Woke up to find that one of my childhood influences had died at the age of 85 after a long and multi-faceted career that brought this dimple-cheeked, adorable tot center stage in into the hearts of people worldwide. Shirley Temple Black; best known as a child star and in her adulthood as a diplomat who focused on human rights, was surrounded by her family and caregivers as she took her last breath and passed peacefully.
As I was reading the news stories this morning, I was able to peer behind the curtain and see that as glamorous and colorful as her life might have seemed, it was not always “The Good Ship Lollipop”; it was fraught with fear as well. One time a director wanted her to cry on cue, so he told her that her mother had been kidnapped by a man with a green face and red, glowing eyes.
An article in the Daily Mail described some of the abuse that took place in a studio that hired her when she was three years old.
“At the age of three, Shirley was enrolled at the Ethel Meglin Dance Studios in Hollywood, where she was spotted by two talent scouts from a minor studio, Educational Films, which churned out one-reel “Poverty Row” shorts.
Struck by Shirley’s engaging personality, Educational signed her to a two-year contract for 26 short films, at $50 a week. Eight of these were part of a series entitled Baby Burlesks, which Shirley would later describe as “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence,” that “occasionally were racist or sexist.”
The regime at Educational Studios was infantile slave labour. Rehearsals would mean two weeks without pay. Each film was then shot at lightning speed in two days. For playing the lead, Shirley received just $10 a day.
For any child who misbehaved, there was the sinister black “punishment box,” containing only a large block of ice, in which the obstreperous infant would be forcibly confined to “cool off.”
Shirley was put into this box several times, was once forced to work the day after undergoing an operation to pierce her ear-drum and on another occasion to dance on a badly injured foot.”
Despite those experiences, she continued to dazzle and delight audiences in a period of time during which people found hope in despair. Spending a few hours watching her movies lifted spirits. I laughed when I read one quote from Shirley that explained why she stopped believing in Santa Claus at an early age. It was because she had become so famous that when her mother took her see a department store version, HE asked for HER autograph! President Roosevelt referred to her as “The world’s greatest weapon against the Depression.”
Even after the success of so many movies including Baby Take A Bow, Captain January, Heidi, Curly Top, The Little Colonel, Bright Eyes and Poor Little Rich Girl, she seemed not to have been spoiled by fame. There were no lurid stories of wildness or drug and alcohol addiction that plague so many current day child stars. Perhaps it was a solid foundation of loving parents. Her mother used to remind her to “Sparkle, Shirley!” I wonder how this little one handled her emotions and if, out of the spotlight, she had any sense of normalcy.
As a teen, her movie roles dwindled and at 17, she was married for the first time to a man who became her ex-husband, following abuse, addiction and infidelity. She then wed a man who was the love of her life and died in 2006. Once her Hollywood career ended, she entered another world stage, in her role as a diplomat, serving in Ghana and Czechoslovakia. I remember hearing stories of her devotion to human rights.
For me, Shirley Temple was more than an actor, singer and dancer. She, in many ways, was what I aspired to be. I too, was precocious, with dimples and my grandmother would do my hair with those rag curls. Her movies drew me in and I could imagine myself in those roles, although I never wanted to act myself. In my co-dependent mode, I would say that I was “Little Shirley Temple, every one’s sweetheart, tap dancing for attention.” These days, when I catch myself people pleasing, I think of the curly topped tot who really DID please people with her talent and charm and warmed their hearts.