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February 11, 2014

Shirley Temple dies at 85

-- — Any kid who ever tap-danced at a talent show or put on a curly wig and auditioned for “Annie” can only dream of being as beloved — or as important — as Shirley Temple.

Temple, who died Monday night at 85, sang, danced, sobbed a orphan in “Curly Top,” she sang “Animal Crackers in My Soup.”

She was teamed with the legendary dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in two 1935 films with Civil War themes, “The Little Colonel” and “The Littlest Rebel.” Their tap dance up the steps in “The Little Colonel” (at a time when interracial teamings were rare in Hollywood) became a landmark in the history of dance on film.

Known for a remarkable ability to cry on cue, she won a special Academy Award at age 6 — and was presented with a miniature Oscar statuette — for her “outstanding contribution to screen entertainment.”

Temple and her movies were an escapist delight and a popular sensation. Mothers dressed their little girls like her, and a line of dolls that are now highly sought-after collectibles was launched.

Her fans seemed interested in every last golden curl on her head. Her mother, Gertrude, was said to have done her hair for each movie, with every hairstyle having exactly 56 curls.

Roosevelt once said: “As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right. When the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time during this Depression, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

Temple’s mother worked to keep her daughter from being spoiled by fame and was a constant presence during filming. Temple said years later that her mother had been furious when a director once sent the mother off on an errand and then got the child to cry for a scene by frightening her. “She never again left me alone on a set,” Temple said.

But Temple also suggested that in some ways, she grew up too soon. She stopped believing in Santa Claus at age 6, she once said, when “Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”

Decades later, her interest in politics brought her back into the spotlight.

She made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Republican in 1967. After Richard Nixon became president in 1969, he appointed her a member of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. General Assembly. In the 1970s, she was U.S. ambassador to Ghana and later U.S. chief of protocol.

A few months after she arrived in Prague in 1989, communist rule was overthrown in Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain collapsed across Eastern Europe.

“My main job (initially) was human rights, trying to keep people like future President Vaclav Havel out of jail,” she said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. Within months, she was accompanying Havel, the former dissident playwright, when he came to Washington as his country’s new president.

She considered her background in entertainment an asset to her political career.

“Politicians are actors too, don’t you think?” she once said. “Usually if you like people and you’re outgoing, not a shy little thing, you can do pretty well in politics.”

Born in Santa Monica, Calif., to an accountant and his wife, Temple had just turned 3 when she made her film debut in 1932 in the Baby Burlesks, a series of short films in which tiny performers parodied grown-up movies, sometimes with risque results.

Temple’s expert singing and tap-dancing in the 1934 movie “Stand Up and Cheer!” first gained her wide notice.

Her appeal faded as quickly as it had emerged. She missed a shot at playing Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” when 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck refused to lend out his greatest asset; the part went to Judy Garland. And “The Little Princess” in 1939 and “The Blue Bird” in 1940 didn’t draw big crowds, prompting Fox to let Temple go.

Among her later films were “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer,” as a teen with a crush on Cary Grant, and “Miss Annie Rooney” which included her first on-screen kiss, bestowed by another maturing child star, Dickie Moore.

After her film career ended, she concentrated on raising her family and turned to television to host and act in 16 specials called “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” on ABC. In 1960, she joined NBC and aired “The Shirley Temple Show.”

In her 1988 autobiography, “Child Star,” she revealed some dark moments during an otherwise happy life and career: An MGM producer exposed himself to her when she was 12, and her first marriage, to actor John Agar, was ruined by his drinking and verbal abuse and ended in divorce in 1949. Meanwhile, her father squandered millions of dollars she earned from the movies.

She married Black in 1950, and had two children, Lori and Charles. She also had a daughter, Susan, with her first husband.

In 1972, she underwent surgery for breast cancer and was credited with opening up public discussion about the disease. She urged women to get checked by their doctors and vowed: “I have much more to accomplish before I am through.”

———

Associated Press writers Martha Mendoza and Matt Reed contributed to this report.

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