Born: April 1, 1929
Birthplace: Portland, Oregon, U.S.
Jane Powell (born Suzanne Lorraine Burce; April 1, 1929) is an American singer, dancer and actress who rose to fame in the mid-1940s with roles in various musicals as a contract player for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pictures.
Powell was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, where she achieved local fame as a singer, touring the state as the Oregon Victory Girl selling victory bonds. As a teenager, she relocated to Los Angeles, California, where she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Powell's vocal, dancing, and acting talents were utilized for lead and supporting roles in musicals such as A Date with Judy (1948) with friend Elizabeth Taylor, Royal Wedding (1951) with Fred Astaire, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) with Howard Keel and Hit the Deck (1955).
By the late 1950s, her film career slowed, leading her to transition to theatre with performances in various touring shows as well as two Broadway productions. In 1985, she relocated with her fifth husband, former child star Dickie Moore (died 2015), to New York City and Wilton, Connecticut, where Powell is occasionally active in local theatre.
She was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce, the only child born to Paul E. Burce (a Wonder Bread employee) and Eileen Baker Burce (a housewife), on April 1, 1929, in Portland, Oregon. Powell began dance lessons at the age of two. In an attempt to liken her appearance to Shirley Temple, Powell's mother took her to get her first perm the same year she began dance lessons.
At five, she appeared on the children's radio program Stars of Tomorrow. She also took dance lessons with Agnes Peters, and there the Burce family met Scotty Weston, a talent scout and dance instructor. He convinced the family to move to Oakland, California, for Powell to take dance lessons, in hopes of her being discovered. However, Weston's lessons were held in a large, dark, damp ballroom packed full of other starlet hopefuls, and after three months of living in a hotel room and eating meals cooked on a hot plate, the family moved back to Portland. Paul Burce had quit his job of 14 years to move to Oakland, and was unable to get it back when they returned. The family moved into an apartment building owned by friends, and Paul soon became the manager after the friends left. While there, and while helping her father take the garbage out, Powell would sing. Tenants insisted that Powell should take lessons, and after saving their money, began singing lessons for her.
At 12, Powell had her career taken over by a local promoter, Carl Werner, who helped her get selected as the Oregon Victory Girl. She began singing live on the local Portland radio station, KOIN, and traveled the state for two years, singing and selling victory bonds. During this time, she first met Lana Turner. Powell presented her with flowers and sang for her. Years later, when they met again at MGM, Turner did not remember her. According to Powell, even after meeting her many times, Turner never remembered who she was.
During her time as the Oregon Victory Girl, Powell had two weekly radio shows. During the first, she sang with an organ accompaniment, and during the second, she sang with an orchestra and other performers. She at one time was billed singing alongside Johnnie Ray, also from Oregon. She had attended Beaumont Grade School in Portland.
In summer 1943, Paul and Eileen Burce took their daughter on vacation to Hollywood. There, she appeared on Janet Gaynor's radio show Hollywood Showcase: Stars over Hollywood. The show was a talent competition, and among the other contestants were Kathie Lee Gifford's mother, Joan Epstein. Powell won the competition, and soon auditioned for Louis B. Mayer at MGM, as well as for David O. Selznick. Without even taking a screen test, Powell was then signed to a seven-year contract with MGM. Within two months, Powell was loaned to United Artists for her first film, Song of the Open Road. Powell's character in Song of the Open Road was named Jane Powell, and her stage name was taken from this.
In 1945, Powell sang "Because" at the wedding of Esther Williams and Ben Gage.
Within her first few years at MGM, Powell made six films, appeared on radio programs, performed in theatre productions (including The Student Prince) and even sang at the inauguration ball for President Harry S. Truman on January 20, 1949. When not making films, Powell traveled to theaters around the country doing a vaudeville act, which she hated. Powell's second film was Delightfully Dangerous, which she called the "worst movie I've ever made." During her third film, Holiday in Mexico (1946), Powell met her future friend, Roddy McDowall. Holiday in Mexico was her first Technicolor film; her first two films had been black and white.
Powell's charm and spunk made her stand out in her follow-up vehicle, Three Daring Daughters, originally titled The Birds and the Bees, in which she co-starred with Jeanette MacDonald, who took the young performer under her wing. The film proved another hit, and she was given top billing in a string of Joe Pasternak-produced musicals including A Date with Judy (1948) with schoolmate Elizabeth Taylor. She made Luxury Liner (1948), a romantic musical comedy, and Nancy Goes to Rio (1950) with Ann Sothern.
Powell worked side by side with Fred Astaire and Peter Lawford in Royal Wedding (1951), when she was brought in to replace June Allyson, who had become pregnant, and then Judy Garland, who had to withdraw due to personal problems. According to film historian Robert Osborne, in a six-minute scene in the movie, Powell and Astaire match witty banter, sing, and dance in a performance that showcases the actress's energy and talent. "We can also see her comic ability, in that number ," Osborne said. "She's hilarious—chewing gum, swinging her hips, and acting like a 'tough broad.' It's too bad MGM didn't capitalize more on her comedic side."
In 1954, Powell starred in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, opposite Howard Keel, which gave her the opportunity to play a more mature character than in previous films. Her other films include: Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), Small Town Girl (1953), Three Sailors and a Girl (1953), Athena (1954), Deep in My Heart (1954), Hit the Deck (1955) and The Girl Most Likely (1957).
Known mainly for musical comedy, Powell appeared in a rare dramatic role in The Female Animal from Universal Pictures in 1958, which turned out to be the final film of co-star Hedy Lamarr. In 1956, Powell recorded a song, "True Love", that rose to 15 on the Billboard charts and 107 on the pop charts for that year, according to the Joel Whitburn compilation. This was her only single to make the charts. Also in 1956, Powell performed the song "I'll Never Stop Loving You" at the 28th Academy Awards.
Reflecting on her work in musical films, Powell said:
People are always fascinated by the so-called golden age of musicals, but it wasn’t all that great. Everything was glazed. Those movies didn’t reflect reality. I was at MGM for 11 years and nobody ever let me play anything but teenagers. I was 25 years old with kids of my own and it was getting ridiculous. Publicity was froth. Everything you said was monitored. With me, they didn’t have to worry. I never had anything to say, anyway. It was hard work, I had no friends, no social interaction with people my age and the isolation was tough. But I had to support my family, so I did what I was told and had no other choice.
Her roles include the touring productions of Unsinkable Molly Brown, Most Happy Fella, The Boy Friend, Brigadoon, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, Carousel, Meet Me in St. Louis, Peter Pan, The Girl Next Door and How She Grew and Irene, in which she made her Broadway debut, following Debbie Reynolds in the title role. Howard Keel and she also appeared on stage together in a revival of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, I Do! I Do! and South Pacific.
Powell also toured in 1964 in a musical review entitled Just 20 Plus Me! It was done to a recorded track and featured Powell with 20 handsome "chorus boys". Asked after the performance if the production was going to be made available on a commercial recording, she said simply, "No." In the early 1980s, she toured in the comedies Same Time, Next Year, The Marriage-Go-Round and Chapter Two. In 1996 and 1997, she appeared in the off-broadway production After-Play. She also performed the role of the Queen in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella at New York City Opera. In 2000, she appeared in the off-Broadway production Avow, for which she received great reviews for a role which showed off her excellent comedic timing.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Powell appeared regularly on television. These credits included guest spots on nearly all the major variety shows of the period, such as The Perry Como Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Kraft Music Hall, The Frank Sinatra Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, The Red Skelton Show, The Eddie Fisher Show, The Dinah Shore Show, The Dean Martin Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Jonathan Winters Show, This is Tom Jones, The Garry Moore Show, The Jerry Lewis Show and The Judy Garland Show.
Powell twice appeared as one of the What's My Line? "mystery guests" on the popular Sunday-night CBS-TV quiz program as well as once as a panelist. She also was a guest on I've Got A Secret with Garry Moore and appeared on the ABC musical quiz program, Jukebox Jury. Her television specials included Meet Me in St. Louis, Young at Heart, Feathertop, The Danny Thomas Show 1967, The Victor Borge Show, Ruggles of Red Gap on Producers' Showcase and Hooray for Love. Dramatic guest spots included both The Dick Powell Show and The June Allyson Show. She also had a failed pilot for a television sitcom called The Jane Powell Show.
Powell was a regular guest on a television variety show in Australia when she visited there to perform her nightclub act. She also had a one-off television special there in 1964.
She has appeared on numerous television talk shows and co-hosted The Mike Douglas Show in 1970. In the 1970s, she appeared in three television movies, Wheeler and Murdoch, The Letters and Mayday at 40,000 Feet!.
In the 1980s, she guest-starred on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Murder She, Wrote. In 1985, she started a nine-month run in the daytime soap opera Loving, playing a tough mother and businesswoman. At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, she also had a regular guest spot on the comedy series Growing Pains (playing Alan Thicke's mother).
She was a temporary replacement on As the World Turns for Eileen Fulton as Lisa Grimaldi in 1991, 1993 and 1994.
In 2000, she appeared in two television movies in supporting roles in The Sandy Bottom Orchestra and Perfect Murder, Perfect Town.
Powell's last major television appearance was a guest star in "Vulnerable" on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2002.
Powell lives in Manhattan and (since 1985), in Wilton, Connecticut, with her fifth husband, former child actor Dick Moore (until 2015). They met when Moore interviewed Powell for a book on child actors. She is a member of the Board of Trustees for the Actors' Fund of America.
In 2003, she made a return to the stage as Mama Mizner in the Stephen Sondheim musical Bounce. Despite Powell's great reviews in the part, Bounce was not critically successful and did not move to Broadway.
For one evening, she returned to her hometown, Portland, narrating Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf with Pink Martini on December 31, 2007. She also appeared on March 9, 2008, with Martini at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City; she sang a duet of "Aba Daba Honeymoon" with lead singer China Forbes. In March 2009, she appeared and sang "Love is Where You Find It" in a show in which Michael Feinstein celebrated movie musicals and MGM musicals in particular. She performed again with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl on September 10, 2010.
Jane filled in as "guest host" on Turner Classic Movies for Robert Osborne while he was on medical leave July 17-23, 2011.
Powell has been married five times, and has three children from her first two marriages.
Her first marriage was to former figure skater Gearhardt "Geary" Anthony Steffen. He was a former skating partner to Sonja Henie, turned insurance broker. They married on November 5, 1949, and divorced on August 6, 1953. They had two children, Gearhardt Anthony "G.A." (pronounced Jay) Steffen III (born July 21, 1951) and Suzanne "Sissy" Ilene Steffen (born November 21, 1952). Friend and fellow actress Elizabeth Taylor served as one of her bridesmaids, with Powell returning the favor during Taylor's 1950 wedding to Conrad "Nicky" Hilton.
On November 8, 1954, Powell married Patrick W. Nerney, an automobile executive nine years her senior, in Ojai, California. Nerney had previously been married to actress Mona Freeman, with whom he had a daughter, also named Mona. Daughter Lindsey Averill Nerney (Powell states she named her for the California-based olive processor) was born from the union on February 1, 1956. The couple divorced in 1963.
A Republican, she sang the National Anthem at the 1956 Republican National Convention.
Powell's fifth marriage, to former child star Dickie Moore, was her longest. Powell and Moore were married from 1988 until his death in 2015. They met while Moore was researching his own autobiography, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, But Don't Have Sex or Take the Car.
Her autobiography, The Girl Next Door...And How She Grew, was published in 1988.
For her 80th birthday, Robert Osborne, a film historian and host of Turner Classic Movies, and her husband organized a party at a New York hotel for forty-five of Powell's friends and family members.
|1944||Song of the Open Road||Herself|
|1945||Delightfully Dangerous||Sherry Williams|
|1946||Holiday in Mexico||Christine Evans|
|1948||Three Daring Daughters||Tess Morgan|
|date !A Date with Judy||Judy Foster|
|Luxury Liner||Polly Bradford|
|1950||Nancy Goes to Rio||Nancy Barklay|
|Two Weeks with Love||Patti Robinson|
|1951||Royal Wedding||Ellen Bowen|
|Rich, Young and Pretty||Elizabeth Rogers|
|1953||Small Town Girl||Cindy Kimbell|
|Three Sailors and a Girl||Penny Weston|
|1954||Seven Brides for Seven Brothers||Milly Pontipee|
|Deep in My Heart||Ottilie van Zandt in Maytime|
|1955||Hit the Deck||Susan Smith|
|1958||girl !The Girl Most Likely||Dodie|
|female !The Female Animal||Penny Windsor|
|Enchanted Island||Fayaway||Also known as Typee|
|1975||Tubby the Tuba||Celeste||Voice|
|2003||Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There||Herself|