Jane Withers, child star who later won fame in commercials, dies at 95

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Jane Withers, child star who later won fame in commercials, dies at 95
Although her Hollywood success did not survive adolescence, Withers was the rare child actor who entered adulthood prepared for the real world — and with money in the bank.

by Aljean Harmetz

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Jane Withers, a top child star in the 1930s who played tough, tomboyish brats in more than two dozen B films and achieved a second burst of fame as an adult as Josephine the Plumber in commercials for Comet cleanser, died Saturday in Burbank, California. She was 95.

Her death was confirmed by her daughter Kendall Errair.

In her first major movie role, in 20th Century Fox’s “Bright Eyes” (1934), the 8-year-old Jane played a spoiled rich kid who wanted a machine gun for Christmas and took a ghoulish delight in sending her dolls to the hospital. She was the antidote to the movie’s star, Shirley Temple, the always cheerful, always obedient, always smiling orphan.

The titles of some of the films in which Withers starred said it all: “The Holy Terror” (1937), “Wild and Woolly” (1937), “Rascals” (1938), “Always in Trouble” (1938) and “The Arizona Wildcat” (1939).

At the end of most of her movies, “just to satisfy everybody, I get a good spanking,” Withers told Norman Zierold, the author of “The Child Stars” (1965). “The minute they slapped me in ‘Bright Eyes,’ everybody just yelled and waved, they were so happy. Well, I don’t mind. I had my fun.”

As an adult, Withers played Vashti Snythe, the neighbor of Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson who delighted in spending her oil money in “Giant” (1956); appeared in several TV series; and voiced the gargoyle Laverne in the animated “Hunchback of Notre Dame II” (2002), a role she first took on after the death of Mary Wickes in 1995.

But her most memorable and long-lasting role was as Josephine the Plumber, in a white cap and overalls, in the 1960s and ’70s. Nearly 40 years later, she was still being recognized for that character.

“I can be at a market and I’ll be talking to somebody there about a can of peas and all of a sudden they’ll say, ‘I knew that was you! I recognized your voice right away,’” Withers told The Long Beach Press-Telegram in 2007.

Most of her films were made at Fox’s small studio in Hollywood. Shirley Temple’s mother, Gertrude, who was said to be choosy about who was allowed to play with her daughter, had Withers banished from the studio’s grand Westwood lot, according to another former child star, Dickie Moore. In his memoir, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” Moore wrote that Gertrude Temple was so protective of Shirley that Jane was not even allowed to say hello to her when the children performed together in “Bright Eyes.”

Although her Hollywood success did not survive adolescence, Withers was the rare child actor who entered adulthood prepared for the real world — and with money in the bank. Her parents “taught Jane bookkeeping at age seven,” Moore wrote, in contrast to almost all the other parents, who refused to allow their meal tickets to grow up and, in most cases, squandered their money. It was a point of pride for her father, a Goodrich executive, that his salary paid the family’s expenses.

Jane Withers was born in Atlanta on April 12, 1926, to Walter and Lavinia Withers. Her mother, a movie fan, picked Jane as a name because she thought it would look good on a marquee. By the age of 4, the pudgy child with the Buster Brown haircut was singing, dancing and imitating Greta Garbo; billed as “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop,” she had her own local radio program.

When Jane was 6, the family moved to Hollywood. After two years of department store modeling and bit parts, she was cast as Joy Smythe in “Bright Eyes.”

Like Temple, Withers played an orphan in most of her films. In “Paddy O’ Day” (1935), her rescuer was Rita Cansino — soon to be renamed Rita Hayworth — in her first leading role. In “45 Fathers” (1937), she was adopted by a group of old men.

By 1937, Withers was in sixth place on theater owners’ list of the Top 10 box office stars, despite the fact that she performed only in B movies. And sales of Jane Withers paper dolls, hair bows, socks and mystery novels similar to the Nancy Drew series earned her more money than her movies.

Stardom also brought Withers thousands of dolls and teddy bears, most of them sent by fans. Those fans included President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had his wife, Eleanor, hand deliver a teddy bear.

As she entered her teenage years, Withers wrote a story for herself, under the pseudonym Jerrie Walters. It was made into the movie “Small Town Deb” (1942). As her contract with Fox ended, she starred as a peasant girl in Samuel Goldwyn’s “The North Star” (1943).

Withers married a Texas oilman, William Moss Jr., in 1947. They had three children and divorced in 1955, leaving Withers with several oil wells. That same year she married Kenneth Errair, who had been a member of the singing group the Four Freshmen. He was killed in a plane crash in 1968. (Information on her survivors was not immediately available.)

In August 2004, Withers auctioned several hundred dolls, many of them likenesses of film and radio stars and characters of the 1930s, including Sonja Henie, the Lone Ranger and Snow White.

Withers may never have surpassed Temple’s popularity on the screen. But in the 2004 sale, a Shirley Temple doll dressed in her “Little Colonel” costume sold for $3,100; a Jane Withers doll sold for $5,600.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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