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Remembering Shirley Temple and her many ties to The Walt Disney Company

Jim Hill

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Remembering Shirley Temple and her many ties to The Walt Disney Company

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You know, as I sit and watch footage of Shia LaBeouf behaving like a jackass at the Berlin Film Festival or hear yet another story about how Justin Bieber continues his transition from talented tween to delusional jerk, I wonder: How did Shirley Temple do it?

Shirley Temple on the red carpet at the world premiere
of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at the Carthay
Circle Theater December 21, 1937. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I mean, Shirley (who passed away peacefully yesterday at home surrounded by loved ones at the age of 85) made her first film when she was three. Starting in 1935 -- which was the year that she turned 7 -- Ms. Temple was America's top box-office draw. And she held onto that title 'til 1938.

Shirley Temple presents Walt Disney with a special Academy
Award in honor of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" on
February 23, 1939 at Hollywood's Biltmore Hotel. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But then came 1940. And after two high profile flops -- "The Blue Bird " & "Young People " -- 20th Century Fox terminated her contract. At the tender age of 12, they kicked Shirley to the curb.

An animated Shirley Temple appears alongside Donald Duck in Walt Disney
Productions' September 1939 short, "Autograph Hound." Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Now if there was ever a child star on this planet who earned the right to wind up screwed up, it was Shirley Temple. I mean, Temple had been this huge, huge celebrity when she was just this little kid. Constantly in front of a camera / in the spotlight from the ages of 3 through 12. But then -- the second that puberty rears its ugly -- Hollywood dropped Shirley like a hot rock.

Walt Disney grabs lunch with a now-teenaged Shirley Temple in the mid-1940s.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

A lesser person might have spun in. But Temple soldiered on. She still made movies in the 1940s. But when it became clear that audiences weren't really all that interested in a Shirley who was now no longer a child star, she decided to retire from the business at the tender age of 21.

Shirley Temple makes her grand entrance at the opening ceremony for
Disneyland's new Sleeping Beauty walkthrough attraction. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, Shirley would occasionally step back into the spotlight. Take -- for example -- what happened back on April 29, 1957. Which is when Walt Disney asked Mrs. Temple-Black to come on out to Anaheim and cut the ribbon from Disneyland's newest attraction, the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough.

With her two daughters and son looking on, Shirley Temple-Black reads the
official proclamation declaring this new Fantasyland attraction open to the
public. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And because she and Walt went way back ... Shirley was game. She went on out to that theme park, put on a crown and posed for pictures. And the Disney organization really appreciated all of the extra publicity that Mrs. Temple-Black generated for the opening for this new Disneyland attraction.

With Walt's help, Shirley cuts the ribbon at the Sleeping Beauty walk-
through. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

But that said, one has to wonder what Walt thought about Shirley a few months later when news broke that Mrs. Temple-Black would be returning to show business as the star / hostess of a brand-new television series that NBC was putting together as a direct challenge to his "Disneyland" anthology series on ABC.

Estelle Winwood & Shirley Temple in the "Shirley
Temple's Storybook" production of "The Little
Mermaid." Copyright NBCUniversal.
All rights reserved

"Shirley Temple's Storybook" debuted in January of 1958. And while the critics hailed this television series for its beautiful costumes & elaborate (for that time, anyway) production values, NBC executives fretted about how expensive Shirley's show was to produce. Especially when they took into consideration the anemic ratings that "Storybook" was racking up.

FYI: "Shirley Temple's Storybook" is now available on DVD. And it's genuinely worth it to go check out a few episodes of this short-lived TV show. Not just because of the big film & television stars that Shirley persuaded to come appear on her program (We're talking about people like Jonathan Winters, Agnes Moorehead, Mel Blanc, E.G. Marshall, Robert Culp). But also because of some of the stories that Shirley chose to tackle. Among them "Beauty and the Beast," "The Little Mermaid," "Rapunzel," "The Sleeping Beauty,"  "Babes in Toyland" and "Winnie the Pooh." All of which predated Disney's take on these titles.

Shirley Temple shows the puppet version of Winnie the Pooh to a young friend.
Copyright NBCUniversal. All rights reserved

But by July of 1961, citing the expense of producing each episode of this by-then acclaimed family-friendly TV show, NBC cancelled "Shirley Temple's Storybook." And since a show business comeback just didn't seem to be in the cards, Mrs. Temple-Black then turned her attention to other endeavors. She became active in politics and held several diplomatic posts in various Republican administrations. Shirley was actually the United States ambassador to Czechoslovakia during the historic collapse of communism back in 1989.

In addition to her diplomatic duties, for a time, Mrs. Temple-Black was a director on the boards of Walt Disney Production and Del Monte Foods. In fact, according to what one veteran Imagineer once told me, Shirley was instrumental in securing Del Monte as the sponsor of the Diamond Horseshoe Revue at WDW's Magic Kingdom. She supposedly used her charm to convince the board of directors of that company that Del Monte Foods really should underwrite the operating costs of that Walt Disney World show from 1979 - 1984.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And Shirley did all of this after Hollywood basically turned its back on her at the age of 12. That sort of rejection would have warped a lesser person. But not Mrs. Temple-Black.

Which is why I have to admit that when I look at the ill-mannered shenanigans of Shiaf LaBeouf & Justin Bieber, my first thought is "How pathetic." That these two grown men could be so hopeless outclassed by a little girl. Who demonstrated 'way back in the 1940s how you can gracefully handle things when life gets somewhat tough in & out of the spotlight.

Disney Legend Floyd Norman

And speaking of the spotlight ... I urge JHM readers to tune in "The View" on ABC later this morning. Which is when Disney Legend Floyd Norman will be sitting down with the ladies to discuss what it was like to work on Disney's "The Jungle Book." Knowing Floyd, I'm sure that he'll have some fun stories to share. If he can get a word in edge-wise, I mean.

Your thoughts?

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  • I hate to knock your usually exhaustive research, Jim, but in this case I think I've found an error.

    The 10th Academy Awards, at which 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' was nominated for (but did not win) the "Best Score" Oscar, were indeed held in March 1938 as your caption notes.  But it was at the 11th Academy Awards, held February 23, 1939, that Walt Disney was honored with the one big statuette and seven dwarf Oscars for the creation of the film.  So the caption to that famous picture of Miss Temple with Walt and the Oscars should have the latter date, not the former.

    The honorary Oscar is widely believed to be a make-up call on the part of the Academy for failing to nominate 'Snow White' for Best Picture the year before.  Had it been given in 1938, this explanation for the award would hold no water.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Powers is right, folks. I got the year that Walt was presented with that special Oscar by Shirley wrong. As he/she said, that particular Academy Awards ceremony was held in February of 1939, not March of 1938. I'm now going to duck back into this story and make the necessary correction. Thanks for pointing out my error, Powers. I owe you one.

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