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Movie legend hasn't lost her childhood spunk

Copyright USA Today December 2, 1998, by: Susan Wloszczyna

Oh, my goodness! Mrs. Black goes to Washington.

This time, though, it's as Shirley Temple.

The ex-actress, 70, who worked for the United Nations and State Department under four presidents, last visited the capital in 1992, when she wrapped up stint as US ambassador to Czechoslovakia.

But it's Black's Hollywood incarnation--the most successful child star ever to sparkle on the silver screen, the No. 1 box office attraction for four years running in the 90's--who takes a bow this weekend. The dimpled darling who grew up to be a diplomat will be saluted along with comic Bill Cosby, Broadway's John Kander and Fred Ebb, singer Willie Nelson and conductor Andrew Previn at Sunday's Kennedy Center Honors.

Fellow septuagenarian John Glenn gave us a blast from the past by returning to space, but don't expect Black, who is very protective of the persona she calls "little Shirley," to launch into a tap number or sing a chorus of On the Good Ship Lollipop.

"If you shoot at my feet, I would dance," she says, speaking from the San Francisco-area home she shares with her husband of nearly 48 years, marine research mogul Charles Black. "But I gave it up long ago."

Be forewarned, fellow honorees: Remember what happened when Black, who hasn't made a movie since 1949, showed up at a reunion of past winners at this year's Oscars? Merely sitting onstage in her classy Oleg Cassini suit earned Black, who won a mini-Oscar in 1935 for "special achievement," a huge ovation.

Fellow child star and pal Roddy McDowall couldn't resist ribbing her. "You had to do it," he scolded afterward. "You had to steal the show."

Says the gracious Black, who retains the same upbeat attitude and bubbly laugh she possessed as a movie moppet, "I have a photo in my kitchen one of my fans sent, that was taken off a videotape made of that night. I have my hand beside my face in a real shocked way. I think looking at it improves my cooking."

Not that she has any trouble slipping back into the showbiz fast lane. "It all comes back to you. While walking down the red carpet at the Academy Awards, a journalist from South America asked me what I was thinking and I said, 'To hold my stomach in.' I think I surprised her."

Those weaned on a steady diet of the Shirley Temple formula will not be surprised to discover a parade of precocious pulchritude when CBA broadcasts the Kennedy Center gala on Dec. 30. We're guaranteed film clips of hoop-skirted rebels, poor little rich girls, and spunky orphans who could melt the most callous of curmudgeons (and the loneliness of bachelor millionaires) with disarming ease and a bit of fancy footwork.

Grumps like Lionel Barrymore in The Little Colonel (1935), who gushed over his little costar, "Talent drips from her fingertips." Or Adolphe Menjou in Little Miss Marker (1934), who griped about the pint-size scene snitcher: "She knows all the tricks. She backs me out of the camera, blankets me, crabs my laugh--she makes a stooge of me."

If the continued popularity of her Fox Video Collection--millions sold since a 1995 reissue--is any measure, the public remains in her thrall.

Film historian Jeanine Basinger understands her lasting appeal even as an adult who has suffered her share of grown-up setbacks, including a highly publicized divorce from first husband John Agar, in 1950 and a mastectomy following breast cancer in 1972.

"She is a creature people adore. Unlike many child performers who ended up with messy lives, she hasn't let herself down, and she hasn't let us down. Our love did not spoil her."

Black thanks her mother, Gertrude, for keeping her curly head on straight, shielding her from demands of 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck and making sure she had time for tomboy-style fun and family dinners every night.

"She was wise. She was never angry with me or mean. We used to see children in casting calls and see their mother or father pinch them or slap them on the face. We were agast."

The onetime chubby-cheeked charmer, now mother of two daughters and a son, can't wait to enjoy her highlight reel at the Kennedy Center. She hasn't seen any of her 43 movies since granddaughter Teresa, soon to turn 18, grew too big to snuggle in a chair with her and watch.

What was magic to us was just a job to her. "One of the first things I learned at 3 1/2 from the director of Baby Burlesks (a series of early shorts) was 'It's work, not play,' and 'Time is money.'"

Speaking of money, Black revealed in her 1988 autobiography, Child Star, that her dad, George, squandered her childhood earnings, estimated at upwards of $5 million. All that was left was $44,000 in her trust fund. It was ironic, since he'd been a bank teller, but she holds no grudges: "He had a seventh-grade education and got bad advice."

Black is not one to wallow in nostalgia. She keeps up on current releases. Recent viewings included Titanic, featuring Gloria Stuart, her old cast mate from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Poor Little Rich Girl, and such politically themed films as Primary Colors, Wag the Dog and Saving Private Ryan. She has talked with Melissa Joan Hart (TV's Sabrina the Teenage Witch) about doing a film about her life.

Black has issued an edict: No more autographs, especially since her address appears on several internet sites. "For the first time in my life I have had stamps made that say 'Return to Sender.' Just today, I received 20 letters. I used to spend eight hours on Saturday answering them. But I have to stop that. Im writing a book and I've got a life!"

The book is a continuation of her autobiography that will cover her "international years," bookended by witnessing both the clampdown on Czechoslovakia in 1968, in which she saw a woman shot dead in the streets, and the tumultuous collapse of communism in 1989, which she observed from a precarious perch on a dirty hotel ledge in Prague.

Even though she;s often asked, Black won't act again. "I'm more interested in international relations and making things more peaceful. I like to negotiate."

She would love to go back to public duty. "I'm always ready to serve."

As long as no dancing is required.

'Bojangles' sweet, but Cary tart

Added excerpt to article by: Susan Wloszczyna

From silly to serious, some insights from Shirley Temple Black:
-Her favorite Shirley Temple films: Heidi (about a Swiss orphan) and Wee Willie Winkie (based on a Rudyard Kipling story about a mascot of a British regiment in India). Of the later ones, Kiss and Tell and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.
-Her least favorite films: "I didn't particularly like Young People(1940), my last film with Fox. I was about 11, and it ws the same old vaudeville plot. It was like Fox ran out of gas. They didn't know what to do with me. My mother wanted me to do real-life filmes, like Grapes of Wrath. But (studio chief Darryl) Zanuck couldn't see me doing that."

-On working with Cary Grant in The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer: "I did an imitation of him to make the film crew laugh. To my shock, there was Cary Grant behind me. He got very angry. I was sent all the way from RKO to David Selznick's office and was told not to do it anymore. I thought to myself, 'I must have been pretty good to make him that angry.'"

-On Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, her dance partner in The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm: "He was my favorite star of them all. I wasn't aware of any color barrier. One time I was staying in Palm Springs, and he came down to teach me a number. I asked him which cottage he was staying in at the Desert Inn. He didn't want to answer. Turns out he was in the chauffeur quarters over a garage. That was the first time it dawned on me that not all people are treated the same. He was a classy guy. I hate that song Mr. Bojangles. It drives me up the wall since it's not about him at all. He was never a bum in jail."

-On Shirley Temple cocktails (a drop of grenadine in ginger ale with a maraschino cherry): "I don't care for them. Too sweet. If I'm on a plane, the pilot sends a stewardess over with one. When I'm in a restaurant, someone would send one over: I wish my name was Cobb. Then they would send over a Cobb salad."

-Did she really hit Eleanor Roosevelt in the rear with a slingshot when Temple's family was invited over? "I couldn't resist. We were friends, but the target was so attractive. She was bending over to turn lamp chops on the barbecue. I had my slingshot in my lace purse, and I used a pebble from her garden. She yelped, but no one saw me do it but my mother. The Secret Service was there, but they didn't see me. Otherwise, I'd be Shirley in Jail. Back at the hotel, I was punished in the same place I hit Eleanor. One smack."

-On her trademark curly coif: "It was all mine. Still is. If it makes you feel any better, I always wanted straight hair with bangs."