Shirley Temple Black, the 1930s child star who delighted generations of film lovers with her cherubic looks, trademark curls and precocious singing and dancing, has died. She was 85.
Her publicist, Cheryl Kagan, confirmed to The New York Times that she died in Woodside, Calif. on Monday, of natural causes.
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Temple perfected, if not invented, the screen archetype of the child more brave and sensible than the adults around her, cheering them up with cheery aphorisms and cheerier songs. The most famous of her production numbers was “The Good Ship Lollipop,” a bouncy crowd-pleaser from “Bright Eyes,” the first film built around her talents. Her performance found her singing in a strong voice for a train car full of men, mixing elaborate choreography with exaggerated facial expressions.
Filmmakers loved to surround her with men in transition, in need of a little girl to lead them. In 1934’s “Bright Eyes,” 1937’s “Wee Willie Winkie,” and 1939’s “Susannah of the Mounties,” she set a beaming example for the adults in the audience, coping with the misery of the Great Depression.
There was no overstating her popularity at her peak: As the Times noted, she was the country’s most popular movie star from 1935 to 1939, far ahead of Clark Gable. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more frequently than President Roosevelt.
Jim Gianopulos, chairman at Fox, home of Temple’s most iconic films, remembered “America’s Little Darling” in a statement: “We remember not only one of the most prolific child stars to ever grace our screens, but also a woman whose achievements reached far beyond her Hollywood career. Shirley Temple Black remains an integral part of Twentieth Century Fox’s heritage and the bronze sculpture of her that flanks the Shirley Temple Black Child Development Center on the Fox Lot serves as reminder of her enduring legacy and her ability to unite and entertain both young and old. She was an extraordinary talent and on behalf of all of us at Fox, I wish to extend our deepest sympathies to her family.”
Shirley Temple dolls became beloved collectibles, and were so iconic that one appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” wearing a shirt that said “Welcome the Rolling Stones.” She was so synonymous with innocence that the most famous non-alcoholic cocktail, ginger ale and a splash of grenadine, garnished with a maraschino cherry, bears her name.
She retired from acting at 22, but returned briefly to entertainment for a television series based on fairy tales. In 1967, she unsuccessfully ran for Congress as a Republican, and in 1974 was named U.S. ambassador to Ghana. In 1989, she was named ambassador to Czechoslavakia.
Born April 23, 1928, in Santa Monica, Calif., Temple enrolled in dance school at the age of three, when her mother began styling her hair in ringlets in the style of silent film star Mary Pickford. She soon began appeating in “Baby Burlesks,” short film parodies that featured preschoolers wearing adult costumes from the waist up, but diapers with safety pins. In her 1988 autobiography, “Child Star,” she called them “a cynical exploitation of our childish innocence.” Audiences ate them up.
She broke out in April 1934 in “Stand Up and Cheer!” a film built around vaudeville routines to raise American morale during the grim economic times. “Bright Eyes” followed at the end of the year, with Temple’s name above the title.
She was married twice, first to John Agar, and later to Charles Alden Black. The first marriage lasted five years and ended in divorce. She and Black married in 1950. He died in 2005.
She is survived by three children, one of whom, Lori Black, was the bassist for the rock band The Melvins.
Watch “The Good Ship Lollipop”: