Jane Powell on Aging, Acting and MGM

In the good old days, perky, blue-eyed Jane Powell made enough soda-fountain musicals at MGM to give herself a lifelong milkshake hangover. Now, at 71, she prefers champagne. But some things never change. She hasn’t appeared on the screen for 42 years, yet the girl-next-door-to-a-gold-mine is still fresh as a peach blossom, weighs 99 pounds, and wears the same size 2 she wore in such eternally adolescent milestones as Nancy Goes to Rio . This is going to come as a shock to audiences who discover her onstage in Avow , a brand new play by Bill C. Davis, the acclaimed author of Mass Appeal , at the New Century Theater off of Union Square. Jane plays the befuddled, wisecracking, devoutly Catholic mother of a gay son who wants to marry his lover in a formal church ceremony and a pregnant, unmarried daughter who is in love with a priest. It ain’t A Date with Judy .

Nobody is more surprised to find Jane Powell in a role like this than Jane Powell herself. “Honey, I didn’t do it for the perks. I take the bus to work every night like everybody else,” she said on July 21 in a break from rehearsals. “I didn’t do it for the money, either. Financially, I never have to work again as long as I live. I did it because it’s the first time I have ever originated a role of my own onstage. I wanted to grow. You get stale if you don’t keep progressing and changing. I don’t know why they thought of me, but I loved the script.… In all those MGM teenage musicals I used to just make up my own dialogue, and the scripts were so bad that nobody ever knew the difference, anyway. This play has laughs, but the issues are contemporary.

“Also, it’s a great relief being part of an ensemble cast, because I don’t want to be a star.” At 71, Ms. Powell has a son who is 49, a daughter who is 48, and another daughter who is 45 and the mother of a seven-year-old. “I’m a grandmother myself. It’s about time I started playing my own age. The luxury of being a character actress at last is something I couldn’t turn down.”

It’s not her first time at the rodeo. In 1974, she replaced her former MGM co-star Debbie Reynolds in the Broadway musical Irene . It was a daunting experience. Director Gower Champion, another MGM alumnus, never showed up for one rehearsal and Debbie never offered any help of her own. With only 10 days before her opening night, Jane was deserted, terrified and hopping mad. “It was a very sad time because we used to be friends,” she said. “He just walked out. The producer said he didn’t expect me to last seven weeks. I lasted nine months and got better reviews than Debbie. Then I took it on the road. After that, I did an occasional job here and there, but I was soured on show business and I went on to other priorities. Avow is not a comeback, because I never officially retired. But it is sort of a new beginning.”

She still looks like the daisy-faced kid who made fried chicken and potato salad for layouts in Photoplay in 1945, but her private life hasn’t always been a cream puff. She’s had four bad marriages, a son with a drug problem and serious career troubles. But she’s never had a shrink and it doesn’t look like she’s ever had a facelift. Her family is happy now, she owns an airy apartment on West End Avenue and a charming country house in Connecticut, her money is well invested and she’s still got her sunny disposition.

Her fifth marriage, to former child star Dick Moore ( Blonde Venus , 1932, with Marlene Dietrich), is right out of a Dick and Jane book. In fact, it was a book that brought them together. Dick, now a public relations executive, was researching a book on Hollywood child actors of yesterday called Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star-But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car! Jane’s friend Roddy McDowall arranged an interview, and Dick stayed for 18 years. Neither of them watch their old movies. They are not nostalgia freaks. She has constantly refused to appear onstage at those retro concerts at Carnegie Hall celebrating the MGM stars. She calls them dog-and-pony acts. “It’s like a circus. The old stars work like dogs and the producer gets all the profits,” she said. “Fans show up out of curiosity to see if they can still talk or walk without a cane and count the lines in their faces. It’s exploitation of a piece of the past that no longer exists, and I find it sad. Some people are exhibitionists. Not me. I like those people, but I was never socially involved with them and never will be.”

Now that her friend Roddy is gone, she has few acquaintances from the old MGM days. “Arlene Dahl is a friend. June Allyson has visited us in Connecticut. But despite all the movies I made with Debbie, I’ve never been to her house for dinner. I’ve never been to anyone’s house that I worked with. There was an A Group and a B Group. I was in the F Group.”

If she’s trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, you can’t say she hasn’t earned the right. She hit the screen when she was 14, a little girl named Suzanne Burce from Portland, Ore., whose father ran a doughnut shop. She was a child soprano with a two-and-a-half octave range who won an MGM contract when she sang an aria from Carmen for Norma Shearer. Her first film was Song of the Open Road , an insipid piece of fluff in which she played a rich little girl movie star who ran away from home and joined a group of itinerant tomato pickers. Her character’s name was Jane Powell, and it stuck. Only the stardust didn’t rub off. “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,” she said. “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.

“I wanted to go to college. My mother said ‘Why? You already have a job!’ So my only education was three hours a day on the set with Margaret O’Brien and Elizabeth Taylor,” she recalled. “But we never met in the commissary or talked girl talk. I never went to sleepover parties or football games or did any of the things my friends back in Portland were doing. If I had a hiatus, they sent me to New York to sing six shows a day at the Capitol Theater, and that was my vacation. 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. I was forced to live up to an image, and the only advice I ever got in acting was, ‘Stay as sweet as you are and never change.’ If I never grew as an actress, it’s because no one ever taught me how.”

In retrospect, she considers the filmmakers she worked with as nothing more than traffic directors. “Of all the films I made, Royal Wedding and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers were the only two you could call classics. I can’t even remember what my last film was at MGM. Women stop me on the bus and tell me they loved my movies and they still have Jane Powell paper dolls and coloring books and I think, ‘How nice, but they must be talking about someone else.’ I never knew those things existed. MGM put them out and I never got any money from anything. I never even saw them. My whole life seems to have happened to somebody else. I just wish I could have been around to enjoy it. None of it sunk in. It was just a job and I was a fly on the wall watching it happen, and a fly doesn’t have any feelings.”

When did she quit the movies? “When they stopped asking me,” she said, laughing openly. “I didn’t quit movies. Movies quit me. Nobody wanted me. Musicals were finished and they never gave me anything else to do. I was 25 when I left MGM and it was the first time I had nobody to protect me. I didn’t know anything about decisions or agents or income taxes. And the rejection hurt more than anything in the world.”

When the MGM-musical era ended, its stars were like prize purebred Abyssinians suddenly dumped out of a sack in the middle of the desert and left to fend for themselves. “It was a shock.… And it was scary. I did summer stock, commercials, TV, but that was considered slumming. At MGM we weren’t even allowed to be photographed in front of a TV set. That was a terrible time in my life.”

She got a few grownup parts in movies; they were dreadful. She played a South Seas cannibal in a black wig in Enchanted Island , a low-budget horror based on Herman Melville’s Typee : “I did it because they promised me a death scene, then they took it out because they said, ‘Jane Powell cannot die.’ The film was so bad the director, Allan Dwan, would tear pages out of the script after each scene and throw them over his shoulder.” Then she played Hedy Lamarr’s neurotic, oversexed daughter in a thing called Female Animal : “At last I got to play a sexpot, but it was so bad I never saw it. Nobody did. It was the first time in my career I ever felt animosity or jealousy from another actress. Hedy didn’t want to play anybody’s mother. She was the worst person I ever worked with and the whole thing was just miserable. After that, I just gave up on movies.”

Singing, too. “My voice is not what it used to be. I can’t hit the high notes and I won’t be second-rate. It happens to 99 percent of all singers, but with women the hormones change and you have to lower your keys,” she said. “You also have to stay in condition like an athlete, and I don’t want life to become a regimen. I did it for 20 years and it no longer brings me joy. I know too many singers who should have stopped making fools of themselves 25 years ago.”

In Avow , she doesn’t have to sing a single note. “It’s the first time in my life a director has said anything to me besides, ‘Just be Jane Powell.’ I’ve signed for three months and then we’ll see what happens. I have no future plans. I have everything I’ve ever wanted in life and more-a wonderful marriage, a beautiful home, perfect health. I’ve worked all my life to be a normal person, and why give it up? I never thought I was a star of any importance. That may have been my salvation. Even now, audience applause is something I cannot hear. I think it’s for somebody else. I have other priorities. At 71, I’m learning to enjoy Jane Powell for the first time in my life.”

The old days may be dead, but she can’t fool me. Jane Powell winks, and the smile is still Technicolor.