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For former Broadway musician, 88 keys to success

Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Jackie O’Neill says that if she had known her musical talent was going to take her around the world she would have paid more attention in geography class as a youngster in Charlotte.

But she was consumed by her piano lessons beginning at age 3. “I read music before I learned to read English,” said O’Neill, a resident of River Club for the past two-plus years. O’Neill was married to the late Dick O’Neill, an actor on Broadway and in Hollywood, and played piano for a Who’s Who of musical legends.

She learned at age 10 during a summer seminar at Carnegie Hall that she had perfect pitch, the ability to identify a musical note without a reference tone. When a fifth-grade classmate asked her why she didn’t come out and play with the other kids in the neighborhood, Jackie realized she was “a little different.”

When her mother took her to her first Broadway show at age 12, she knew what she wanted to do with her life. “At intermission,” she said, “I noticed a beautiful grand piano in the upstairs lobby. The case was decorated in gold leaf. I had never seen such a beautiful piano. I stood by the instrument and touched it, wishing I could play a song. That was the day I made up my mind to live in New York and play piano for Broadway shows.”

She got her first taste of life in New York City when she won a scholarship to study piano during the summer after her junior year in high school with classical arranger and teacher Dr. Edwin Hughes. “Those few months of living there,” she said, “reinforced my desire to make New York my home one day.”

Committed to her plan of playing on Broadway, she turned down a scholarship to graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music in New York during her senior year of college. She had worked as the rehearsal pianist for the Charlotte Summer Theater. Over the course of four years, she had rehearsed 40 musicals that featured New York talent. “I kept a little black book with the names of the directors, choreographers, conductors, dancers and singers,” O’Neill said.

She moved to New York after graduating from college and roomed with a cast member from a Charlotte theater performance. She began calling the names in her little black book and got a job as rehearsal pianist at the Martin Beck Theater for the show “Here’s Love.” The doorman greeted her upon arrival at the stage door and said the rehearsal piano was being tuned so they would be using the piano from the lobby.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” O’Neill said. “The same gold leaf Grand Piano I had admired as a 12-year-old was the very piano I was to play.”

The show “Milk and Honey” was her first Broadway production. “I can still feel the thrill I had when the first note of the overture was played, and my childhood dream of playing on Broadway was finally coming true,” she said. “The show closed several months later, and I was hired to join the national tour playing all major cities around the USA and Canada. I jumped at the opportunity to travel and be paid for it.” The show spent several months in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and O’Neill added the names of all the dancers and singers to her little black book.

When she returned to New York, O’Neill found an apartment in a building near Radio City Music Hall where some Rockettes lived. That contact led to a job playing piano for auditions and rehearsals. Later on, she worked with Onna White, the Oscar winning choreographer of the film “Oliver,” as well as choreographers Agnes De Mille and Bob Fosse while he was doing “Sweet Charity” with his wife Gwen Verdon.

Another of O’Neill’s contacts got her a job playing for the Broadway show “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” It was the most unusual job she ever had. “The score was written for a full orchestra,” she said. “There is no piano part, except for 10 measures of the Grieg Piano Concerto used in a song at the end of Act One. I was hired to go into the orchestra pit near the end of Act One, play the 10 measures and leave. I worked for about five minutes and had that job for three years.”

Her biggest break came when she was asked to be substitute pianist for a matinee and evening performance of “The Sound of Music.” The work of actor Dick O’Neill, playing the role of Uncle Max, caught her eye. Little did she know that she had caught his eye, too. He asked her to dinner between shows and to come back the next night so she could see the whole performance. They married within three months. “That was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life,” O’Neill said. “Our three daughters were born in New York City, and Dick and I shared 34 happy years together.”

Dick O’Neill had large roles in Broadway productions of “Promises, Promises,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Skyscraper” and in the movies “The Taking of Pelham 123,” “MacArthur,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” and “Pretty Poison.” He was working with Jack Lemmon on a TV remake of “The Entertainer” when he was asked to go to Hollywood to join Lemmon and Walter Matthau in filming “The Front Page.”

That led the family to Los Angeles and put Jackie out of work because there was very little live theater in the city then. Dick got roles in TV shows — “Home Improvement” was one — and spent five years on “Cagney and Lacy.” Jackie had a dream about getting a job at Beverly Hills High School and told her husband about it when she woke up in the middle of the night. She wrote herself a note and went back to sleep. “I didn’t remember it when he asked me about it the next morning,” Jackie said, “but there was the note that said there was a job for me.”

She remembered that a piano tuner had told her the schools hire pianists for performing arts departments. She tried the Santa Monica School District office and was told they had all the pianists they needed. She returned to the car and told her husband it hadn’t worked out. They drove to Beverly Hills High and found the performing arts department. The director was John Ingle, who played for 15 years on “General Hospital” after retiring from the school. He said he needed a tape recording of the score of “South Pacific” because his pianist was in the hospital. Jackie sat down and played the familiar music for Ingle and went to work the next day.

When the regular pianist died, and she got the job permanently and worked with Nicholas Cage, David Schwimmer, Gina Gershon and Lenny Kravitz as well as a student who became famous in politics, Monica Lewinsky. She taught Sonny Bono his music for “A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to The Forum” and rehearsed Cher for a TV appearance. She accompanied Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone, Dick Van Dyke, Howard Keel, Vic Damone, Peter Marshall, Robert Morse and Carol Burnett among a host of others. She assisted Fred Werner, composer for the TV series “Dukes of Hazzard” in recording sessions and composed and arranged choral music for Hal Leonard Publishing, Warner Brothers and Alfred Music.

The whole O’Neill family spent a year in Spain while Dick worked in the TV series “Dark Justice.” Jackie participated in master classes at the Academia Marshall.

“After Dick passed away, I took a few years to decide what to do with my life,” Jackie said. She moved back to her hometown of Charlotte. “At the time,” she said, “I didn’t have any grandchildren.” After the birth of her fifth, she thought of moving back to California but remembered that she had always wanted to live on the South Carolina coast. “I thought if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it, so I made a bypass and came here,” she said.

She’s looking for ways to share her musical gift with the community. She has volunteered to play hymns for the Bible study at the Lakes at Litchfield and plays at Pawleys Island Community Church. O’Neill and Gretchen Downer played synthesizers for events at Brookgreen Gardens, and she played at fundraisers for the Waccamaw Library and the Cultural Council of Georgetown County. She and pianist Elsie Pollack are rehearsing a program they hope to do soon.

O’Neill wants to keep her calendar clear enough for trips to California. “I don’t want anything taxing,” she said.

She knows she’s in the right place for now. She and her 1927 baby grand piano share the house number: 88.

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