Child Star Who Charmed a Generation: Shirley Temple

Your Weekly Listen for Tuesday, October 14 is the unmistakeable Shirley Temple!

This song is an excerpt from a film called “Curly Top”, about a little orphan girl named Elizabeth. First, a bit about the social context of the film. In the early 1900s, America had close to a thousand so-called “orphanages”, housing as many as 100,000 children, although perhaps no more than 1/5 of the children they contained were actual orphans. Many had living parents who were just too poor to support them. Orphanages had a reputation for being highly regimented: Children had to wear uniforms, and were required to march to meals and eat in silence. Corporal punishment was common. Fortunately, by the 1930s, orphanages had fallen out of favor in the public eye and President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed legislation to give public aid to indigent families so that poor children could stay at home with their parents. So this film reflected the progressive attitudes of the time.

Shirley Temple was one of America’s very first child stars and is widely considered to be the most popular child star of all time. Born in 1928, she was discovered by a film producer at the age of 3, appearing in a series of “baby burlesks”, (short films featuring toddlers). From there she went on to appear in many Hollywood blockbuster hits in the 1930s. She continued to appear in films into her 20s and then retired from show business to pursue a successful career in public service. Shirley was a U.S. Representative to the United Nations, the U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Ghana, the first woman to be U.S. Chief of Protocol, during Gerald Ford’s administration, and the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. She also had three children and a long happy marriage to Charles Black, a former Naval Officer. She died of natural causes at the age of 85.

As a performer, Shirley was primarily and actress and a dancer (you can see how expressive she was, and easily understand why so many audiences fell in love with her adorable, cheerful performances). Obviously she was a competent singer too, but she possessed no extraordinary musical ability. Her appeal lay primarily in her sincere and engaging countenance. Though just a child, she came across as being very warm, down-to-earth and happy-go-lucky. If there is one thing musical performers of any age can learn from her, it may be that unless you are in a punk or hard rock band, or some other musical style that prides itself on expressing anger or indifference, audiences generally respond best to performers who can reach out and relate to them on their level. I believe Shirley Temple did this exceptionally well, and it may also account for her great success as an international diplomat.


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