On Tuesday morning, I was walking into the kitchen for my second cup of coffee when I heard the familiar voice of Shirley Temple singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” over the radio. I figured there could probably be only one reason for NPR to be playing that recording at the top of the hour: The most famous child actor, ever, had died.
I suppose that there are some people who have never heard of Shirley Temple, and probably quite a few who don’t recognize her as one of the great cultural icons of the 20th Century. But by the reaction to her death at the age of 85, I expect they are about to find out.
For eight decades, Shirley’s movies have entertained almost every generation of children. My parents grew up going to her films (she and my father were almost the same age), and my grandmother, who also loved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, made sure that when my mother was a little girl, she saw every Temple movie at the old Rialto Theater in Louisville.
When I was a child I tuned in on Saturday afternoons when CBS rebroadcast them, as my mother, grandmother and Aunt Lucille watched with me. We kids in the 1950s knew that Shirley was now a grown up woman with children of her own, just about our ages. And when she decided to come out of retirement at age 30 to host and sometimes act in a weekly storybook anthology on NBC, we never missed an episode. That was in 1958, and the selections she chose remain worth watching today. They’re all on DVD, and the list includes such classics as “The Prince and the Pauper,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “Pippi Longstocking,” “The Land of Oz” (in which Shirley plays Princess Ozma and the boy Pip),” “Madeleine” and “Babes in Toyland” (her own children had roles in this one). She even tackled such obscure (at least to kids in the late ’50s) titles as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “House of Seven Gables.”
Her adult career didn’t last as long as her childhood fame did, and by 1961, she left show business forever. However, from 1934 to 1940, she was among the most famous people on the planet and made more money than President Roosevelt. Her fans included the President’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who invited her to visit him at the FBI. He even created an organization called “Junior G-Men” and she became the very first member. FDR himself once said, during the depths of the Great Depression, “as long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”
Born in the last golden days of the Roaring Twenties, Shirley Jane Temple’s father was a banker in Santa Monica, Calif., and her mother, Gertrude, had two older sons and had longed for a little daughter. Mrs. Temple was a stage mother of the first order—not so monstrous, perhaps, as Mama Rose of “Gypsy” fame, but determined nonetheless. She sent little Shirley off to dancing school as soon as she could toddle, and before long she was making movie shorts in Hollywood. She came to the attention of Winfield Sheehan, production head of Fox Movie Studios, and was cast in a small role in a Depression extravaganza, “Stand Up and Cheer.” Her role was small, but her impact was huge. Before long, she starred in other Fox (soon to be 20th Century-Fox) features including “Little Miss Marker,” “Curly Top” and “The Little Colonel.”
My own affection for Shirley was solidified decades later, after I became a father. I had my own little girl, who loved to sing, and she adored watching “Shirley,” as she became known on a first-name basis around our house. Early in the morning, or in the evening before bed, Amelia was mesmerized by the tap-dancing, the singing and the melodies that were hit-parade selections a half century earlier (this was in the mid-1980s). “Animal Crackers in My Soup” was a particular favorite. We have movies of our daughter doing solo numbers as well as with friends on our screened-in back porch once warm summer evening.
At some point in the 1980s, Hollywood came up with a technique for “colorizing” classic black-and-white films. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Forty-Second Street” all underwent this treatment, but none seemed to succeed as well as the Temple musicals. Why this is, I am not sure, but even today, it’s just as much fun to watch a colorized version of “Heidi” or “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” as it is their black-and-white originals.
We who’ve lived through the Great Recession have an inkling about what it was like to live through the Depression, but only an inkling. The notion that one out of four Americans was unemployed is unimaginable. The image of long lines of unemployed and homeless people, standing in breadlines and at soup kitchens haunted movie audiences watching newsreels. The introduction of Shirley Temple (and at roughly the same time, Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse) proved to be just the tonic the nation needed. “It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles,” the President declared.
I found it most fascinating that in 1977, 40 years after Shirley’s film career was at its zenith, the top Broadway show of the year was a musical adaptation of “Annie,” the comic strip that was popular during the Depression years. But the plot was straight out of a Shirley Temple film: a little girl, orphaned at birth, was swept up from a hideous orphanage to the mansion of a kindly millionaire. And she got to take her dog with her!
The lot of child actors and actresses has declined since Shirley Temple’s days. Her mother watched her like a hawk and was never absent (or unpaid) when her little girl was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Today, talented children from Tatum O’Neal (like Shirley, a winner of the Academy Award) to Drew Barrymore (“E.T.” Remember?) to Macauley Culkin (“Home Alone”) to our most recent embarrassment, Justin Bieber, share their weaknesses and humanity through tabloids, social media and YouTube.
For children like Shirley Temple, it was quite different. She remained— and does to this day—the spunky, lovable child with 56 ringlet curls that her mother washed and wrapped every night. She also was a leader in civil rights, though she was probably unaware of it. As the dancing partner of legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, she may have been the first white woman to hold hands with an African-American man on screen, an accomplishment that is underrated today.
After Hollywood and television faded from her life, Shirley Temple married a San Francisco socialite and businessman, had children and entered Republican politics. President Richard Nixon sent her to the United Nations. Later, she became ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
But Shirley Temple’s greatest moment must have come one day in 1972, when America’s little sweetheart was diagnosed with breast cancer and went public—on the front pages of every newspaper—with her story. It was a social turning point, coming even before Betty Ford’s similar experience a few years later. And the fact that Shirley survived, and talked about it, helped to make breast cancer a speakable, understandable issue. As I often say, you had to be there to realize the impact, but when the most lovable child actress in American history publicly discussed her health issues, it was extraordinary.
Thirty-five years ago, when I was a fledgling editorial writer, I loved finding topics from popular culture to write about. One of my favorites was written on April 23, 1978, which was Shirley Temple’s 5oth birthday. (At 27, I thought 50 was quite elderly.) I was aware that 1978 was also the 50th anniversary of Mickey Mouse, another screen star of the Great Depression. With that editorial, we ran the photo that accompanies this commentary. Shirley Temple’s legacy is set; so is Mickey Mouse’s. Today, all of these years later, we still celebrate them, and we recognize that they helped give our nation the courage to overcome great odds.
At the end of one of her best films, “Stowaway,” Shirley sang a lovely song, “Goodnight, My Love,” which ended with the words, “Goodnight, Sweet Dreams, Goodnight….” So now I repeat that. Goodnight, Shirley.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.