It Was a Wonderful Life: As a Child She Was the Biggest Movie Star in the World. Later She Became a Top Diplomat. Shirley Temple Black Dies at 85

Feb 11, 2014  •  Post A Comment

Shirley Temple Black, 85, who was the most popular movie star in America during the Great Depression years 1935 to 1939, died late Monday evening in her Woodside, Calif. home, The New York Times reports.

The Times story says that Black was a "dimpled, precocious and determined little girl in the 1930s [who] sang and tap-danced her way to a height of Hollywood stardom and worldwide fame that no other child [had] reached.

shirley temple-child.jpgShirley Temple

The Times story continues, "Ms. Black returned to the spotlight in the 1960s in the surprising new role of diplomat, but in the popular imagination she would always be America’s darling of the Depression years, when in 23 motion pictures her sparkling personality and sunny optimism lifted spirits and made her famous. From 1935 to 1939 she was the most popular movie star in America, with Clark Gable a distant second. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt."

“Shirley was a superstar before the term was invented," Reuters notes. "She said she was about 8 when adoring crowds shouting their love for her made her realize she was famous.”

Black entered the entertainment industry in the early 1930s and gained fame before she turned 6. She was known for tap-dancing through songs such as “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” and her popularity spurred the sales of dresses, look-alike dolls and other novelties related to her persona. Shirley Temple dolls were as popular with little girls of the day as Barbie dolls were to a later generation.

Shirley Temple’s 40 or so films included “Little Miss Marker,” “Heidi," "Wee Willie Winkie” and “Bright Eyes,” with the latter featuring her well-known song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” She was given a special Oscar in 1935 for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.”

The Reuters report adds: “She was such a money-maker that her mother — who would always tell her ‘Sparkle, Shirley!’ before she appeared before an audience — and studio officials shaved a year off her age to maintain her child image.”

Her career as a child actor ended when she was 12, although she had a few teenage roles. She retired from the big screen in 1949, when she was 21.

She got involved in politics in the early 1950s, taking on volunteer work for the Republican Party after her second husband, Charles Black, was called to work in Washington by the Navy, the Reuters story reports. She tried a comeback with two television series that were short-lived, “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” and “The Shirley Temple Theater.”

Reuters notes: “Seven years after that she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in California but stayed in politics, helping raise more than $2 million for Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign.”

The Reuters report adds: “She was later named to the United States’ team to the United Nations and found that her childhood popularity was an asset in her new career.”

President Ford appointed her as ambassador to Ghana in 1974, and then made her chief of protocol in 1976, the story reports. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush tapped her as ambassador to Czechoslovakia, which was a job usually given to career diplomats.

The Reuters piece notes, “Black had been in Prague in 1968, representing a group fighting multiple sclerosis at a conference, when Soviet-bloc tanks entered to crush an era of liberalization known as the ‘Prague Spring.’”

“President Gustav Husak did not seem daunted by the prospect of a U.S. ambassador who had witnessed the invasion. He told her that he had been a fan of ‘Shirleyka,’” the Reuters story adds.

shirley temple black.jpgShirley Temple Black

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