One of the most popular child stars of the 1930s through the early 1940s, Jane Withers started her career before her third birthday and has been working ever since. Recently 20th Century Fox, the studio that produced a number of her films, released via their Fox Cinema Archive, The Jane Withers Collection, consisting of seven titles she made between 1934 and 1941.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Ms. Withers, who is one of the most genuinely warmest and sweetest people I have ever interviewed.
Honey, I’ve talked about them since I started doing them. And I’m currently writing five books. I loved what I did. I thank God every day of my life that my mother thought it would be interesting to have a child in show business. She used to go and study the marquee and say, “Withers is the last name. She will have to have a short first name to look right on the marquees” and, “I won’t have other children, I won’t have time.”
She wanted a child who would be interested and really appreciate being a part of show business and films. I had done stage. I had my own radio show from 3 to 6 1/2, where I sang and danced and did impersonations of all the stars in the late 20s and 30s. And I loved it!
|Jane Withers in Little Miss Nobody|
Momma took me to the movies twice a week. And we would see all the newest movies at that time, especially musicals. The only lessons I ever had–I never had any singing lessons–I said no I’ll just haul off and sing, because I had an Ethel Merman voice, anyway, but I’ve had so much fun, and deeply appreciated the opportunities that I had and the people that came into my life were awesome. What I learned, what they taught me, and that’s what I want to share with other people because it’s been such a fun life.
I make every day an adventure, and all I have to do is close my eyes and I have such happy memories. I could entertain myself in remembering the people … the kindness and thoughtfulness and learning experiences …
I love learning. I think it’s the most exciting thing in the world. I love learning new things, but I didn’t know what the Geek Culture was, and when it was explained to me that it includes technology, art, television, comics, music, fashion, film, literature and video games. Dear gosh, that’s the art of living all those things. I thank you for what you do, and you must have as much fun as I do. I think it’s awesome. I hope you’re all having fun, and don’t we all have a great life! Whoopee.
What are you observations on how the entertainment industry has changed from the golden age to now?
Let me put it this way. the real essence of living is your attitude.
That takes you through life, and what your attitude is depends on what kind of life you’re going to have. The attitude of film and filmmaking has changed so drastically, and it’s really hard to define and put into words. What I see and what I’ve had the privilege of learning all these years from all these different people, for instance Will Rogers when I was 8 taught me how to play chess and I continued playing chess. I made five films with Walter Brennan.
Will Rogers taught me so many things. I was hired when I was 6, can you imagine, to teach Will Rogers how to impersonate Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. I look at all those executives and said, “Gentlemen, there is no way in the world Will Rogers will ever sound like Rudy Vallee or Bing Crosby, but I’ll give you some ideas on how I think you can get through this”.
It was in the film Doubting Thomas. Well that started our friendship.
And of course we were both at 20th Century Fox, and he just liked me and would call my teacher when I was at school. When I was on a film I had three hours of school daily, six hours when I wasn’t on a film and he would call my teacher every day and say when is Jane’s recess. And she would find out and tell him. Then he would either come up to my dressing room, or I would roller skate with my bodyguards down to his dressing room, and we’d play chess. He had such wisdom and wit, oh I adored him!. And I still have a magnificent turquoise and silver ring he gave me the day before he left on his fatal journey. But I’ll never forget him. He holds a special place in my heart.
And all of these lovely people, everyone that I worked with, I can say I was the only person who had the same crew on all my films. I said, “the money doesn’t interest me, but whom I going to spend my life learning from and with means everything to me”. I wanted my crew to have as much fun and appreciate this extraordinary opportunity we all had together of working together, sharing our thoughts and talents together, and making the world happy. That meant everything in the world to me.
And my mother was responsible for my thinking, my ways of life, my attitude and everything has been a new adventure. And I look forward to every day, whatever comes. The pitfalls, the detours that I lovingly call them that we all have in life, only are our teachers for the future, things you have to learn that God prepares you for other things that are yet to come. At least that’s what I have discovered and feel very strongly about in my life. That’s what I’m writing about. It’s fun!
All I have to do is close my eyes and I start giggling and laughing saying thank you God for this wonderful life I’ve been privileged to have, and that’s what I’m trying to teach my five kids and my five grandchildren, and my five great grand-children.
In doing research about you I read about an incredible doll collection. Can you discuss that a little bit?
Well, I’ll tell you I’ve always loved people. All people in all walks of life. And I love to talk to them and find out why they are doing what they are doing and if they are happy. If they aren’t happy, good gravy try doing something else. Always try what you might think you want to do or be. And I’ve always taught my kids that. They all have their own companies now. They have a wonderful life. They always say, “Thank you mom for what you taught us and what we learned from you. And we are having a really good life, and so are our children. And I thank you with all my heart”.
My prayer was, I was God’s partner; I dedicated my life’s work to God when I was 9 years old, that’s a big responsibility but that didn’t bother me. I love responsibility. That’s why I said to those executives at Fox nobody else had the same crew all the time. They said it isn’t possible. I said Oh yes it is. Because in Matthew 21:22, it says, “all things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer believing, ye shall receive.”
Of course you got to work for it. You have to make sure it’s the right thing, not only for you, but for everybody that you are concerned with in what you are doing. To me that’s the essence of living, and boy howdy I have lived. I’ve gotten jobs for Rita Hayworth.
When Buddy Rogers was married to Mary Pickford. I read my script Golden Hoofs, I said Dear Gussie, this charming, lovely man hasn’t worked in a long time. He would be perfect in this movie. I had to work at it, but I got him the job of being in Golden Hoofs with me. He was just a marvelous human being, and he was so tickled to get back to work again. And Mary Pickford would come and visit our set two or three times a week and it was joyful for everybody concerned. It was wonderful and he was marvelous in the movie.
Rita Hayworth became one of my closest friends, and almost like another mother to me until she died. She told both of her girls she always wanted a girl just like Janey Withers. How she got her job in Paddy O’Day, was because of what I did.
I visited the Charlie Chan set anytime I had time, I always had more fun visiting the different sets. I loved the Charlie Chan movies, I knew everybody in it, and this darling girl was in the scene about ballroom dancing. And I said, “Who is that beautiful young girl? She just sparkles with love and life.”
Anyway I met her and she was so painfully shy, would you believe that afternoon when I got home I got my script from Paddy O’Day, was my next movie, I read it that night and said to my mom and dad, Good gravy, would you believe there was a young lady today, she was a ballroom dancer, but she would be perfect for the part of the Russian immigrant in Paddy O’Day.
|Rita Hayworth and Jane Withers in Paddy O’Day|
Well, I called Mr. Seiler, my director who directed me in Ginger, my first starring film, which was my favorite still, and talked to him about giving her a screen test. He said, “why don’t you just come and talk to her in the screen test?”
I said, “I want you to get those sparkling eyes and see what’s in her soul. She is awesome, and she is going to be a big star if she is just going to get the right roles. Well, she got the role in Paddy O’Day, and she was just wonderful. Did you get to see it?
I did, it was a lovely film.
Did you like her in that?
I did. There’s really something remarkable about a lot of the films of the golden age, an overall sense of charm that really doesn’t exist in entertainment anymore. It’s unfortunate that everything has to fit a broad audience and certain genres, such as musicals, are deemed “marketable”.
Oh, and I love musicals, don’t you?
I get so excited when I think about them. Don’t you think it’s about attitude? I swear attitude in nine tenths of living. What your attitude is means everything. And so many people’s attitudes today because the world is so different, your attitude is bound to be different. Not mine. I can’t think anything but positive. I don’t let anything negative come in my mind. If I do I say no way are you going to stay in this brain. I don’t have time for negatives. Only positives. And you’ve got to make positives out of negatives.
For instance, I now have lupus disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and vertigo. That’s a very unique challenge. Every day when I put my two feet on the ground, I say Lord, here we go again. I don’t know if I’m going to walk today or not.
But I have turned a negative into a positive. I’ve never had time to work on my books before. I’m bedridden a lot and I get these dizzy spells because of my vertigo. It doesn’t bother my speech, so I just lay in bed, close my eyes, and have these happy memories and I grab my tape recorder and start sharing thoughts into the tape recorded about how I felt when I did what I did. And the way that I did it. It was because of the attitude of the other people around me.
The people that God put into my life taught me so many wonderful things. And I’ve had to me the most interesting life of anyone I know. I said I’ll work till I’m 21 then I want to stop. I want to marry Mr. Right and then I want to have five children. Why five? I’ll never know. But I had five children.
One died of cancer at 33. Again, That’s the hardest thing that ever happened to me. You just don’t get over losing a child that you love, but you have to because life goes on. The experiences of the doctors, the people, the nurses, I never would have met them had he not had cancer. Neither would he. And we were better people because of the people that came into our lives. I don’t know any other way to express it, but I have had such an interesting life.
I love to study new things. I didn’t know what geek meant, but I think it’s fascinating. And I love what you’re doing. You must have a fascinating life too.
Well, it has its moments. This is actually very special for me, this conversation.
Oh bless your heart! Don’t you think it works the same for me too? We’re sharing. Everything is better in life when you can share it.
My darling fans knew that I loved dolls and teddy bears. I have over 8,000 dolls and 2,500 teddy bears fans. I have paid for the storage of these things since I was 6 years old. It just keep growing and growing. All I wanted to do was share this extraordinary collection. I loved dolls, studies everything about them that I could. All the dolls of the different countries I studied with my teacher. When I would go on personal appearances we’d stay an extra day in each city so my mother could make sure I could see all of the museums. Anything that was historical or meaningful we would see.
And of course I had kidnap threats so I bodyguards around the clock, but those gentlemen were fabulous. It was like having three fathers instead of one. And I adored both of them when we were together all those years until I was married and walked down the aisle.
And I wanted five children and had five children, but with two different marriages. My first marriage was not as I had hoped for. He’s still one of my closest friends, my first husband. But my other husband, I married Kenneth Errair, who was one of the Four Freshmen singing group. And he quit show business. He was the father my children never had in my first marriage. He was a wonderful man, and he wanted to be an attorney for people who couldn’t afford attorneys.
I said, “Okay, that’s going to take nine or ten hours a day. You’re going to have to do that and I’ll take over the financial situation and go back to work again”. I love working. It’s never work for me, it’s just joy, and wonderful people. That’s what I did. I went back to work again. I had no idea what I was going to do.
So we had a prayer group every Wednesday night at our home. Jimmy Stewart and Gloria, you wouldn’t believe the people that came. We had a marvelous time. We had potluck. Everybody would bring a dish and we would read the Bible, certain areas of it. And then we would tell true stories that happened to people who believed in God. We just had a wonderful friendship evening. And later on Gloria Stewart, Jimmy’s wife and Eleanor Powell and I taught Sunday school for 5 1/2 years. We were the kindergarten department of the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church.
All of these things add up to attitude. I don’t know any other way to express it. If you have a joyful, meaningful attitude, and appreciate, really care about what you’re doing, you’re going to have a fantastic life. I know I have. And from what you’re doing in your life, it seems like you’re doing the same thing. Obviously the people who read you are sharing all of this. It’s just a very inspiring thing for all of us. I’m just so grateful every day for having the opportunity for sharing these thoughts with you. I just wish we had more time.
Well, I appreciate the time you gave me today. Thank you very much.
I hope you enjoyed my movies as much as I had making them.
I did. It was truly a privilege and an honor to speak with you today.
Oh thank you, and bless you for what you do. Keep having an adventure every day in your life. My love to all of your readers!
|Jane Withers in Chicken-Wagon Family|
The Jane Withers Collection is currently available from Fox Cinema Archives and includes Little Miss Nobody, Rascals, Chicken-Wagon Family, High School, The Farmer Takes a Wife, Paddy O’Day and Golden Hoofs.