Classic Movie Travels
Hometowns to Hollywood: Jane Powell, Portland Oregon
“I didn’t quit movies. They quit me.” – Jane Powell
Hollywood has certainly had its fair share of child stars, and Jane Powell is no exception. Thanks to many studio musicals, audiences saw Jane grow up on the screen from a charming teenager to a confident leading lady, while constantly showcasing her gorgeous coloratura soprano voice. Interestingly, this woman from Portland, Oregon, would also portray an Oregonian in one of her most successful films — Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
Jane was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1st, 1929. Her father worked for Wonder Bread and her mother was a housewife with ambitious show business aspirations for her daughter. At the age of two, Powell was taking dancing lessons and sporting a perm in an effort to be the next Shirley Temple. Along the way, Powell became intrigued by a career in entertainment, idolizing Sonja Henie’s delightful ice skating routines.
By the time she was five, Powell appeared on a children’s radio program called Stars of Tomorrow and continued her dancing lessons. Encouraged by a talent scout and dance instructor, Powell’s family moved to Oakland, California, in hopes of establishing a career in entertainment. Unfortunately, Jane was one among many other hopefuls. Moreover, she was still being marketed as a Shirley Temple, which — thankfully for us — she was not. She and her family returned to Portland and moved into an apartment building.
While living in the apartment, Powell was tasked with taking out the trash as one of her household chores. In order to make the chore more enjoyable, Powell would sing as she worked. In response, fellow tenants suggested that she take voice lessons. They collectively saved their money and Powell was able to begin taking her lessons while also attending the Beaumont Grade School in Portland.
Powell’s vocal talent created more opportunities for her than her dancing did. At age twelve, Powell was chosen as the Oregon Victory Girl and sang live on KOIN, Portland’s local radio station. While working with KOIN, Powell was able to travel and sell victory bonds, in addition to sharing her vocal talents with the Portland community and beyond. In addition, she had two shows per week: one in which she sang with organ accompaniment, and the other with an orchestra or other performers.
In 1943, Jane’s parents took Powell on vacation in Hollywood, where she appeared on the Hollywood Showcase: Stars over Hollywood show and won the talent competition. Soon after, she auditioned for at MGM and was signed to a seven-year contract, with no screen test necessary. Powell made her first film appearance while on loan to United Artists for Song of the Open Road (1944). Interestingly, her character in this film was named Jane Powell and her stage name was subsequently derived from this film.
Soon after, Powell starred in a host of musical films, including Holiday in Mexico (1946), Three Daring Daughters (1948), and A Date With Judy (1948), to name a few. She exhibited comedic timing in these teenage roles, while also performing an array of engaging songs. In 1950, Powell played a teenager who wanted to be taken seriously as an adult in Two Weeks With Love (1950), which caused a shift in the types of roles she began receiving. Powell transitioned into playing more adult roles and was cast alongside Fred Astaire and Peter Lawford in Royal Wedding (1951).
Powell’s most notable role occurred in 1954 as the no-nonsense lead actress in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) with Howard Keel. After her success in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Powell continued to pursue more mature roles in musicals such as Athena (1954), Deep in My Heart (1954), Hit the Deck (1955), and The Girl Most Likely (1957).
In addition to her success in films, Jane also appeared in several stage roles. Most notably, she made her Broadway debut in a production of Irene, succeeding frequent co-star, Debbie Reynolds, in the lead role. Furthermore, she also added several television appearances to her repertoire, as well filming an ill-fated pilot for her Jane Powell Show. Moreover, she also starred as Esther in a 1959 television version of Meet Me in St. Louis.
Currently, Powell is 88 years old and lives in Wilton, Connecticut, where she shared a home with her husband of twenty-seven years, Dickie Moore. Both he and Powell had similar histories of being child stars working under the studio system. Moore and Powell met when he was writing his book Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star: But Don’t Have Sex or Take the Car.
While Moore passed away in 2015, Powell has continued to keep busy at her Connecticut home and still enjoys her time away from the days of studio system life. According to a 2017 interview with The Hour, Powell enjoys gardening, attending a nearby non-denominational church, and lives contentedly with her cat and dog.
Though Powell now lives on the East coast, her Portland hometown possesses a few sites that were of relevance to her during her time there. Powell lived at 1525 NW 29th Avenue and, upon returning from California, also lived at 314 Wygant St. Today, Beaumont Grade School is now known as Beaumont Middle School and is located at 4043 NE Fremont St. The Heathman Hotel, which once hosted the headquarters of KOIN Radio, was placed on the National Register of Historic places. Still functioning as a hotel, it is located at 712 SW Salmon St.
Powell is no doubt a treasure when it comes to MGM musicals and is a wealth of information on classic Hollywood. We are so lucky to still have her with us to this day! Powell accepts fan mail at the following address:
Celebrity Consultants LLC
14724 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA 91403
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.