Arts & Culture

Shirley Temple exhibit comes to Fort Worth

Shirley Temple Black, shown in 1935, went from being a child film star to a career diplomat.
Shirley Temple Black, shown in 1935, went from being a child film star to a career diplomat. Zuma Press

Think of it as a devoted parent’s ultimate scrapbook collection.

Shirley Temple’s mother saved virtually everything from little Curly Top’s legendary 1930s showbiz career: her movie costumes, props that she handled, an enormous doll collection, portraits by famous artists and one-of-a-kind gifts from fellow celebs.

If Shirley Temple, the pint-sized box-office superstar of the Depression Era, had anything to do with it, Gertrude Temple kept it.

She is the reason one of the most remarkable collections of movie memorabilia, all of it still in mint condition, exists today.

“Love, Shirley Temple,” a touring exhibit showcasing hundreds of these historic pieces, opens Saturday for one week at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. Admission is free.

“Shirley’s mother, what a wonderful woman, was the inspiration behind all of this,” says Stuart Holbrook, president of Theriault’s auction house, which is coordinating the exhibit. “It was her foresight that enabled all of the costumes to be preserved.

“She negotiated with Fox Studios in Shirley’s contract that she would be able to keep all of the costumes. No star had ever done that. No star had ever cared. But Gertrude wanted her daughter to have those costumes later on as an adult so she could remember that chapter of her childhood.”

The vast collection includes Temple’s most recognizable movie outfits: the red polka dot dress from her breakout film, 1934’s Stand Up and Cheer; her Scottish-kilt outfit from director John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie; the little plaid dress she wore while singing On the Good Ship Lollipop in Bright Eyes.

There’s also a child-sized racing car given to her by close friend and co-star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and a Steinway baby grand inscribed to her by Theodore Steinway himself.

There’s a stockpile of personal effects, including select dolls from her collection of more than 1,000, and signed letters and photos from such luminaries as President Roosevelt, Irving Berlin, Marlene Deitrich and Orson Welles.

There’s even a uniquely Texas treasure: Temple was an honorary Texas Rangerette as part of the state’s 1936 Centennial celebration. Her Texas Centennial costumes and the popular Shirley Temple Texas Centennial dolls, made by the Ideal Toy and Novelty Company, will be on display.

These pieces are among the items that will be auctioned by Theriault’s on July 14 in Kansas City.

Showbiz memorabilia is big business these days. Props, costumes and scripts of all kinds are kept, catalogued and sold to museums and collectors.

But it wasn’t always this way. In the early days of Hollywood, few people gave any thought to the value of such items. After a star wore a costume or wielded a prop in a film, it would be put away or thrown away. Many historically significant pieces disappeared as a result.

But in the case of Shirley Temple, the country’s No. 1 box-office star for four consecutive years, 1934-1938, a feat never duplicated by any other star, there was no danger of these treasures being lost.

Gertrude took care of the enormous collection until the 1970s. When she died, Shirley took possession. After Temple died last year at age 85, her children decided that a touring exhibit and auction for these items would be an appropriate way to give back to fans.

“I want people to see them again and love them again,” Temple’s daughter, Shirley Black Falaschi, told the San Jose Mercury News.

Temple officially retired from the movie business in 1950 at age 22. After devoting the next two decades to marriage and motherhood, Shirley Temple Black entered into a life of politics and public service. In the 1970s, she became U.S. ambassador to Ghana and, later, to Czechoslovakia.

Unlike most film stars of the 1930s who slipped back into anonymity, the pre-teen with the trademark curls and an onscreen glow had extraordinary staying power.

Beyond just being the most popular child star of her era, Temple has often been credited with a greater cultural contribution. She was said to have played a vitally important role in lifting the spirits of a nation during the depths of the Depression.

President Roosevelt reportedly once said of her, “It’s a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie, see the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”

“She intimately touched people’s lives,” says John F. Kasson, who wrote about Temple’s impact on her generation in 2014’s The Little Girl Who Fought the Great Depression. “She was popular with people in an extraordinary way that goes beyond movies.”

The “Love, Shirley Temple” exhibit is making that clear all over again.

“During our exhibit in Rochester, N.Y., the most extraordinary thing happened,” Holbrook says. “We had 85-year-old twin sisters come in. When they stood in front of the Good Ship Lollipop dress, they started singing the song and did the little dance routine as if they were 6 years old again.

“At the end of it, they stopped, hugged each other and burst out in tears crying because they had just relived a precious memory from their childhoods.

“That’s the kind of sentiment this exhibit is stirring in people.”

Love, Shirley Temple

▪ Fort Worth Community Arts Center

▪ 1300 Gendy St., Fort Worth

▪ 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through June 27

▪ Admission is free.

▪ For more information, visit fwcac.com or theriaults.com.

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