, Salem, MA

February 28, 2014

Letter: Memories of Shirley Temple

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

Shirley Temple was as big a part of my elementary school childhood as Harry Potter is for my grandchildren’s generation. We three sisters — Sally, Priscilla and Betty — wanted to be Shirley Temple. We wanted her dimples, her curls, her sparkling personality, her tap dancing and singing ability. We wanted to dance up and down the stairs like Shirley did with Bill Robinson.

There were other child stars at the time, the Our Gang crew, Jane Withers, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and more. None had the appeal of Shirley Temple. We did not see her earliest movie shorts, made when she was 4 years old. The first movie I remember seeing was “Bright Eyes.” She and I were about the same age. I was in first grade, so Shirley and I were 6.

On a most exciting Christmas, we three sisters each received a 13-inch Shirley Temple doll. The doll was wearing a white dress with red dots. She had white patent leather shoes and socks. And even more surprising, Santa Claus put in our stockings tiny white ice skates that just fit Shirley’s dolly feet. Later, a friend sewed for my Shirley Temple doll a full Girl Scout “Brownie” uniform with a tiny brown felt cap. We loved those dolls. In my playtime, Shirley and I were Brownies together.

In our house one memorable September, we had Shirley Temple “Captain January” dresses that our mother ordered from Montgomery Ward in Albany, N.Y. All three of us wore these dresses for the first day of school. Clearly, finances were improved in our house that fall, as these were the first dresses we’d ever worn to school that were not handmade by our mother. Sally’s dress was pastel yellow, Priscilla’s dress was pastel green, and my dress was peach. The dresses were dotted dimity, also called dotted Swiss, with brown dots and brown soutache trim. We had matching ankle socks and our lunch box colors were the same as our dresses. We felt quite elegant in our new dresses.

For a while, the Ivory soap flake boxes my mother purchased to do laundry had tucked inside deep blue glass dishes with Shirley Temple’s face in white in the center of the plate. At first, we had to take turns using the one blue dish. Wouldn’t our mother please to do more laundry so she would need more soap? She refused to do any more laundry. Sigh. So it was a while before we had collected a second plate, and at last, we had three, so we three sisters each had our own dish. Other boxed merchandise, like cereal and Bisquick, held mugs and soup dishes, too, all with Shirley’s face. We never had a lot of those dishes, but we cherished the few we had.

Our swing set in the backyard had three swings. We’d sit on our swings and sing Shirley Temple’s hits at the top of our lungs, “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” and loudest of all we would sing, “Polly Wolly Doodle all the Day.” If we didn’t remember all the words, we’d just make some up, so the songs might be different each time we sang. I think it was the movie “Wee Willie Winkie” where I first heard “Auld Lang Syne” and fell in love with bagpipes.

The Swiss Alps became our favorite place in the world when Shirley starred in “Heidi.” In our hearts, we knew we’d happily follow the goats up to the mountain pasture, too, just as Shirley’s Heidi did. Her movie, The “Littlest Rebel” cemented my dislike of war. When Shirley did a ballet dance in “The Little Princess,” we sisters were sure if we kept attending our dancing school classes, we could become ballerinas, too. Shirley must have worked constantly in her early years to have made so many movies.

Shirley Temple movies came first to the Hyannis movie theater and later to the much smaller Harwichport theater. Our parents kindly took us to Hyannis, 9 miles away, to see the Shirley Temple movies as soon as possible. It had to be on a Sunday afternoon, as they worked in their radio store 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. Sometimes, our grandparents, who often went to the closer Harwichport theater, only 4 miles away, would take us to see the movie again. Kids tickets were no more than 10 cents.

We three girls loved every Shirley Temple movie we saw. She filled our childhood dreams. And our parents appreciated the cheerfulness of the dear little girl and the optimistic message of the story lines back in those dark Depression days of the 1930s.

Betty Dean Holmes