|Subject: Broadway Actor & Dancer Neil Jones
Dies at 78
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Date Posted: Saturday, June 22, 04:27:34pm
Neil F. Jones, 78, a dancer, a singer, and an actor who appeared in a string of Tony-winning Broadway musicals, died Sunday, June 2, at Boston Medical Center.
Jones was born on May 6, 1941, in South Boston, second son of James C. and Eleanor F. (Stillman) Jones.
He grew up and was educated alongside his older brother, Larry, in the Neponset district of Dorchester and developed a love for his community and its people.
Following in the footsteps of his father, known throughout the city for his booming singing voice, Jones took to entertaining at an early age. As a child, he tap danced on the sidewalk for pennies. Later, as a member of St. Ann’s Parish, Jones joined the CYO’s St. Ann’s Players, performing in theatrical productions under the direction of his mentor Jack Morris.
After graduating from Dorchester High School in 1959, Jones entered the workforce with jobs as a soda jerk at Teddy’s Drug Store in Old Harbor Village, an emergency room X-ray technician at Boston City Hospital, and a salesman for the Scripto Pen Company. He served in the U.S. Army National Guard and was twice named Soldier of the Month.
His stint as a copy boy at the Boston Herald Traveler was notable. In 1960, when an airliner crashed on takeoff from Logan International Airport, hospitals treating survivors would not allow access to the press. The newspaper sent Jones in dressed as an orderly – and he obtained interviews with survivors that resulted in a front-page exclusive.
But the theater was in his blood and, shortly thereafter, Jones was awarded a full, four-year scholarship to the Boston Conservatory of Music, where he studied music, dance, voice, acting, and piano. He spent summers during this period performing in 30 musicals with stock companies in North Carolina, Cape Cod, and New Jersey.
In 1963, Jones headed to New York and, while waiting for his big break, landed a job as a captain at the iconic Tavern on the Green restaurant. He was soon hired to perform for a season with the Joffrey Ballet.
Jones was then cast in his first Broadway musical, in the original company of “Hello, Dolly!” The David Merrick-produced musical starring Carol Channing won 10 Tony awards in 1964, including Best Musical. This set a record that the play held for 37 years.
Jones’ show-stopping leap over the orchestra pit drew gasps from the audience at every performance. Channing gave him a baby grand piano for his Manhattan apartment.
Soon, television came calling. While still a cast member in “Dolly,” Jones was one of a quartet of young actors tapped to star in the NBC network children’s series “The First Look.” Each week, the Saturday morning live-action series took an introductory look at subjects like travel, time, and books.
Jones met and married dancer Beverly Baker while the two were appearing in “Hello, Dolly!” The couple attended classes at Fordham University by day and performed at night.
Their first daughter, Tara, was born in 1966. That year, Jones was cast as a dancer/singer/actor in the Tony-nominated “The Apple Tree,” starring Alan Alda and directed by Mike Nichols.
He next appeared in “Henry, Sweet Henry” as a dancer, singer, and understudy to the starring role. The musical, choreographed by Michael Bennett and directed by George Roy Hill, featured Don Ameche and Louise Lasser.
Second daughter, Bonnie, arrived in 1968. That year, Jones was cast in the original company of “Promises, Promises.” The huge hit was produced by Merrick with music by Burt Bacharach, lyrics by Hal David, and book by Neil Simon. Actors Jerry Orbach, Jill O’Hara, Donna McKechnie, Ken Howard and Kelly Bishop starred. Tony nominations included Best Musical, Best Direction of a Musical, and Best Choreography. The cast album won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.
In 1970, Jones served as assistant stage manager and performed in “Georgy,” produced by Fred Coe. A year later, he was part of the original national touring company of “Coco,” starring Katherine Hepburn.
And then came “Liza with a “Z”: A Concert for Television” which took the entertainment world by storm. Jones was a featured dancer in the 1972 concert film starring Liza Minnelli. The film was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, with music by Fred Ebb and John Kander. The concert was shot with eight film cameras after only eight weeks of rehearsal at New York’s Lyceum Theatre. The NBC television special went on to win four Emmys and a Peabody Award. During the show-stopping “I Gotcha” number, Minnelli appears with only two dancers: Jones and Spencer Henderson. On the commentary track of the film’s 2006 DVD release, Minnelli calls them “Two of the best dancers in the world – Spencer and Neil!”
Riding the success of the film, Minnelli took a pared-down version of the show on the road. A U.S. concert tour also included stops in Canada and London. Jones and Henderson were the only dancers from the film to participate in the tour. They dined with royalty at Buckingham Palace.
Returning to New York in 1973, Jones was dance captain and assistant director of “Cyrano,” starring Christopher Plummer, at the Palace Theatre. He also danced in the musical, which was produced by Michael Kidd.
He then choreographed and appeared in “Manhattan Follies,” a drag revue staged at the Plaza Hotel’s Persian Room.
Jones left the Big Apple in 1975 and returned to his beloved Dorchester, sharing his knowledge and love of the stage with several local theatre companies. One of those was the newly reformed St. Anne’s Players – rechristened The New Neponset Players. With his old friend Jack Morris, Jones produced, acted in, and designed scenery for the troupe for nearly a decade.
In 1979, The McCormack Center for the Arts hired Jones as director of theater programs. He oversaw productions at the renovated Strand Theatre in Dorchester, bringing name talents like Count Basie and Buddy Rich to the venue.
Always eager to continue his education, Jones returned to college in 1985, at age 44. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts at Bradford College in Haverhill, Mass.
As a nontraditional student living in the dorms, Jones quickly became a favorite among his fellow students, faculty, staff, and administrators.
The school’s Theatre Department took full advantage of the Broadway veteran in their midst, casting him as Sir Joseph Porter in “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Biedermann in “The Firebugs,” Harry MacAfee in “Bye Bye Birdie,” and Jackie “Tiger” Brown in “The Threepenny Opera.”
Jones also took an active interest in the community television station that was located on campus. He was a founding member, organizer, and frequent on-air personality.
Following his graduation in 1989, Jones returned to Dorchester and threw himself into painting, sculpture, and poetry. His poems run the gamut from the whimsical to youthful remembrance to pointed social commentary. He continued to perform on stage in productions for local theatre companies including The Actors Playhouse in South Boston and The Company Theatre in Norwell. He sang every Sunday with the St. Ann’s Choir.
Jones would often introduce himself with the words from one of his poems: “My name is Cornelius Francis Patrick Xavior Cugat Jones. I’m an English, Irish, German, Welsh, Catholic, Jewish American which, to my way of thinking, deems me to be, I suspect, a paranoid schizophrenic, dyslexic manic depressive, multi-transsexual petty thief and a bigot suffering from attention deficit disorder, the Roman Catholic Church, and guilt over the joy of being born in Boston, Massachusetts.”
With his companion Victor Tammi, Jones enjoyed dining throughout the Boston area and visiting Castle Island on the shore of Boston Harbor. He loved spending time with family as well as a large circle of longtime friends.
In 2012, Jones suffered a stroke that left his left side paralyzed. This did not deter him. He continued to paint and write poetry. His eternal optimism, loving spirit, and ability to cheer others never dimmed.
Jones was a fun-loving, consummate entertainer who enriched the lives of all who knew him. He was a kind and loyal friend, with a generous nature, sharp sense of humor, and joyful personality.
Survivors include his daughters, Tara Jones of Eugene, Oregon, and Bonnie Shugrue and her husband, Christian, of West Simsbury, CT and grandchildren Sophia of Eugene, and Aidan, Lydia and Brandon of West Simsbury, CT.
His nieces and nephews and their families, Larry Jones Jr. and his wife Kerry of Medford, MA, their children Andrew and Samantha, Laura Napa of Hanson, MA, Susan Hudson of Hanson, MA and her children Stephanie, Robert Jr., and Ryan, Steven J. Jones of Plymouth, MA and his children Dakota and Mackenzie, Cathy and Joseph Correnti of Danville, NH and their son, Nino, Cheryl Jones of Rumford, RI and her daughter, Mamata, Melinda Jones of Brinson, GA and her children Zachary, Anna and Emily, and Jennifer and Thomas Sutton of Hampton, NH and their son, Timothy.
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