Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sweet Shirley Temple: A Tribute to one of my Favorite Childhood Actors

Shirley Temple, Trailer Screenshot, The Little Princess, 1939.

Shirley Temple, with her bouncy curls, skip-happy dancing and cherubic voice, captured the hearts of Americans for years. For those of us born in the post WWII Baby Boom years (1946-1964) this tiny angel of the silver screen is unforgettable. Her name alone can evoke memories of our own childhood, sitting in the dark theater, dreaming that some day we, too, might have the chance to sing and dance in front of the camera.

A Charmed Life 

Shirley Temple did seem to live a charmed life. According to her autobiography Child Star: An Autobiography, she was born Shirley Jane Temple (later, Shirley Temple Black) on April 23, 1928 to George and Gertrude Temple, who already had two older children. Shirley had two older brothers, and her role as the sweet little baby of the family certainly helped stimulate her outgoing personality.

Temple was three years old when she started professional dance training at Mrs. Meglin's Dance Studio in Los Angeles. Her mother decided to style her hair in the golden ringlets made popular by silent film star Mary Pickford--a wise choice as she was quickly spotted by Jack Hays and Charles Lamont of the Educational Films Corporation. The men were looking for sweet-faced angels for a series of short films called Baby Burlesks--parodies of adult films made with child actors.

Temple was their star. She was paid $10 a day for that dimple-faced smile, a large amount of money at that time. (These early films are available through the Official Shirley Temple Website.) She also starred in two-reel films called Frolics of Youth. Shirley and the other child actors at Educational Pictures performed in commercials and modeled for advertisements to try to keep the company going, but eventually, Educational Pictures filed for bankruptcy.

"On the Good Ship Lollipop"

Temple then appeared in various bit parts in films made by Warner Bros., Paramount and Universal Pictures. Her first big role was in the 1934 Fox Films production Stand Up and Cheer! and her salary was raised to $1250 a week. That same year, she made Little Miss Marker and Bright Eyes, which introduced her famous song "On the Good Ship Lollipop," a song my sisters and I memorized and sang constantly, as did many children of that era. In 1935 she was the first child star to win a Juvenile Oscar and had her hand and footprints embedded in the sidewalk in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

When Fox merged with Twentieth Century in 1934, Producer Darryl F. Zanuck convinced Shirley's family to commit her to four films a year. Her next films were blockbusters, and my favorites: The Little Colonel, which I loved, Our Little Girl, Curly Top, and The Littlest Rebel--the last two films were the top box office draws for 1935. My other two favorite Shirley Temple films were Heidi, made in 1937, and A Little Princess, made the following year, both major tearjerkers. A Little Princess is by far my favorite, so much so that I do not believe it should have been remade.


Unfortunately, like most child actors, Shirley Temple had a scandal. In 1937 she starred in John Ford's Wee Willie Winkie and Graham Greene shocked the world with his review, calling Temple a "Totsy," and claiming her body was too "nubile for a nine year old." The family sued for libel and won. The lawsuit money was held in trust until Temple turned 21. At that time, Temple gave permission for the money to be used to build a youth center in England.

Shirley Temple's image was used on many products, such as clothing, dishes, and dolls, and she made more money from these products than she did in her films. In addition to the products made in her name and image, Shirley Temple has the special distinction of being the image used for a sweet, nonalcoholic drink. The Shirley Temple, invented in the 1930s by a bartender at Chasen's in Beverley Hills (note: this origin is disputed) is a mix of ginger ale with a splash of grenadine and a maraschino cherry garnish. Lemon-lime soda is now used in lieu of ginger ale, but that soft drink was invented much later.

Personal Life

As she grew older and her career waned in her teenage years, she still lived quite well off the money from her films and merchandise royalties. In spite of the slump in her acting career, Shirley Temple did not age "awkwardly," as so many child actors do. She was a remarkably beautiful young woman. When she was 15, she met Army Corps Sergeant, John George Agar, and they were married two years later. Their daughter, Linda Susan, was born in 1948. Temple and Agar made two films together, including RKO's Fort Apache, but their married life was deeply troubled. The couple finally divorced in 1950 and Temple retained custody of their daughter.

The year she divorced Agar, Temple also met WWII US Navy hero Charles Alden Black. The couple met in January and were married in December at his parent's home. At that time, Black was reportedly one of the richest men in California--not that Shirley Temple needed any sort of financial boost--she was a successful career woman in her own right.

Shirley and Charles have two children together: Charles Alden Black, Jr., who was born in 1952, and Lori Black, who was born in 1954. Charles Alden Black, Sr. was recalled to serve in the Navy during the Korean War, but returned home safely. He later became the Director of Operations for Stanford Research Institute. After 54 years of marriage to Shirley Temple Black, Charles Alden Black died in 2005 at their California home from a bone marrow disease.

In 1958, Shirley Temple Black hosted an NBC anthology series called Shirley Temple's Storybook, sixteen hour long fairy tales. She also made numerous guest appearances on television talk shows. The show's popularity spurred the re-release of the Shirley Temple doll, clothing line and coloring books.


In addition to being a very public person, Shirley Temple Black has also been a politically-active woman through the years. She made one of her first political appearances in England when she was 16 years old when she attended a ceremony on Ottawa, Canada to raise money for Canadian Victory Bonds. In 1967, Temple decided to run for the US House of Representatives, but lost to Pete McCloskey. She was appointed Representative to the 24th United Nations General Assembly in 1969.

In 1972, Shirley Temple Black was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a modified radical 
mastectomy. Remarkably, breast cancer was not often openly discussed at that time in spite of the active women's movement. Shirley Temple Black was one of the first celebrities to speak openly about breast cancer, her experiences, and the need for research. Temple discussed her experiences on radio, television, and in magazine interviews.

Shirley Temple Black was appointed to the position of US Ambassador to Ghana in 1974, a position she held for two years. She was then appointed as the first female Chief of Protocol of the US in 1976 when she oversaw the arrangements for President Carter's inauguration and inaugural ball. She also served as US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992.

Shirley Temple Black has also served on the Boards of Directors of numerous large corporations, including The Walt Disney Corporation, Bank of America, UNESCO, the United Nations Association and the National Wildlife Federation.

In 2005, Shirley Temple Black received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actor's Guild, recognition that was well-deserved for a woman who started her career at three-years old. Her acceptance speech was as fun and light as the way she has lived her life. As she accepted the award, with her usual charming smile on her face, she said, "I have one piece of advice for those of you who want to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award: Start early!"


  1. A very nice article about a very nice person!

    Donald R

  2. Sometimes you don't have to meet someone personally to know they are a good person. I feel the same way about Shirley Temple Black--she is a nice person, a good person. She still has that sweet, caring child in her heart that she played on the screen and I know this by her actions, not her words or her performance. She shows she cares about people, and that's what makes her so cool!


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