Josephine the Plumber wasn’t first role

Published 1:15 am Saturday, October 10, 2015

Remember “Josephine the Plumber” who popped up on our television screens during the 1960s and 1970s?  She was that sparkling-eyed person who told us the merits of Comet Cleanser. I wonder how many people immediately recognized her as actor Jane Withers who had co-starred as a child with Shirley Temple in the movie “Bright Eyes” and stole every scene. It was her break-through role, although she had been performing on radio in Atlanta since the age of three.

I recognized her the very first time I saw “Josephine” appear on television advertising Comet. Perhaps it was because I loved Shirley Temple movies. Shirley was my all-time favorite actor. My mother took me to see every Shirley Temple childhood film when I was a little girl. Some years back, I responded to a television offer to purchase a set of tapes of those movies. Once again, I sat captivated as I watched Jane, portraying an obnoxious little girl named Joy, destroy her discarded doll in Shirley’s sight. She ripped off its arms, legs and head. And horror of horrors–she even told Shirley there was no Santa Claus!

If you saw that movie, you might remember that both the precious little girls appeared in grown-up dresses and hats pushing doll carriages. Shirley was beautiful, sweet, and loveable, while Jane portrayed a spoiled brat, Joy. Upon Shirley’s death in 2014, Jane told the press that she credited her big break to Shirley. She said if it had not been for Shirley Temple being the cutest, most adorable little girl in the world and they needed an opposite, “and boy I sure was it,” in “Bright Eyes,” she might have ended up selling hats in Atlanta. The two stars did not really get to know each other as children, but became friends later. She was complimentary of Shirley’s accomplishments as an actor, as well as her service to our country as a United States ambassador.

Although Jane never enjoyed the popularity Shirley Temple did, she appeared in many movies through the years. She was one of the top ten box-office stars in 1937 and 1938. She appeared with the Ritz Brothers in “Pack Up Your Troubles,” and with cowboy star Gene Autry (another of my favorite actors) in “Shooting High.”

As late as 1990 she started doing voices for Walt Disney’s animated cartoons. She created the voice of a gargoyle named Laverne in Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996 and its sequel in 2002.

It is possible that you might catch her appearance in some television re-runs from the past, such as “The Munsters” from 1964, “The Love Boat” from 1977, “Murder She Wrote” from 1984, and “Hart to Hart” from 1979.

Now 89 years old, she still sometimes appears in the public for interviews and at conventions. Sadly she has experienced several tragedies in her life, losing her second husband in a plane crash, and her mother and her 33-year-old son to cancer.

Nina Keenam is a former reporter. Her column appears on Saturdays.