ESSAY: Melissa Joan Hart remembers Shirley Temple
With the sad news that Shirley Temple passed away yesterday, tributes have been rolling in for the beloved star. Melissa Joan Hart even Instagrammed the above photo of herself with Temple. But both being child stars isn’t their only connection — Hart produced the 2001 ABC television movie Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story based on Temple’s autobiography.
Below, in her own words, Hart remembers her meeting with the legend and what she’s learned from her idol.
Happy Landings on a Chocolate Bar — Goodbye Shirley by Melissa Joan Hart
My heart is truly broken today as we all mourn the loss of a true Hollywood icon and treasure and my life-long idol. As a small child who had just begun to dabble in the world of acting, my grandmother bought me a 50th birthday Shirley Temple collector’s button at a street fair in my hometown on Long Island. The button was the first time I was introduced to Shirley Temple and would go on to change my life. I spent years watching and re-watching dozens of her early films. I collected anything I could in order to get my hands on items that had her face on it including sheet music, books, and movie posters and of course the Franklin Mint collectable porcelain dolls. While I couldn’t afford the dolls in one lump payment, I would babysit or do household chores to make my $39.95 payments every month in order to keep my collection growing. I was mesmerized with the many talents that this little adorable person was blessed with, and worked hard to hone (as I found out later when I devoured her autobiography Child Star). I couldn’t fathom how a girl so young could dance, sing and act all at the same time and with such a precious, effortless, dimply smile on her face the entire time. While all my friends were tacking pictures of Marilyn Monroe to the walls, I was plastering mine with Shirley. I couldn’t understand why these girls would idolize a woman with such a dark and calamitous reputation. Yes, she was smoking hot and mysterious, but Shirley was the quintessential role-model. Someone to look up to and emulate!
Shirley, of course was best known for her family-friendly films, but what people tend to miss about her was the enormous impact she had on our country and our world at the time. As the country was hitting one of its lowest points, in between the World Wars and in the middle of the Great Depression, the one escape Americans found was saving a few dollars for ice cream and a movie. And Shirley’s movies topped the box office. Franklin D. Roosevelt said of Shirley “It is a splendid thing that for just fifteen cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” At the young age of 21, after countless movies, Shirley was ready to retire from show-business and be a devoted wife to her second husband Charles Black (until his death in 2005) and her three children. I always admired that she could leave it all behind and at an age when most of us are just starting to get a handle on a career path. She was already a successful and wealthy actress who had her sights set on a different road. She was a young mom and dedicated herself to her family. Shirley would later come to serve our country in another form, by becoming heavily involved in politics. I found great comfort as a teen and in my own growing career to know that she had found happiness in her home life, as well as a new career. Maybe that is why I have always searched for a “fall back plan”. I was enrolled at New York University for seven years while filming my show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, all the while trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up or gave up on acting. Shirley inspired me as an actor first, but as a mother, wife and career woman later. The more I think about it, the more I realize how closely I have mirrored (or attempted to unknowingly mirror) her life!
During my years as “Sabrina” and at the early stages of my production company Hartbreak Films, my main passion project was to take Shirley Temple’s autobiography and make it into a movie so that everyone could see her through my loving eyes. First we had to get Shirley’s blessing and that door opened for me when we had a chance to ask her to play my grandmother on Sabrina. She was not interested in playing a witch but she was interested in meeting my mother and me. My mother and I, along with a few of my younger siblings, made the trip to Northern California to have lunch with Shirley and Charles at their home. Preparing for this day was epic for me. What would I say? Would I remember my manners? What would I wear? I had never been so worried over picking the perfect outfit as I was while packing to meet my mentor. I kept saying that this was bigger than my wedding day (which was many years down the line so I really didn’t have anything to compare it to).
It’s funny how you can remember the anxiety over the meeting, but then it goes by in a flash. When your adrenaline is pumping as mine was, you end up with little memory of the conversation. I do remember her showing us some lovely memorabilia around the house including her honorary Oscar, which had a whole story to go with it about her disappointment at receiving a mini-Oscar as an achievement award, as opposed to winning the best actress full-sized version of the statue. After an hour or more with the Blacks, we left and I was elated. She had given us her blessing to make her life story, but with one major stipulation — that we respect the memory of her mother and not portray her as the over bearing stage mother. I believe it was the fact that she witnessed my relationship with my mother, and could see firsthand that we had a scarily similar bond that she allowed us to go and make her movie. The next process was daunting as we were turned down from numerous movie studios, production companies and television stations.
Some were worried it was too racy a story to tell since it included child labor practices that existed in the early years of celluloid and the possibility of being too controversial for many reasons. But we pushed on and revisited companies when certain presidents and CEOs would step down. One day while we were on set shooting Sabrina, my mother interrupted our filming because she had to speak with me. Her mood was very serious and somber. We stepped aside and all the crew could see was me falling to tears. Once my mother left stage and I went back on set, the crew asked if I was alright and I replied, “We just got the green- light to make Shirley’s movie.” I have very rarely been moved to tears of joy and that is one that I will never forget. We went on to spend many months scouring the nation for the perfect Shirley and Bojangles. We spent another many months in Melbourne, Australia where we produced Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story for Wonderful World of Disney to air on ABC as a Mother’s Day special. I was finally able to document for the world some epic moments in film history including the first interracial dancing couple (Shirley insisted on holding hands with Billy “Bojangles” Robinson).
What I admired most about Shirley was her ability to keep her home life private. That is very hard to come by these days when you have social media and millions of outlets dying to catch pictures of you in an unflattering bikini or dragging the trash to the curb. This was a woman who knew what was important in life and had her priorities straight. Even after she had been the biggest star in the world, making millions by the time she was ten amidst a depression, working beside the biggest stars and being a regular visitor to the White House, she was able to walk away with dignity and pride and raise a family that has managed to stay out of trouble and out of the press. Today’s child stars should study a bit more about the life of Shirley, in order to steer clear of the trappings of young Hollywood. She managed to live a long happy life with the people she loved most, out of the spotlight after the rest of the world had forgotten about her. If you were completely honest, most of you would probably admit you didn’t even know she was still alive. Nevertheless, her legacy is unsurpassed and her legend will live on.
Written by Melissa Joan Hart