Itâ€™s hard for Neil Jones, a man of many arts, to stop what he is doing
â€œThis gathering reminds me of one that took place some years ago at Uphams Corner,â€ said Neil Jones, a man of arts and letters, looking out at the twenty or so friends, family, and fans who had gathered at Dot 2 Dot CafÃ© last Thursday to celebrate his gallery show. He recalled a benefit he and some other supporters of the Strand Theatre had organized in the early 1970s. â€œWe had the symphony orchestra from Nuremberg, Germany. We managed to get them to come. There were 109 musicians on stage, and 11 of us in the audience.â€
Jones chuckles over the phone as he recalls the occasion. At that time, he said, â€œPeople wouldnâ€™t move; they wouldnâ€™t go into neighborhoods that were strange. There was a lot of polarization. Even my friends would say, â€˜We wonâ€™t go there [to the Strand].â€™ â€ Now Jones, who lives in the St. Markâ€™s area of Dorchester, is pleased to see the renovations and investment in the theatre, where performers no longer outnumber the audience members.
But it was on another stage in Boston that Jones got his real start in the arts. As a youngster back in 1953, he worked as a soda jerk at Teddyâ€™s Drug Store in South Bostonâ€™s Old Harbor Village before moving on to become an X-ray technician at Boston City Hospital and from there to the U.S. Army National Guard. In 1960, though, that stage beckoned, opening up a wide new avenue of opportunity: He was awarded a full four-year scholarship to the Boston Conservatory of Music where he studied music, dance, voice, acting, and piano.
A quick glance at Jonesâ€™s resume over the last 50 years suggests his education was not in vain: 1964 -- He played alongside Carol Channing in â€œHello, Dollyâ€ on Broadway. 1966 -- â€œApple Treeâ€ with Alan Alda. 1969 -- â€œCocoâ€ with Katherine Hepburn. And that is just a few of his credits. Not to leave out his recent stint as Mayor Shin in the Norwell Community Theaterâ€™s production of â€œThe Music Man.â€
His favorite act? He is quick to say â€œHello, Dolly.â€ He is also quick to name a tour on which he performed with Liza Minnelli. â€œWe did a performance at the Rainbow Theatre in England for the very poor. There was not a person in the house without more than a few teeth missing.â€ He said that Minnelli was trying to gauge the â€œeconomic strataâ€ of the country at the time through these performances. â€œI remember Bob Hope saying to me in Vegas that â€˜[Minnelli] is the bravest woman in Americaâ€™,â€ a sentiment to which Jones quickly concedes. â€œShe was absolutely brilliant, she could handle anything.â€
Much the same can be said of Jones himself, especially after he returned to school in 1990 at Bradford College, which has since closed. â€œIt was awful. Itâ€™s hard,â€ he said of college life as a non-traditional student living in dormitories along with the other undergraduates. â€œIt was rough, but I learned about this TV stuff. I learned about community television.â€
His participation in community television via a channel in Haverhill, as well as his painting and his poetry, have dominated the latest chapter in Jonesâ€™s life as an artist.
While he couldnâ€™t import a television station into Dot 2 Dot CafÃ© last week, he did bring relics and photos from his Broadway days for the gallery goers to admire alongside his colorful paintings, so rife with religious symbolism. He also read a poem about his life as a grandparent of four from his two daughters: â€œSwell kids,â€ said Jones.
Jonesâ€™s paintings will be on display at Dot 2 Dot through this coming Sunday, but he notes, â€œAll those paintings are not finished. You can only learn from an unfinished painting about painting and about the artist. It exposes his foibles, his transgressions there in an unfinished setting. Eighty percent of what I do is a mistake.â€
â€œI had a great teacher at Bradford,â€ he said. â€œThat professor showed me, â€˜See how you overwork. Stop when youâ€™re supposed to stop when you get that signal!â€™ Thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m trying to do now,â€ said Jones, although stopping completely appears to be out of the question.