With two dimples, 56 blonde ringlets and an infinite supply of natural charisma, Shirley Temple helped lift the spirits of a nation struggling with the Great Depression. From her first four-minute appearance in the film “Stand Up and Cheer” in 1934, the child actress won the hearts of many throughout the world, including fellow actors, studio heads, national and international dignitaries and fans who are as devoted today as they were 80 years ago.
Louisville’s Frazier History Museum is the final stop of the traveling “Love, Shirley Temple” exhibit, which features more than 200 of Temple’s costumes and personal memorabilia from her most popular films. The exhibit will be on display this week from July 3-8 (and yes, they will be open on July 4), and then will travel to Kansas City, Mo., to be auctioned off by Theriault’s, the world’s largest auction company for childhood objects, on July 14.
Stuart Holbrook, president of Theriault’s, took Insider on a sneak-peek tour of the exhibit, highlighting the most interesting pieces and providing background stories on most. He began by emphasizing what the actress means to many people today, and how the artifacts can stir up emotions.
“As this exhibit has traveled across the country, we’ve had women walk in and break out in tears immediately, because this is their childhood. This is nostalgia for them, and it can be really powerful,” explains Holbrook. “She was the perfect actress at the perfect time when America needed it. I’ve always felt that she represents the better part of ourselves.”
After Temple’s death on Feb. 10, 2014, her family decided to hold an auction of her most prized memorabilia, which was kept in pristine condition first by her mother Gertrude, and later by Temple herself. The money the auction generates will be used to continue the preservation of Shirley Temple’s name and legacy. The 200 pieces in the Frazier show are only a sample of what will be auctioned — Holbrook says he expects there are more than 600 items total.
From 1935-1938, Temple was a box office champion for Twentieth Century Fox Studios, who signed her immediately after her brief stint in “Stand Up and Cheer.” She made four to five films a year and is credited with single-handedly saving the fledgling studio from bankruptcy.
“They were ready to close the doors, creditors were lining up — this was their last-ditch effort,” says Holbrook. “They banked everything on one little 4-and-a-half-year-old girl, and it raised the studio out of the ashes. There would be no Twentieth Century Fox today had it not been for Shirley Temple.”
Fittingly, the exhibit starts with the iconic, polka-dotted dress Temple wore in that very first film, a piece Holbrook calls “the ruby slipper of childhood dresses.”
“It was a four-minute role, but immediately, everyone in the world wanted to know who is this Shirley Temple,” he says.
A majority of the show includes some of her most well-known costumes from films like “Heidi,” “The Little Princess” and “Little Miss Marker” (which featured an Edith Head-made gown). Holbrook says that, basically, whatever costume Temple wanted to take home from a movie set, she was allowed to per her contract.
Other items on display include autograph books featuring signatures and personal notes from iconic celebrities of the day (like Orson Welles, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Jimmy Durante); letters of correspondence with national and international leaders; and many gifts she was given throughout her childhood, like a full-sized Japanese bride doll given to her on a visit to Hawaii.
Several photos and gifts from the legendary African-American tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson show just how special the friendship between the two performers was. The unlikely pair starred in several movies together, including “The Little Colonel,” which has a Kentucky connection and marked the first time an interracial couple danced together on a movie screen.
Holbrook notes that the staircase dance scene in that movie was filmed in one take, and that Temple became an honorary member of the Kentucky Colonels.
While the costumes are fascinating and renowned, it’s Temple’s personal items that truly stand out. A display case of official Shirley Temple dolls is at first ordinary, until you read the placard and find out that on each set, the costume designer would make the dolls’ outfits from scrap pieces of the original fabric.
Also, Temple’s first Raggedy Ann doll is on display next to a photo of her taken two months before her first film was released.
“Sometimes the little innocent things in this exhibit are the sweetest things,” says Holbrook. “This is a photo of her holding the doll in her backyard in Santa Monica, just about two months before ‘Stand Up and Cheer’ would come out and her life would be completely transformed. It’s the last moment of her just being a child.”
Holbrook is looking forward to the auction and believes a wide swath of people — from museums and private collectors to avid fans — will bid on the items.
The Frazier History Museum’s hours and admission prices can be found here. “Love, Shirley Temple” runs July 3-8. A special screening of “The Little Princess” will be held on Friday, July 3, at 6 p.m., and reservations are required.
It’s worth noting that Shirley Temple is Turner Classic Movies‘ star of the month, and the channel will screen her top films every Monday through July.