Nelson & Jane Powell in Three Sailors and a Girl.
During filming of Three Sailors and a Girl, Powell fell in love with married actor and father of one, Gene Nelson; their love affair brought an end to both their marriages, with both Jane and Gene’s wife Miriam filing for divorce in August 1953. Jane and Gene had planned to marry when their divorces were finalized, but by late 1953 Nelson backed away from their romance, leaving Powell furious with herself at the damage that she had wrought on her personal and professional life.
The following year, Jane Powell co-starred with Debbie Reynolds in their second movie together – Athena (1954) – once again Reynolds and Powell played sisters.
Powell’s next picture release was the classic musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Jane Powell played Milly opposite Howard Keel as oldest brother Adam; another former MGM Little Red Schoolhouse actor, Russ Tamblyn (far left), played youngest brother Gideon in the film. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers won the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Jane Powell married a friend – divorced father of one (Mona Freeman) and automobile executive – Patrick Nerney, in November 1954. Many years later, in her autobiography The Girl Next Door And How She Grew (1988), Powell related her inability to be alone as something she overcame later in life.
Hit The Deck (1955) featured Jane Powell (playing Susan Smith) and Debbie Reynolds (dancer Carol Pace) in their third film together. It also reunited Powell with actor Russ Tamblyn on screen, as he played Susan’s younger brother Danny Xavier Smith.
Jane Powell and Patrick Nerney’s daughter Lindsey Nerney was born in February 1956. Jane’s single True Love (1956) made it to #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 music charts.
As her contract time with MGM came to a close, Jane completed three movies that were released in 1958; in one of her last movies, she co-starred with Cliff Robertson in The Girl Most Likely (1958). After 1958, Jane Powell’s big-screen film career was effectively ended. She appeared guest-starred in television specials and variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show which continued throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. Powell also appeared in touring productions of stage plays and musicals, including 3 productions of The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1963, 1966, and 1981), but the film role went to her previous frequent movie co-star, Debbie Reynolds.
Patrick Nerney and Jane Powell divorced in 1963, and two years later she married for the third time, to James Fitzgerald, while she was touring in Australia. For several years the couple celebrated their anniversary in Australia. James Fitzgerald became her business manager and their marriage become more of an unhappy business relationship.
Right, James Fitzgerald and Jane Powell at their June 1965 wedding, with her son A.G. Steffen. (Photo: British PATHE | YouTube)
After replacing Debbie Reynolds in Irene on Broadway for a 9-month run in 1974, Powell then toured with a production of the show while Fitzgerald stayed in California. Jane Powell and James Fitzgerald divorced in 1975 after 10 years of marriage; that same year Jane made a return to films, voicing the role of Celeste in Tubby the Tuba (1975).
Jane Powell’s husband number four was writer David Parlour; he and Jane married in 1978 and were divorced in 1981.
During the 1980’s Jane Powell guest starred on popular baby boomer television series like The Love Boat, and had a 9-month turn on daytime soap opera Loving in 1985. From 1988-1990 she had a recurring role on Growing Pains as Alan Thicke’s mother.
Friend Roddy McDowall asked Jane to grant an interview to PR firm owner and former child actor Dickie Moore of Our Gang and Little Rascals fame, who was researching his autobiographical novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car (1984).
Dickie Moore and Jane Powell began dating and moved in together in New York in 1982, and married in 1988 – Powell’s fifth marriage, and Moore’s third. Jane Powell’s autobiography, The Girl Next Door…And How She Grew, was published that same year. The couple maintained homes in New York City and Connecticut during their marriage.
In 2000 Jane Powell, now a septuagenarian senior citizen, returned to acting with a vengeance – starring in 4 non-musical stage plays and two made-for-TV movies. By the end of 2003 she had retired from acting. In an interview that year with Rex Reed for Observer, Jane Powell noted “My voice is not what it used to be. I can’t hit the high notes and I won’t be second-rate. I have everything I’ve ever wanted in life and more-a wonderful marriage, a beautiful home, perfect health.”
Interviewer Lloyd Schwartz commented in an article for The Phoenix in 2013 that octogenarian Jane Powell was in great shape, working out and taking care of husband Dickie Moore, who was suffering from arthritis and dementia. Dickie Moore died in September 2015 at age 89 after 27 years of marriage (and 33 years together) with Jane Powell.
Happy 87th birthday, Jane Powell!