News of Shirley Temple Black’s death Monday night brought back wonderful memories for me, of my childhood and my early love of Hollywood.
Shirley Temple was one of my early obsessions. From the age of 5, I would watch and watch her movies from “Bright Eyes” to “Poor Little Rich Girl” to my favorite “The Little Princess.” My mother was my Temple enabler so to speak. She had turned on the television one Saturday afternoon when we were living in Miami to “Shirley Temple Theater,” a weekly showcase of her classic films.
I don’t remember what that first movie was I saw of Shirley’s but I was hooked. Shirley could sing and dance with the best of them, regardless of age. And those wonderful curls. I wanted to have her as my best friend.
My mother had grown up in the Depression -- she was two years younger than Shirley -- and she, like the rest of the country, found solace and happiness in the child star’s musicals.
And all of these years later, she was sharing Shirley Temple with me. While we watched these films, she’d talk about growing up in the 1930s and going to the movies at the local theater in her small Pennsylvania hometown.
Shirley’s movies introduced me to her illustrious co-stars including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Alice Faye, Jack Haley, Lionel Barrymore, Jack Oakie and Randolph Scott and I sought out their films on TV. I read the novels that several of her films were based on and practically wore out the two albums featuring her songs, including “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” “Fifth Avenue” and “I Love to Walk in the Rain.” (I still have the books and the albums.)
I even remember being allowed to stay up to watch the adult Temple’s guest-starring appearance on “The Red Skelton Show.”
But one day when I was watching the extremely sentimental “Dimples” for at least the 10th time, my mother told me that I was getting too old for Shirley Temple and I needed to move on.
So I did.
But she’s always been a part of my life. I occasionally watch her movies on TV and have the CDs of those great old soundtrack albums. Truth be told, the majority of the films haven’t aged all that well. Some are too sentimental and the plotlines are creaky. But eight decades later, Shirley’s undefinable “star quality” still shines. There was no one like her, before or since.
And my childhood obsession with the Golden Age of Hollywood has turned into my life’s work. Over the last few decades, I have interviewed countless legends from the era, including Shirley Temple Black herself. Eight years ago, I was thrilled when I was assigned to talk to Shirley on the phone for the occasion of her receiving the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. To my surprise, she politely but firmly said she didn’t want to talk about her movies. She warmed considerably when she talked about working with Robinson, but that was as far as she would go.
Learning of her death Tuesday morning, though, brought all of those childhood memories flooding back. Watching clips of her tap dancing up and down the stairs with Robinson in “The Little Colonel,” her singing “Lollipop” on the plane in “Bright Eyes,” performing “Fifth Avenue” with Oakie and Greenwood in “Young People” sent me back to the sunny living room in Miami with my mother by my side.
Susan King writes the Classic Hollywood feature for the Times.