Shirley Temple represented the innocence of childhood: Mitchell

Written By By MARY MITCHELL Posted: 02/13/2014, 02:24am

I was born the year Shirley Temple made her last movie.

By then, the child star had become a cultural icon.

When bad weather forced us to stay indoors, my siblings and I would crowd around the small, black-and-white TV and watch a Shirley Temple movie.

That was in the early ’60s and you could still catch “Heidi” or “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” just about every Saturday.

For the duration of the movie, my mother got peace and quiet, and we got swept up in a fantasy. To me, the dimpled-cheekedgirl represented the joys of being a child.

It didn’t matter that Temple depicted a world that was so unlike the public housing development I grew up in. She could sing and dance and cajole adults into giving her what she wanted.

It never crossed our minds that the girl we were watching on TV had become an adult.

When she died Monday, I was reminded that Temple is the same age as my own mother.

When Temple was dancing and singing her way to stardom, my mother would have been dragging a sack across a cotton field in Mississippi. Despite the bitter segregation, the little white girl with the curly hair managed to tap-dance her way into our hearts.

In the 1930s, the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson appeared with Temple in four films, including “The Little Colonel” and “The Littlest Rebel.” The cinematic pairing cast Robinson as a happy-go-lucky servant to Temple’s damsel in distress.

Today, I might be uncomfortable with the fact that while blacks were being water-hosed in the South, a talented black man like Robinson was cast opposite a white child in a scene that would never play out in real life.

But as children, we didn’t see anything wrong with that. In fact, in our eyes, Temple wasn’t white or black. She was the lucky child that the whole world loved.

And for a few years in our own childhood, we thought we could be like her.

Her image was so dominating; its influence could be felt long after Temple left Hollywood.

Indeed, every Easter, little black girls all over the country were begging their mothers to give them “Shirley Temple curls.”

Even after the child star had been out of the business for three decades.

In 1935, millions of Temple dolls were sold, and the world’s most famous box-office celebrity was the model for the doll industry for decades to come.

A lot of us might deny it now, but I’m sure I’m not the only who remembers belting out the “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” or who cried when Heidi was trying to get back to her grandfather.

Before her death, the last time I thought about Temple was in 1972, when the former U.S. Ambassador and Republican fundraiser announced she had undergone a radical mastectomy.

Her public discussion of a topic that was still taboo in many circles showed that she understood her unique place in this world.

Temple’s personality transcended race.

I never knew President Franklin D. Roosevelt credited the child star with lifting the country out of the doldrums of the Great Depression.

I credit her with giving children of her era — and mine — a reason to believe the world is not always a frightening and scary place.

Shirley Temple had a great gift. She was able to portray the innocence of a child’s love.

Although the woman has gone on — that gift will endure.


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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