Mabel Withee: From “Crusoe” to “The Cocoanuts”

Broadway and Vaudeville star Mabel Withee passed away 70 years ago today, November 3, 1952.

We choose this date for our post because little is known about her birth. Detroit seems to be the consensus origin point, somewhere between 1897 and 1900. Withee was a significant jazz age star; it’s interesting that so little is known about her younger years. She first shows up in association with Al Jolson and the Shuberts in the mid-teens. I first find references to her with respect to performances of Jolson’s hit 1916 show Robinson Crusoe Jr in midwestern cities like Chicago, Indianapolis and South Bend. It’s possible she joined the show as a local aspiring chorus girl while it was on tour, as she is not listed in the original Broadway cast. But there is a “Mabel Winter” in the Broadway cast. Possibly the same girl? If so, she was also in the cast of Maid in America the previous year, with Nora Bayes, Blossom Seeley, Mlle. Dazie, The Dolly Sisters, Harry Fox, and Lew Brice. At any rate, Robinson Crusoe Jr toured throughout 1917. Then Withee shows up in a terrific role in Jolson’s next show Sinbad, with Kitty Doner, in early 1918, her first verifiable Broadway credit, in a career that would encompass ten shows over nearly a decade.

First though she co-starred in her only film, a temperance melodrama called Once to Every Man (1918), opposite Jack Sherill. This was produced by the Frohman Amusement Corp, the movie company founded by Charles Frohman shortly before he died on the Lusitania, and later run by his brothers. The movie business seems not to have suited her however. She returned to Broadway for George White’s Scandals of 1919, followed by Just a Minute (1919), The Rose Girl (1921) and the hit Jolson show Sonny (1921). In late 1921 she toured Shubert Vaudeville with a tab show called Sally, Irene and Mary by Eddie Dowling. This show went to Broadway the following year, although Withee had moved out of that cast to be in The Rose of Stamboul (1922). (Sally, Irene and Mary was later adapted for films in 1925 and 1938). After Rose of Stamboul, Withee starred in Lady Butterfly (1923), followed by Dew Drop Inn (1923) with James Barton and Alice Brady, the long running Artists and Models (1924-25), and for the big finish — wait for it — the original Broadway production of The Cocoanuts (1925-26) with the Marx Brothers. She played the role of Polly Potter, which was played by Mary Eaton in the film. It was during the run of this show that George Jean Nathan declared her to have had “the prettiest legs in the world”.

I’m pretty sure she is one of the gals behind Harpo in this pic of the auction scene:

Withee was clearly a star, and a rising one. She’d also done a film before. So one might reasonable expect her to have been in the 1929 screen version of The Cocoanuts. But she had left the biz by then. She married a real estate broker named Herman Leon Sarshik in 1926. This marriage was quickly annulled for “fraud”, however. I’m guessing that his income was not as he had represented. That may sound cold, but after all, she had retired from a flourishing career in order to marry. I’m guessing Sarshik didn’t provide “the lifestyle to which she was accustomed”. She drew a handsome salary for performing, so she went back to work. One finds references in the trades to her touring vaudeville in 1927. Then in 1928 she married Larry Puck, brother of vaudevillians Harry and Eva Puck, at which point she retired for good. She lived out her remaining years in Bayside, Queens, which was then a somewhat tony neighborhood. Larry was a TV producer, as you’ll see in the clip below.

For more on vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film and early screen comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.