Jane Withers: Doll Collector

Many of you may know of Jane Withers because of her association with arguably the most famous child star to walk the Earth, Shirley Temple. A giant in her own right, actress Jane Withers impressive filmography spans decades, starting with 1934’s Bright Eyes, her first credited role, to her last appearance as the voice of Laverne in Hunchback of Notre Dame 2 in 2002. From 1932 to 1947 alone, Jane is credited as being in a whopping 45 films.

Born April 12, 1926, showmanship was in little Janie’s blood. She was practically singing and dancing at birth and was well known in her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia for her talent of mimicking popular stars of the day– at the ripe old age of four! Her family eventually made the move to Los Angeles, which is where things really picked up for this pint-sized talent.

Promo Photo from Bright Eyes

After a few extra roles and modeling jobs, eight year old Jane was cast as the bratty Joy Smythe to Shirley Temple’s Shirley Blake in 1934’s Bright Eyes. While developed specifically for Shirley Temple, the role of Joy is remembered well. With the director going so far as to say to Jane, “You stole the picture”. This role sold Fox Studios on Jane’s talent and they signed her to a seven year contact. Fox used her in many, many projects until her contracts completion in 1942. She signed a three year deal with another company before marrying and having three children. (She’d later divorce, remarry and have two more children.) Jane’s career wasn’t over, of course, she did movie, TV and spokesperson spots up until her last project, Hunchback of Notre Dame 2. It seems that now, at the age of 92, she’s settled well into retirement.

Promo Photo from Bright Eyes

But, why am I talking about movie history when this is a doll blog? Well, you see, besides her filmography, Jane is well known for another thing– her doll collection! Being a child star in the 1930’s, her collection was vast and diverse, featuring many pristine looking dolls from a time when real craftsmanship was put into each and every doll produced.

One article says that Jane started collecting at two and a half years old and at the time of the writing (sometime in the 1970’s) had over 14,000 dolls in her collection. Jane said one of the things she loved was the “craftsmanship” of the dolls. (And when it comes to dolls from the 30’s-50’s, I wholeheartedly agree with Jane!)

Jane Withers with some of her collection.

I’ve searched Google high and low to find pictures of Jane’s doll collection to no avail. The glimpses I did find all come from Theriault, a doll auction house with a bit of a checkered history among sellers and buyers. But, at the very least, Theriault’s did one thing right– they kept the catalog from their 2004 auction on the website– so at the very least, we get to see over 200 of the 14,000 dolls Jane once owned.

Most of the dolls in the 2004 auction were childhood dolls, many made in the 1930’s. On her collection, Jane told blog ‘Journeys in Classic Film’, “My fans sent me over 8,000 dolls and 2,500 teddy bears and I have given those dolls to the History Museum here in California.  Every Friday volunteers go in that are doll people…We’re unpacking all of these dolls and teddy bears, [and] it’s been my dream for my dolls to be shared with everyone whose been kind enough to send them to me.  They’re not just displayed dolls in glass cases, they’re in little movie sets of the period of time they represent; everything’s built to scale around the dolls and it’s really something to see.”

Jane Withers and Some of Her Collection

Forces of Geek also asked about her doll collection. “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 keeps 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.”

Not only were her dolls sent by fans, but her famous friends were known to have gifted her a few treasures, as well. Walt Disney, for example, gave her one of the first Goofy character dolls and FDR gifted one of his Teddy Bears to her posthumously. “Eleanor [Roosevelt] delivered it to me personally after he died,” Jane said.”, talking about the origins of one bear in her Teddy Bear collection.

A collector of film history, as well, it was Jane’s goal to open a museum of sorts, a “learning center” as she called it, much like the late great Debbie Reynolds wanted to do with her collection of Hollywood Memorabilia. An LA Times article written after the Theriault’s auction talked about how hard it was at first for Jane to give up the dolls for auction. “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.” Understandably, she was upset about the loss of her dolls, “but she was happy others would get to enjoy them.” Spoken like a collector that’s in it for the right reasons.

Not only was Jane a collector, but she was lucky enough to have dolls made of her by the Madame Alexander Company back in 1937. These composition dolls are still sought after. (I personally would love one, as besides my Dionne Quints, I don’t have any Madame Alexander dolls modeled after the popular actors of the time. Plus, the Jane Withers doll is super cute!)

I would recommend checking out the auction catalog to see all the dolls that went up for auction. Below are some of the one’s that caught my eye.

DEANNA DURBIN BY IDEAL
Photo Credit: Theriaults
AMERICAN CLOTH DOLL IN HAWAIIAN COSTUME
Photo Credit: Theriaults
PRINCESS ELIZABETH AS ALEXANDER
Photo Credit: Theriaults
JAPANESE ICHIMATSU DOLLS
Photo Credit: Theriaults
AMERICAN COMPOSITION TODDLER DOLL
Photo Credit: Theriaults

With this very diverse lot of dolls put up for auction, I’m curious to see what Jane or her family decided to keep! What do you think of Jane Withers collection? Do you have a favorite doll from it? Let us know in the comment area!

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