Since the start of 2014, two of America’s most priceless child stars have left us. Shirley Temple passed away in February, at age 85. From 1935 to 1938, the winsome moppet was the nation’s top box-office draw, singing and dancing her way into everyone’s hearts. Then, this past Sunday, we lost Mickey Rooney, who held on until age 93. In July 2012, after an Academy screening of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, I remember how he came out on stage and somehow pulled off a few dance steps. That was Mickey Rooney: a trouper till the end.
Both Temple and Rooney found fame during the Great Depression, when Americans ground down by years of unemployment were desperate for low-cost entertainment. Films starring cute, plucky youngsters nicely filled the bill. Shirley’s wholesome family movies, in which she tap-danced with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and jousted with cantankerous Lionel Barrymore, were designed to lift people’s spirits, and so they did. But by the time Shirley entered adolescence, the studios no longer knew what to do with her. There was serious hype around her first screen kiss, but the public wanted her to stay a little girl forever. That’s where my family came in. Why did my father’s parents—poor immigrants with too many kids and not enough money—move from the Midwest to California circa 1935? Naturally, to get the youngest daughter into the movies. She had curly hair and presumably could carry a tune, so it seemed obvious that she was bound for stardom. It didn’t happen, but eventually my father met my mother at UCLA . . . and the rest is (family) history.
Eventually Shirley Temple was smart enough to realize that there were no more movies in her future. She retired, married, raised three kids. Then, to everyone’s surprise, she got political. She was selected by Republican presidents to serve as a UN representative, an ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia, and the U.S. Chief of Protocol. By all reports she filled these positions with grace.
I first learned of Shirley at a Brownie Scout meeting, when it was announced we’d be seeing a traveling exhibit that featured her enormous doll collection. (She’d been given hundreds of dolls by admirers all over the world.) Our leaders were amazed and amused that none of us had ever heard of Shirley Temple. But that would soon change. Television execs were soon to greenlight Shirley Temple’s Storybook, an anthology of fairytale adaptations, with the now-adult Shirley hosting as well as playing an occasional role. And old Shirley Temple movies suddenly became a TV staple. Like our parents, we Baby Boomers fell for her too.
Mickey Rooney was as plucky as Shirley in his movie roles, but had a far wider range. He played Puck in Warner Bros.’ all-star Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), went dramatic in Boys Town (1938), and, as the All-American Andy Hardy, embodied everyone’s favorite kid brother. Once he grew up (but only to 5’3”) he kept at it, appearing in somber dramas, wacky comedies, family features like The Black Stallion, and even Roger Corman flicks. A friend of mine who once taped many celebrity interviews for A&E Biography explained why Rooney was a valued presence on the set. Once he was paid a substantial “honorarium,” he’d turn on the star power, improvising a heartfelt tribute to the subject at hand, often becoming dramatically tearful. But now his large extended family is battling over the old pro’s will and final resting place. Family feuds are ugly things. So let’s call up some tears, shall we?