5 Stories About Shirley Temple

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Former child actress Shirley Temple has passed away at the age of 85. But thanks to DVDs (and Turner Classic Movies), she will remain a dimpled, curly-topped 5-year-old for generations to come. We hope you enjoy these stories about the life and career of Shirley Temple Black.

1. Pre-Natal Stage Mother

Gertrude Temple, Shirley’s mother, already had two sons by the time she was expecting Shirley. Gertrude was a frustrated dancer herself, having grown too tall as a teen to become the ballerina she longed to be. While pregnant with what she hoped would be a daughter, Gertrude played music constantly on the phonograph and radio in an attempt to bless her child with an artistic bent. Shirley was walking by age 13 months, and at age two she tapped her feet rhythmically to music, so the next step for any Hollywood hopeful was dancing school.

2. Cold Feet? No, Cold Seat!

Shirley started taking dancing lessons at the tender age of three. A Hollywood scout spotted her at the dance studio and hired her along with some other children to star in a series of one-reel films called Baby Burlesks. Each film featured children aged three to five dressed in grown-up clothes from the waist up and oversized diapers below, playing adults and reenacting scenes from films such as The Front Page and What Price Glory.

The advent of talking pictures brought with it the invention of the Black Box. It was a portable work station used by sound technicians, six feet square on wheels, with a thick glass viewing port covered by a heavy curtain. The boxes were also soundproof, which made them hot and humid, and the only way to cool them at the time was with a large block of ice. There were two such boxes on the Baby Burlesks sound stage, but only one was used for sound mixing. The other was used to lock up any child actor who suddenly became uncooperative or troublesome while filming. Placed inside the dark enclosure, the child would soon tire of standing, and the only place to sit was on the block of ice. (Parents were not allowed on the set, and the studio conveniently kept the Child Welfare Worker secluded in a separate room outfitted with a radio, refreshments and a sofa.) Shirley reported that after a few confinements in the Black Box (with resultant ear infections), she learned some important show biz lessons: Pay attention. Time is money. Do as you're told. Get it right the first time. She attributes these lessons learned at age four to her later success; indeed, it was her professionalism as much as her shiny curls that led to her lucrative contract with 20th Century Fox.

3. A Quick Study

Young Shirley had a near-photographic memory, and knew not only all of her lines but also everyone else’s after her mother read the script to her. Her mother was also careful to explain to Shirley that what she was doing on the movie set was just “playing pretend”—it wasn’t real. Shirley took this advice to heart; after filming a scene in Our Little Girl that required her to snap at co-star Lyle Talbot “And, anyway, I don’t even like you,” the youngster said to the actor solemnly, “I’m sorry, Mr. Talbot, but that line is in the script. I really do like you.”

4. Just a Normal Kid … Sorta

The Temples did their best to keep Shirley’s childhood as normal as possible. Well, as normal as can be expected when, at age six, she was out-earning her father, and famous folk like Eleanor Roosevelt and Noel Coward came all the way to the 20th Century Fox lot just to meet her. Mrs. Temple asked the parents of Shirley’s neighborhood friends not to let their kids see any of Shirley’s films so that they wouldn’t treat her as “special” or different, and she didn’t allow Shirley to read any of her fan mail until she was much older. Nevertheless, Shirley couldn’t help but pick up some adult phrases from her co-stars, to her mother’s chagrin. She once overheard her 6-year-old daughter tell her checkers opponent, “There aren’t any spots on your suit, but you’re going to the cleaners!”

5. It’s Not Brain Surgery

Shirley retired from show business at age 21 with no regrets. She was financially secure, since her banker father had wisely invested the millions she’d earned as a child. (Not to mention her second husband, Charles Black, was a very successful business executive.) As a youngster she’d always wanted to go to medical school to become a brain surgeon, but as an adult she decided no one would want “Shirley Temple” as their doctor. Instead, she entered the world of politics. President Richard Nixon appointed her as a delegate to the United Nations in 1969, and she impressed everyone with her natural diplomacy and her ability to absorb arcane information from briefings immediately (both legacies of her acting career). In 1974, she was appointed American Ambassador to Ghana, a country where very few people had ever seen her films and no one asked her to sing “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” She went to to work as the Ambassador to Czechoslovakia and as the U.S. Chief of Protocol—the first woman to hold the position.

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