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Today’s child stars face different world than Shirley Temple’s

  • Published Friday, Feb. 14, 2014, at 3:56 p.m.

By singing and dancing into the hearts of Depression-era America, Shirley Temple opened the door for hundreds of childhood performers.

But the realm of stardom in which those young stars now find themselves couldn’t be more different than the world Temple helped create.

Shirley Temple Black, who died Monday at age 85, performed in dozens of movies before she even hit her teens. For several years in the 1930s, she was a bigger box-office draw than any adult star of the period, a group that included Vivien Leigh, Greta Garbo and Ava Gardner, as the studio both pushed her to crank out movies and protected her from scrutiny.

It is Temple’s legacy that, directly or otherwise, made possible the emergence of a wide group of modern youthful entertainers, including Jodie Foster, Justin Bieber, Gary Coleman and Miley Cyrus. It is also a culture that has mutated significantly in Temple’s wake – and not always for the best.

“Shirley Temple paved the way for what we have now, which is many child actors who bring us a lot of enjoyment,” said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of “Starstruck,” a book about the business of celebrity. “But there’s also something to give pause about what it has all led to. The culture of modern celebrity is one where stars grow up much faster and a little more stressed out.”

When Temple bounced her blond ringlets and matched Bill Robinson’s dance moves step for step, movie audiences saw something they had never seen before: a mirthful but precocious child.

With Temple generating so much business that it basically saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy, other film and television studios soon followed suit. In the decades that followed, stars such as Annette Funicello, Jerry Mathers, Norma Jean Nilsson and Ron Howard came to prominence, and by the 1970s the idea of child stars as famous as their adult counterparts had become a fixture on television (stars of “The Partridge Family” and “The Brady Bunch”) and the big screen (Foster in “Taxi Driver”). The names kept coming over the subsequent years: Dana Plato, Soleil Moon Frye, Macaulay Culkin, Kirsten Dunst, Shia LaBeouf.

But as the decades passed and media scrutiny increased, child stardom increasingly became synonymous less with bouncy curls than with bad behavior.

In part, say Hollywood agents, that’s a function of perception more than reality.

“There was no social media in (Temple’s) days, so we only know the good stuff,” said Meredith Fine, director of the youth division at Coast to Coast Talent Group. “You didn’t hear about her mother on set. You didn’t know much about her – what you saw is what you saw, and you didn’t get the background.”

And to the extent that child stars of an earlier era were leading a life of lower drama, Fine added, it’s because they were cut more slack.

“(Temple) went on to be an amazing human being and was allowed to do so,” alluding to the late actress’ post-Hollywood career as a diplomat and political fundraiser as well as her breast-cancer activism. “Today, it’s hard because you’re so publicly visible, and the challenges come when that publicity is gone. You’re left alone with yourself.”

Child stars also had a certain advantage in Temple’s day – there was less competition generally, and when a studio was on board with a star it would stop at little to protect its investment, even keeping them out of gossip columns.

“I think the American public has grown jaded by child stars due to the number who have become involved in scandals or self-destructive behavior,” said Emilie Raymond, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in postwar culture. “The public doesn’t allow itself to become as captivated as it did with Ms. Temple.”

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