Iva Withers, a Standby to the Rescue on Broadway, Dies at 97
by Daniel E. Slotnik New York Times 10/8/2014
If there were a Tony Award for best understudy, Iva Withers might well have won repeatedly during her nearly three decades on Broadway.
Though she appeared in the first Broadway run of musicals like “Carousel,” “Oklahoma!” and “Guys and Dolls,” she never originated a starring role of her own. Instead, Ms. Withers, who died on Tuesday at 97 at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, N.J., made a career as a backup for actresses like Julie Harris and Carol Channing.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter, Kim Kokich.
A petite blonde with a powerful voice, Ms. Withers was a Broadway utility player. “Her motto was never to learn just your own lines learn everybody’s,” her daughter said.
On Sept. 15, 1945, that work ethic helped Ms. Withers become the first actress to play the lead in two hit shows in one day. She was playing Laurey Williams in “Oklahoma!” while understudying for Jan Clayton as Julie Jordan in “Carousel” when Ms. Clayton became sick before the matinee. Ms. Withers played Julie in the afternoon and Laurey that night without a hitch.
Ms. Clayton left “Carousel” for “Show Boat” in 1946, and Ms. Withers took over. She also played Julie during national and British tours and a 1949 revival.
“Iva Withers’s Julie has a modest though unconquerable spirit just right for the part,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in a review of the revival in The New York Times in 1949.
In the early 1950s Ms. Withers replaced a pregnant Ms. Channing for the touring production of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and played Miss Adelaide in “Guys and Dolls” after Vivian Blaine left the cast. She backed up Tammy Grimes in the play “Rattle of a Simple Man” and the musicals “High Spirits” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”
In 1961, when she was Ms. Grimes’s standby in “Molly Brown,” she received a startling phone call at her West 55th Street apartment in Manhattan: Ms. Grimes had fainted during the first act.
“In seven minutes I was onstage,” she told The New York Journal-American, which reported that the rest of the show went smoothly and that Ms. Withers received an ovation.
For all her winning moments onstage, Ms. Withers was not a perennial understudy by choice, and she continued to hold out hope for a star turn of her own.
“I’ve been only in hits, but I’ve built my career in following people,” Ms. Withers told The New York World-Telegram and Sun in 1953. “I’m still wondering what will happen when they give me something to create.”
She finally got the chance in 1968, in the comedy “Forty Carats,” directed by Abe Burrows, in which she originated the minor role of Mrs. Adams. She also understudied for Ms. Harris as the female lead, Ann Stanley, and even played the Stanley role herself for a while before Zsa Zsa Gabor took over.
After “Forty Carats” closed in 1970, Ms. Withers struggled to find roles, and finally left Broadway.
Pearl Iva Edith Withers was born in Rivers, Manitoba, on July 7, 1917. Her parents, Edith and Roy Withers a seamstress and an insurance salesman had immigrated from Ireland around 1913. She grew up in Winnipeg, where she began appearing in local vaudeville productions at 10 and singing in church as a teenager.
She went to New York in 1940, working as a night cashier at Stouffer’s restaurant while auditioning for Broadway. (She shortened her name for the stage.) She went to Rodgers and Hammerstein casting calls for about a year before Richard Rodgers selected her for the “Carousel” chorus. In time she became Ms. Clayton’s understudy.
In 1943 she married Robert Strom. A few years later she met the ballet dancer Kazimir Kokich, who was also married, while performing in the national tour of “Carousel” in Chicago, and they fell in love. They annulled their marriages and married in 1949.
Mr. Kokich died in 1982. In addition to her daughter, who was a reporter for NPR, Ms. Withers is survived by a son, Jerry, a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and a ballet coach; and two grandchildren.
After her Broadway career, Ms. Withers returned to work as a cashier and became a physician’s assistant.
“I am happy with everything that happened to me, although I had to struggle and work hard,” she told The Times in a profile in 2010. “I got to work with all the greats: Meredith Willson, Jule Styne, Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’m very lucky.”
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