September marked the 50th anniversary of “The Partridge Family,” a television show that holds special memories — thanks to the talents of America’s consummate mom, Shirley Jones.
From its first airing on Sept. 25, 1970, The Partridge Family was part of my family’s Friday night ritual. The catchy tunes and story of musical siblings who convinced their mother to take them on tour in a converted school bus kept us tuning in.
The glue that held the show together was Jones, who played widowed mother Shirley Partridge. At 8 years old, I didn’t find out until later about her storied career as the star of “Oklahoma!,” “Carousel” and “The Music Man.” I simply knew she was a talented actress, wonderful singer and one of the most beautiful women on TV.
And when I watched her on The Partridge Family, I saw my own mom. My dad worked the night shift at Delco in Rochester, leaving mom as the main peacekeeper and cheerleader for five children — just like Shirley.
Today, the show’s lessons still resonate. My favorite episode was a Christmas special in 1971 called “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa,” in which the family’s bus breaks down in the desert on Christmas Eve. They seek help in a ghost town whose sole inhabitant is an old prospector named Charlie (portrayed by Dean Jagger of “White Christmas” fame). Keith (David Cassidy) and manager Reuben Kinkaid (Dave Madden) fix the bus, and the family heads on its way.
As a third-grader, I remember feeling sad as I watched the bus pull away. Would Charlie really spend Christmas alone? Joy was restored when, the next morning, the prospector heard caroling and opened the door to the Partridges bearing gifts. It sent a clear message on what the holidays are all about.
I re-experienced that feeling this Easter Sunday, when my doorbell rang, and I looked out to see a home-cooked meal on my doorstep and my sister and her husband waving at me from their car. Living alone, social distancing has been difficult, and it meant everything to be remembered.
It also meant a lot to be able to meet Shirley Jones in person last fall at the Chiller Theatre Convention in New Jersey. We bonded over our shared distaste for math (fractions are the worst) and her ability to drive stick shift (a skill she learned for The Partridge Family).
And, while Shirley always believed becoming a sitcom star killed her film career, I told her I didn’t agree. As a student wrapping up my final semester at Finger Lakes Community College in the spring of 1984, I remember reading a letter to the editor about her role in the movie “Tank,” opposite James Garner.
“Whatever happened to old-fashioned moms with clean mouths?” bemoaned the author, complaining about Shirley’s use of colorful language.
My response? “I’ve got to see this,” I concluded, heading straight to the theater.
Today, the hilarity of that movie continues to make me laugh — even as old episodes of The Partridge Family bring me back to a more innocent time. To me, the role of Shirley Partridge remains one that showcases Shirley Jones’ true character: strong willed, passionate and caring. Just like mom.