Powell, Jane (1929—)

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Powell, Jane (1929—)

American singer-actress. Born Suzanne Burce on April 1, 1929, in Portland, Oregon; daughter of Paul Burce (a delivery man) and Eileen Burce; graduated from the MGM school, 1947; married Geary Anthony Steffen, Jr. (a professional ice skater), on November 5, 1949 (divorced); married Patrick Nerney (an auto dealer and later a writer), on November 8, 1954 (divorced 1963); married James Fitzgerald (later her manager), on June 27, 1965 (divorced 1976); married David Parlour (a producer-director), on October 21, 1978 (divorced 1981); married Dickie Moore (former child star and a business executive), on May 21, 1988; children: (first marriage) Geary Anthony Steffen (b. 1951); Suzanne Irene Steffen (b. 1952); (second marriage) daughter, Lindsay Averille Nerney (b. 1956).

Selected filmography:

Song of the Open Road (1944); Delightfully Dangerous (1945); Holiday in Mexico (1946); Three Daring Daughters (1948); A Date with Judy (1948); Luxury Liner (1848); Nancy Goes to Rio (1950); Two Weeks with Love (1950); Royal Wedding (1951); Rich Young and Pretty (1951); Small Town Girl (1953); Three Sailors and a Girl (1953); Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); Athena (1954); Deep in My Heart (1954); Hit the Deck (1955); The Girl Most Likely (1957); The Female Animal (1958); Enchanted Island (1958); Marie (cameo, 1985).

A successor to popular film singer Deanna Durbin , vivacious, blonde teenager Jane Powell lit up a series of MGM musicals during the years between 1946 and 1954. With the demise of the Hollywood musical, however, Powell's career floundered, and, except for a brief stint in a Broadway revival of Irene in 1974, she never achieved stardom again. Like many child stars of her era, Powell also had difficulty resolving her

personal needs with a career image that demanded sweetness and compliance. Her frustration did not surface until years later, in her 1980s one-woman show and her autobiography The Girl Next Door and How She Grew (1988). "I was always pleasing someone else," she said about her years in the movies. "My mother, the men I married, the studio…. I did what I was told. There were only three things I wanted to do and did—marry, have children, get divorced. Otherwise, it was always someone else who decided for me."

Powell was born Suzanne Burce on April 1, 1929, in Portland, Oregon, the only child of an unhappy union that eventually ended in divorce. Her mother, after discovering Powell's natural gifts, became intent on turning the child into another Shirley Temple (Black ), and to that end enrolled her at the Agnes Peters Dancing School. As a tot of 5, Powell made her singing debut on a local children's radio show, "Stars of Tomorrow," and at 11 landed her own Sunday evening radio program. Her break came in June 1943, when she made an appearance on the Los Angeles-based talent program "Hollywood Showcase Stars over Hollywood." Displaying her remarkable two-and-a-half-octave range in a rendition of the "Il Baccio" aria from Carmen, Powell was declared the winner over six other contestants. After an unprecedented six appearances on the show, she was offered a contract with MGM, which she felt compelled to accept. "I felt then—and I feel now—that if I hadn't accepted MGM's offer it would have destroyed Mama and Daddy sooner, and would have made their marriage even harder and more unhappy," she later recalled.

Without any acting lessons—or even as much as a screen test—Powell was immediately loaned to United Artists for Song of the Open Road (1944), a musical with W.C. Fields and the team of Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Her role was that of a young movie starlet named Jane Powell, which she then adopted as her stage name. The movie, in which she sang four songs, including the classical "Carmena," brought her to the attention of the critics and led to an ongoing role on the Bergen-Mc-Carthy radio program, "The Chase and Sanborn Hour," as Charlie's love interest. Following her second movie, Delightfully Dangerous (1945), also made on loan to United Artists, The New York Times pronounced Powell "a shimmering vision of youth in bloom … sweet and charming—not the least bit cloying."

Meanwhile, producer Joe Pasternak, who had been a leading force in Deanna Durbin's career at Universal and was now at MGM, took an interest in Powell, casting her in Holiday in Mexico (1946) as the matchmaking daughter of the American ambassador (played by Walter Pidgeon). The film, in which she sang "Ave Maria," put her career into high gear. Powell appeared on the cover of Life magazine's September issue and negotiated a raise in pay. There followed a series of successful musical romps, most notable among them A Date with Judy (1948), Royal Wedding (1951), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), her most important MGM movie to date, and her last first-rate screen role. Loosely based on Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Sobbin' Women," the movie costarred Howard Keel as Powell's love interest, and gave her the opportunity to shine in such songs as "Wonderful, Wonderful Day" and in an ensemble song-and-dance routine, "June Bride."

As early as 1948, Powell had begun to rebel against her image as "The Girl Next Door," expressing the desire to grow up and make her own career decisions, particularly about what she sang. "I loved to sing ballads and the blues, but I rarely got to do them," she said. In November 1949, as part of her quest for independence, Powell married professional ice skater Geary Anthony Steffen, Jr. (then Sonja Henie 's partner), and took two years off from the movies. The marriage produced two children, son Geary Anthony (b. 1951) and daughter Suzanne Irene (b. 1952). The couple subsequently divorced and in November 1954 Powell married Patrick Nerney, an auto dealer (he later became a writer).

Powell, disheartened when the role of Ruth Etting in Love Me or Leave Me (1955) went to Doris Day , negotiated her release from MGM. Following a very successful Hollywood Bowl concert and the birth of another daughter, Lindsay Averille (b. 1956), she attempted to resume her film career, but her squeaky clean image was now passé. After two unsuccessful pictures for Universal and another for Warner Bros., she turned to television, appearing in two musical specials: "Ruggles of Red Gap" (1957) and "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1959). She also did television guest appearances, summer stock, and starred in a revue, Just Twenty—Plus Me, that closed after a pre-Broadway tour in Texas. A more promising Broadway opportunity came in 1974, when Powell was signed to replace Debbie Reynolds in a revival of Irene. "She makes the girl from Ninth Avenue both believable and appealing," reported the New York Post, "and she can play an emotional scene convincingly. Indeed, you might think the part had been created for her." After a seven-month run in New York, Powell went on tour with the show.

In the meantime, Powell's marriage to Nerney had ended, as had her subsequent marriage to James Fitzgerald, who became her manager and remained so even after their divorce in 1976. In October 1978, she married David Parlour, a producer-director. They separated a year later and went through a much-publicized divorce in early 1981. At that time, Powell resettled in Los Angeles, hoping to find some film and television work, but her age now proved a detriment. She moved back East and, after a few guest shows on television and some concert dates, signed on for a role in the soap opera "Loving," playing the rich matriarch of a ranch in Wyoming. During the 1980s, she toured her one-woman show Jane Powell Inside Out—Her Story Live, which she prepared at the suggestion of Pat Carroll , who had been successful with her own solo vehicle. In 1988, Powell published an honest, straightforward autobiography. "Unlike most Hollywood kiss and tell books, it's toughest on the author," commented one critic. "Jane Powell doesn't trash anyone, except Jane Powell."

Also in 1988, Powell married her live-in companion, former child actor Dickie Moore, even though she had vowed after her fourth divorce never to remarry. ("No more marriages, no more babies, no more puppies," she said.) She continued to sing in concert and to make occasional television guest appearance on such shows as "Murder, She Wrote" and "Growing Pains." Most important, she had finally gained control over her own destiny. "The Girl Next Door has turned into a very happy woman," she said.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: HarperCollins, 1994.

Parish, James Robert, and Michael R. Pitts. Hollywood Songsters. NY: Garland, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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