"This gathering reminds me of one that took place some years ago at Uphams Corner," 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 Cafe 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. "We 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."
Jones chuckles over the phone as he recalls the occasion. At that time, he said, "People wouldn't move; they wouldn't go into neighborhoods that were strange. There was a lot of polarization. Even my friends would say, ‘ We won't go there [to the Strand].’" Now Jones, who lives in the St. Mark'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 Teddy's Drug Store in South Boston'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 Jones's resume over the last 50 years suggests his education was not in vain: 1964 -- He played alongside Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly" on Broadway. 1966 ; “ Apple Tree” with Alan Alda; 1969 -- “ Cocoa” 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 Theater’s production of “ The Music Man.”
His favorite act? He is quick to say “Hello, Dolly.” He is also quick to name a tour on which he performed with Liza Minnelli. “We 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.” He said that Minnelli was trying to gauge the “economic strata” of the country at the time through these performances. “I remember Bob Hope saying to me in Vegas that ‘[Minnelli] is the bravest woman in America’,” a sentiment to which Jones quickly concedes. “She was absolutely brilliant, she could handle anything.”
Much the same can be said of Jones himself, especially after he returned to school in 1990 at Bradford College, which has since closed. “It was awful. It’s hard,” he said of college life as a non-traditional student living in dormitories along with the other undergraduates. “It was rough, but I learned about this TV stuff. I learned about community television.”
His participation in community television via a channel in Haverhill, as well as his painting and his poetry, have dominated the latest chapter in Jones’s life as an artist.
While he couldn’t import a television station into Dot 2 Dot Cafe 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: “Swell kids,” said Jones.
Jones’s paintings will be on display at Dot 2 Dot through this coming Sunday, but he notes, “All 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.”
“I had a great teacher at Bradford,” he said. “That professor showed me, ‘See how you overwork. Stop when you’re supposed to stop when you get that signal!’ That’s what I’m trying to do now,” said Jones, although stopping