The room was full of actors, dancers, and musicians, but the star of the show was Jane Powell, a 79-year-old triple-threat. On February 27, 20 students sat in the president’s sunny board room and eagerly asked questions of the delicate, sharply-dressed woman in a pink-and-black suit. Jane Powell—the star of more than 22 MGM movies, 11 television shows, and a number of plays, musicals, and radio programs—graced Juilliard with her wisdom, beauty, and heartfelt stories.
Ms. Powell’s career began at age 12 when she tap danced and sang on KOYN, the local radio station in her native Portland, Ore. On a holiday to California, she was coaxed by her parents to audition for the “Stars Over Hollywood” talent show. She won first place. The next day she signed a full contract with MGM Theaters in Hollywood, at the age of 14. To please her parents, she agreed to work for MGM, yet secretly she yearned to attend Grant High School in Portland. Ms. Powell said that she envies Juilliard students because our passion, talent, and educational and technical training will set us up for happy, successful, and creative careers.
Ms. Powell played mostly teenage roles at MGM. After she graduated from high school in MGM’s Little Red Schoolhouse on the studio lot, she starred in many films, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, A Date With Judy, Holiday in Mexico, and Royal Wedding, in which she co-starred with Fred Astaire. Wanting to perform more grown-up roles, she ended her contract with MGM. She performed for the next 30 years in different theaters, including New York’s own Capital Theater, where she performed eight vaudeville shows a day, seven days a week.
Today, she said, some of her co-stars are “on the skids, alcoholics, or just not around anymore” because of the hard lives they lived at such young ages. Ms. Powell said she felt that it was her responsibility to work. In fact, it was unheard of to have a “mental health day,” especially if you were the star of a show. She said that her sanity is partly due to the fact that she never felt like she belonged to the movie-star community. “I was so surprised at where I was,” she explained, “that I didn’t feel like I was there.” Her modesty and the fact that she had a family by the age of 26 contributed to her being more grounded than other stars of her day. “I think that we become very self-centered in this business if you don’t care for something else,” she told us. “I don’t care if it’s a plant or a fish or something. It gives you a responsibility away from yourself. It keeps you a little more grounded.”
In speaking about her life in and out of the theater, she advised us to use caution in the performing arts field. “There are a lot of people out there who will use you and then drop you if you didn’t make it,” she warned. Having the freedom to be creative on stage or in rehearsal was a privilege that she never had at the beginning of her career; even her name, originally Suzanne Burce, was changed because the movie business preferred “Jane Powell,” the name of the character in her first movie, to her own. “Everything was done for you,” she said in reflection, then added, “Today, that doesn’t exist, which is wonderful in one way and a hindrance in another, because you have to make sure you are going on the right path and you have the right people with you. That’s hard to find.”
Today, Ms. Powell lives with her husband and two dogs and continues to audition for plays. She is also an advocate for artists to receive benefits that other members of the American workforce receive, such as health care and consistent pay. “The thing is,” she said, “I don’t have to do it, for the first time in my life. You do it because you love to do it and want to do it.” She attends movies regularly, and recently voted for the 80th Academy Awards. Ms. Powell beamed when she said, “I don’t know what my life is going to be, but I’m still answering the telephone. I look forward to when the telephone rings. The sense of adventure is what I get very excited about. The world is just filled with all these wonderful things and if they don’t come to you, you’ve got to learn how to go out and find them. That’s what I’m working on now.”
We can all take her experience and advice into our hearts and allow ourselves to be creative, free, and exploratory in our artistic endeavors.