Shirley Temple Black, America's child movie star was 85

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Shirley Temple in 1936. Herald Examiner Collection/LAPL.com

For five years during the Great Depression, Shirley Temple was the most popular movie star in America of any age. "As a dimpled, precocious and determined little girl...[she] sang and tap-danced her way to a height of Hollywood stardom and worldwide fame that no other child has reached," the New York Times puts it. Born in Santa Monica in 1928, she died Monday night at home in Woodside, California.

A statement released by her family said, "We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and adored wife for fifty-five years of the late and much missed Charles Alden Black."


Temple's popularity saved what became 20th Century Fox studios from bankruptcy. She made more than 40 movies before she turned 12, and when television came along her films reached new audiences. But by 22 her acting career was over. She returned to public life later as a prominent Republican and served as an ambassador for two presidents. From the New York Times obit:

After marrying Charles Alden Black in 1950, she became a prominent Republican fund-raiser. She was appointed a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly by President Richard M. Nixon in 1969. She went on to win wide respect as the United States ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, was President Gerald R. Ford's chief of protocol in 1976 and 1977, and became President George H. W. Bush's ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, serving there during the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

After winning an honorary Academy Award at the age of 6 and earning $3 million before puberty, Shirley Temple grew up to be a level-headed adult. When her cancerous left breast was removed in 1972, at a time when operations for cancer were shrouded in secrecy, she held a news conference in her hospital room to speak out about her mastectomy and to urge women discovering breast lumps not to "sit home and be afraid." She is widely credited with helping to make it acceptable to talk about breast cancer.



At the peak of her acting fame and power, getting Shirley Temple to make an appearance for you was gold. She was the grand marshal of the Rose Parade in 1939. Here she is inaugurating some new streetcars in Los Angeles in 1937. The mayor, Frank Shaw, was recalled from office the following year.

Temple Black ran for Congress in Northern California in 1967 but lost in the Republican primary to Paul McCloskey.

From the Los Angeles Times obit:

Her most memorable performances included four films she made with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a black dancer 50 years her senior and a favorite costar, she later said.


They were first paired as foils for cantankerous Lionel Barrymore in 1935's "The Little Colonel," in which 7-year-old Shirley tap dances up and down the staircase, remarkably matching the veteran Robinson step for step.

"I would learn by listening to the taps," Temple told the Washington Post in 1998. "I would primarily listen to what he was doing and I would do it."

Their dance routines in such films as the Civil War saga "The Littlest Rebel" (1935) and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" (1938) reflected their off-screen rapport. They were the first mixed-race musical numbers to be seen in many parts of the country, according to "Who's Who in Musicals."

Two of her films released in 1937 were among Temple's favorites -- the John Ford-directed "Wee Willie Winkie," in which she wins over a British outpost in India, and "Heidi," a hit film that became a classic.

In her first film aimed squarely at children, Shirley sang "Animal Crackers in My Soup" to fellow orphans in 1935's "Curly Top." She danced with Jack Haley in "Poor Little Rich Girl" (1936), one of her best films and "a top musical on any terms," according to movie critic Leonard Maltin.

The Shirley Temple star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is at 1500 Vine Street, but it is currently in storage during to work on the sidewalk there. She also is represented in the forecourt of Grauman's Chinese Theater.


More by Kevin Roderick:
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Shirley Temple Black, America's child movie star was 85
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