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Preserving Hollywood History

Actor Jane Withers hopes to create a museum for the performing arts to house her collection of movie memorabilia.

August 28, 2004|Regine Labossiere | Times Staff Writer

It began with a simple love of dolls and led to an autographed pair of Fred Astaire's dancing shoes and the movie set from "My Fair Lady."

Jane Withers, a child movie star in the 1930s and '40s, amassed a collection of old Hollywood memorabilia to rival a small Los Angeles museum. Her goal is to eventually create a museum for the collection.

But there have been some bumps in the road.

In July, new owners took over the Burbank warehouse where the tens of thousands of items had been gathering dust since 1996. The new owners raised the rent from $6,000 a month to $7,200 a month.

Withers couldn't afford the increased rent. Within weeks, longtime friends came to her rescue and did what Withers thought was impossible.

Boxes upon boxes of film costumes, movie sets, dolls and china were driven from the 5,000-square-foot warehouse to living rooms, garages, basements and backyards of friends across the city. They await the day Withers can reunite the collection.

"There were over 42,000 things in that warehouse. That's a lot of things, sweet potato," Withers said in an interview.

Withers, 78, who has starred in more than 50 films, has big plans for her museum.

"I didn't call it a museum; I called it a learning center," Withers said. "My dream has always been to build a learning center for children that would incorporate the performing arts."

She said the facility would incorporate the thousands of dolls to teach children about diversity as well as old scripts and other movie memorabilia to instruct students on the performing arts.

Items like Julie Andrews' wedding dress from "The Sound of Music," collectible dolls, antiques, Lucille Ball's hand mirror and Mary Pickford's dining table were meant to be on display, Withers said.

Moreover, she would finally have a place to put everything. Frankly, her friends say, she has too much stuff.

"Do you have any idea how much she [had] in the warehouse? She has sets!" said friend and fellow actor Joan Leslie. "She goes to auctions and buys things. She doesn't even know where she's going to put them when she does that."

Part of the problem has been solved with the recent sale of 200 dolls by the Theriault's auction house. Withers was upset over the loss of dolls that have played a major role in her life since the 1930s, but she was happy others would get to enjoy them.

"I was sad at first because I have taken care of these babies," Withers said. "But when I saw [the buyers] cry for joy ... it made me ecstatically happy."

One item that went for $6,600 was a velvet-and-sateen doll with white felt teeth and oversized black pupils.

When she was a little girl, Withers recounted, a good friend of hers took her on a picnic in Orange County and showed her the expanse of citrus groves. He told her he would make an amusement park that would bring the whole world together. Later that day, from Walt Disney's own hand, came the first model of a line of character dolls he had designed. Withers kept the original Goofy doll until she handed it over for the auction. Its new home is the Indianapolis Children's Museum.

Withers loves to tell stories about her days as a Hollywood star. "He was a big fan of mine, yes ma'am," she said of President Franklin Roosevelt. "He would call me and leave a message because I was always busy."

Roosevelt became an admirer after she impersonated him for a newsreel during his presidential run, Withers said. The president heard about her growing doll collection and sent his wife to deliver one of his teddy bears.

"He had Mrs. Roosevelt deliver it personally in the studio, 20th Century Fox," she said. "About six weeks later in the mail arrived this sweet French doll from [Mrs. Roosevelt's] doll collection that her mom had given her. They're all right here on the bed. They talk to each other all day."

Already a veteran of radio and vaudeville in her hometown of Atlanta, Withers and her family moved to West Los Angeles when she was 5 to pursue a film career. She made it in Hollywood with a scene-stealing role opposite Shirley Temple in the 1934 film "Bright Eyes."

Withers took a hiatus from acting to raise her five children from two marriages and to care for her ailing mother, who died of cancer in 1983. But she again found fame and a new fan base during her 12-year stint selling Comet cleanser as Josephine the plumber.

Withers was instrumental in creating several Hollywood institutions, including the Hollywood Walk of Fame, she said.

She has continued working in the industry, recently doing voice work for such movies as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and she's looking to expand her career.

Collecting has taken up much of her time. She regularly attends auctions and used to buy items from studio sales. Withers said she once bought 28 truckloads of merchandise from 20th Century Fox, the studio that paid her salary in her early years.

"I love history, I respect history ... and I love and respect craftsmanship," Withers said.

Her friends say her collection is awe-inspiring and unlike anything they've ever known. "I don't know anybody that collects to the extent that Jane does. She has such an appreciation for old stuff," Leslie said.

But after decades of hording, Leslie added, the time has come to get rid of much of the collection.

Withers acknowledges that she needs to let go, but hopes she can get help from the Hollywood community to finally establish the museum and learning center.

Though her acting roles have dwindled in recent years, she has gained a new measure of fame touring with auctions displaying parts of her doll collection.

Withers hopes to make the museum her legacy. "Time goes on and you have to move with it or else you'll be stuck in the background, and I don't ever intend on being stuck in the background."

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