Shirley Temple was America’s original “little sweetheart.” A tiny starlet with short curls, Temple entertained movie audiences while she grew up. Perhaps no other child actor is as famous or as beloved. Moviegoers throughout the world adored the singer, dancer, and actress who often played an urchin or poor girl, but who always got her way with charm and wit.
Born on April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, California, Temple was the daughter of a bank teller. She began taking dancing classes at three and was chosen from among her classmates to appear in a series of one-reel films before she reached the age of four. The series, called “Baby Burlesks” (1931), consisted of take-offs on popular movies of the time, with Shirley playing the leading lady roles, imitating Marlene Dietrich and other famous stars.
At the same time, she began playing bit parts in feature films. She first attracted attention in 1934 in a song-and-dance number, “Baby Take a Bow,” which she performed admirably in the film “Stand Up and Cheer.” She was consequently signed by Fox and within months reached unprecedented heights of popularity. At the end of her first year as a child star, she received a special Academy Award “in grateful recognition of her outstanding contribution to screen entertainment during the year 1934.”
By 1938 she had topped all other Hollywood stars as the number one box-office attraction. A cute, doll-like, precocious child, complete with dimples and curls, she provided a bright little spot in the Depression years of the 1930’s. At the height of her success she was virtually a national institution, a model for the child every mother wanted and every little girl tried to imitate. A whole marketing industry developed around the Temple phenomenon. No child star had ever before been so popular with the public. None has since.
But by 1940, Temple was approaching the status of a has-been. She terminated her Fox contract after two successive flops, but fared no better at MGM, which let her go after only one production. She continued appearing in films for various studios through the late 1940’s, but she simply did not hold the same appeal as an adolescent and an ingenue that she had as a child. (Judy Garland filled that role for American moviegoers.)
She attempted a comeback on TV in 1958 as the hostess of “The Shirley Temple Storybook,” but the show was not renewed after its initial season. She tried yet again with “The Shirley Temple Show” in 1960, but the results were similarly discouraging. In the late 1960’s she entered politics and ran unsuccessfully for the vacant Republican congressional seat of her home district of San Mateo, California. In 1968, she was appointed by President Nixon as a US representative to the United Nations. She served as US ambassador to Ghana from 1974 until 1976, when she became US chief of protocol. In 1989 President George Bush appointed her ambassador to Czechoslovakia.
Temple was married twice, first to actor John Agar (B-movies) from 1946-50. She married TV executive Charles Black in 1950 and was now officially known as Shirly Temple Black. No matter what name she was called by, all of America knew the voice and giggle of the young starlet, Shirley Temple.