Jonelle Allen, now in her fourth year as Grace, the enterepeneurial post-Civil War frontier cafe owner in CBS TV's "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman," was only four and small for her age when she was cast in the revival of "Wisteria Trees," starring Helen Hayes, Ossie Davies, Cliff Robertson, Will Geer and Lois Smith at the prestigious New York City Center Theatre. In the course of the play's run, Hayes took Allen's Aunt Bea aside [Allen's mother worked and her aunt took the child to performances] and advised, her, "Keep the child in the theatre. She has a natural gift."
It wasn't until some twenty years later at Sardi's on West 44th Street that Allen again saw Helen Hayes in person. Allen was in the spotlight at the famed theatrical hangout awaiting, as was traditional, the first critical reviews following the opening night performance of the musical, "Two Gentlemen of Verona," in which she starred and which Hayes had attended. Rushing up to a great actress and correctly assuming that she would not recognize her, Allen recounted the circumstances and the words Hayes had spoken to Aunt Bea a score of years earlier. Taking Allen's hand in hers, Hayes said simply, "See -- I was right."
It was unanimous. Allen received a Tony nomination as Best Actress in a musical and won the Drama Critics, Drama Desk, Theatre World and Outer Circle Awards for her performance as Silvia in the New York Shakespeare Festival production produced by Joseph Papp and directed by Mel Sharpio with music by Galt MacDermot and lyrics by John Guare. Also starring were Raul Julia, Clifton Davis, Diana Davila and Stockard Channing.
Born in Harlem on a scorching July, Jonelle Allen was the only child of Marion, a postal worker, and Robert Allen, who worked for the New York Transit Authority. Her parents divorced when she was five and she lived with her mother, her Aunt Bea and her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather, the first black post office supervisor in New York City, was a superb jazz saxophonist who didn't think much of music as a profession but who nevertheless taught a neighborhood kid -- Sonny Rollins -- how to play.
A song-and-dance star in front of the family TV set at age 3, Allen was enrolled by her aunt in a children's dance class where she was discovered by a talent scout from "The Merry Mailman," a popular kiddie show in New York. She was soon a frequent sidekick to the host, Ray Heatherton, and a very busy little actress and performer.
New York gossip columnist and TV variety show host Walter Winchell invited the pin-size hoofer to join Sammy Davis Jr. in a take-off of the Shirley Temple/Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tap dance routines in "The Little Colonel." She played a Sunday school kid trying to visualize heaven in the Hallmark Hall of Fame production of "Green Pastures" and did "Small War on Murray Hill," a work-in-progress by Robert E. Sherwood, directed by Garson Kanin who sat her on his lap while giving her notes. "I was sitting on a lot people's laps in those days," recalls Allen.
She lived in Harlem, worked on Broadway and attended a private school, Walden on posh Central Park West. "I was like Sybil with her multiple personalities," says Allen. "I was interacting with diverse groups of people. It probably helped me as an actress." But an unexpected spurt in growth at age 11 turned her into a has-been. "Almost overnight I became too big for little girl roles."
At 13, Allen entered New York's Professional Children's School, the high school for show business youngest, and concentrated on her education until, in her senior year, an agent told her that Joseph Papp, the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival, was auditioning young singers and dancers for "Hair," billed as an "American Tribal Love Rock." She got a role and Papp became something of a mentor. "Hair" opened to great acclaim at Papp's Public Theatre but when, a few months later, it was brought to Broadway by a new production team, Allen opted for a role in "George M," starring Joel Grey and Bernadette Peters, which ran for over 400 performances at the renowned Palace Theatre.
Film and television roles beckoned. Allen filmed "Cotton Comes to Harlem" which starred Godfrey Cambridge and Redd Roxx and was directed by Ossie Davies. She shot a segue, "Come Back Charleston Blue," and won an NAACP Image Award for her role in "The River Niger" with Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson. She filmed "Hotel New Hampshire" with Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe for director Tony Richardson who had directed her earlier in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" at the Long Beach Theatre.
Allen starred off Broadway in the musical version of Irwin Shaw's "Bury the Dead" right after filming "Come Back Charleston Blue." New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr saw her performance and was moved to award her the dream of every actor, "a love letter review." It was soon thereafter that Joe Papp called Allen for "Two Gentlemen of Verona." Originally planned as one of the New York Shakespeare Festival's free productions in Central Park, it was giving a rock score at the suggestion of director Mel Shapiro to help give the modern adaptation of the play the proper contemporary flavor.
Down front to review the play for the Times, Kerr again had only good things to say about Allen's performance. "It was almost as if he felt that I was his discovery," remembered Allen. "In a way, I suppose I was." The play was a smash outdoors in Central Park all summer long. It then moved indoors to Broadway for a run of 627 performances and ultimately to Los Angeles where it played at the Ahmanson.
Allen moved permanently to the west coast where her agents were determined to sell her as the new Diana Ross or Lola Falana. She, on the other hand, wanted to be a fully rounded actress and demanded that they find dramatic roles for her. She guest starred on "Cagney and Lacey," "Hill Street Blues," "The Trials of Rosie O'Neil" and many other hour dramas. She appeared in many diverse roles in a long string of movies-of-the-week, from playing the right wing district attorney to Peter Strauss' presiding judge in CBS TV's "Penalty Phase" to a 17-year old lesbian opposite Susan Dey in another CBS movie, "Cage Without a Key."
Allen wasn't as fortunate as a series regular. "Palmerstown," created by Alex Haley, was canceled after only a few months on CBS during two different seasons. "Berrenger's" lasted only three months on NBC and ABC's "After Midnight," directed by the much sought-after Tony Richardson and featuring John Goodman and Gary Cole along with Allen, never got past its pilot episode.
It wasn't until the spring of 1989 with the premiere of NBC TV's "Generations," the first daytime serial in which one of the two major families were black, then Allen settled down for a substantial two-year run. It was the support of this vanguard series and her continuing efforts to expand the opportunities of minority actors that Allen appeared on the floors of Congress and saw her impassioned testimony published in "The Congressional Record." Soon after the demise of "Generations," Allen embarked upon what promises to be the extended run of "Dr. Quinn."
Perched in a tiny dollhouse of a house in the hills above Laguana Beach for the last decade, Allen is the mistress to two cats and one dog. An exercise nut, Allen works out three hours a day, seven days a week on a half dozen machines at one of the four gyms that she is a member of.
Currently in the works, Jonelle has just finished writing her first cookbook, based on her grandmother's cooking. In development for Jonelle are two movies-of-the-week and her own weekly talk show. With Jonelle, one can say she is always in perpetual motion. [1997: Lewis and Quinn Personal Management and TV/Theatrical Productions.]
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