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Shirley Temple — the ultimate child star — dies at 85


Any kid who ever tap-danced at a talent show or put on a curly wig and auditioned for Annie can only dream of being as beloved — or as important — as Shirley Temple.

Temple, who died Monday night at 85, sang, danced, sobbed and grinned her way into the hearts of Depression-era moviegoers and remains the ultimate child star decades later. Other pre-teens, from Macaulay Culkin to Miley Cyrus, have been as famous in their time. But none of them helped shape their time the way she did.

Dimpled, precocious and adorable, she was America’s top box office star during Hollywood’s golden age and such an enduring symbol of innocence that kids still know the drink named for her: a sweet, nonalcoholic cocktail of ginger ale and grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry.

Her hits — which included Bright Eyes (1934), Curly Top (1935), Dimples (1936) and Heidi (1937) — featured sentimental themes and musical subplots, with stories of resilience that a struggling American public strongly identified with.

Her early life was free of the scandals that have plagued Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan and so many other child stars — parental feuds, drug and alcohol addiction — but Temple suggested that in some ways she grew up too soon.

She stopped believing in Santa Claus at age six, she once said, when “Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”

For millions, she was much more than an entertainer; she was a tribute to the economic and inspirational power of movies. She was credited with helping to save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy and was praised by everyone from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ordinary fans as a bright spirit during a gloomy time.

She was “just absolutely marvelous, greatest in the world,” director Allan Dwan told filmmaker-author Peter Bogdanovich in his book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors.

“With Shirley, you’d just tell her once and she’d remember the rest of her life,” said Dwan, who directed her in Heidi and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

“Whatever it was she was supposed to do — she’d do it . . . . And if one of the actors got stuck, she’d tell him what his line was — she knew it better than he did.“

In 1999, the American Film Institute ranking of the greatest screen legends put Temple at No. 18 among the 25 actresses.

Her achievements did not end with movies. Retired from acting at 21, she went on to hold several diplomatic posts in Republican administrations, including ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the sudden collapse of communism in 1989.

Temple, known in private life as Shirley Temple Black, died at her home near San Francisco, surrounded by family members and caregivers, publicist Cheryl Kagan said. The cause of death was not disclosed.

She appeared in scores of movies and kept children singing On the Good Ship Lollipop for generations. From 1935 to 1938, she was the most popular screen actress in the country and was a bigger draw than Clark Gable, Joan Crawford or Gary Cooper.

“I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the lifetime achievement award: Start early,” she quipped in 2006 as she was honoured by the Screen Actors Guild.

But she also said that evening that her greatest roles were as wife, mother and grandmother: “There’s nothing like real love. Nothing.” Her husband of more than 50 years, Charles Black, had died a few months earlier.

In Bright Eyes, Temple introduced the song On the Good Ship Lollipop and did battle with a charmingly bratty Jane Withers, launching Withers as another major child star.

She teamed with the great black dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in two 1935 films with Civil War themes, The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel. Their tap dance up the steps in The Little Colonel (at a time when interracial teamings were rare in Hollywood) became a landmark in the history of film dance.

At age six, she won a special Academy Award — and was presented with a miniature Oscar statuette — in 1935 for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment” in the previous year.

Temple’s mother, Gertrude, worked to keep her daughter from being spoiled by fame and was a constant presence during filming. Her daughter said years later that her mother had been furious when a director once sent the mother off on an errand and then got the child to cry for a scene by frightening her. “She never again left me alone on a set,” she said.

Temple became a nationwide sensation. Mothers dressed their little girls like her, and a line of dolls was launched. They are now highly sought-after collectibles.

Her fans seemed interested in every last golden curl on her head: It was once guessed that she had more than 50. Her mother was said to have done her hair in pin curls for each movie, with every hairstyle having exactly 56 curls.

Her immense popularity prompted Roosevelt to say: “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”

Decades later, her interest in politics brought her back into the spotlight.

She made an unsuccessful bid as a GOP candidate for Congress in 1967. After Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he appointed her as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. In the 1970s, she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana and later U.S. chief of protocol.

She then served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. A few months after she arrived in Prague in mid-1989, communist rule was overthrown in Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain collapsed across Eastern Europe.

“My main job (initially) was human rights, trying to keep people like future President Vaclav Havel out of jail,” she said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. Within months, she was accompanying Havel, the former dissident playwright, when he came to Washington as his country’s new president.

She considered her background in entertainment an asset to her political career.

“Politicians are actors too, don’t you think?” she once said. “Usually if you like people and you’re outgoing, not a shy little thing, you can do pretty well in politics.”

Born in Santa Monica, Calif., to an accountant and his wife, Temple was little more than three when she made her film debut in 1932 in the Baby Burlesks, a series of short films in which tiny performers parodied grown-up movies, sometimes with risque results.

Temple’s expert singing and tap-dancing in the 1934 movie Stand Up and Cheer! first gained her wide notice. The number she performed with future Oscar winner James Dunn, Baby Take a Bow, became the title of one of her first starring features later that year.

Also in 1934, she starred in Little Miss Marker, a comedy-drama based on a story by Damon Runyon.

Her appeal faded as quickly as it had emerged. She missed a shot at playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck refused to lend out his greatest asset; the part went to Judy Garland. And The Little Princess in 1939 and The Blue Bird in 1940 didn’t draw big crowds, prompting Fox to let Temple go.

 
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