Even after my parents bought our first color television set when I was a little boy, it seemed that most of the programs I enjoyed watching were those that had been filmed in glorious black and white.

After school every afternoon it was the Three Stooges, the Little Rascals and the original Max Fleischer “Popeye” cartoons on Channel 32. Around dinner time Mom or Dad would flip the switch over to Channel 9 for the nightly reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show. Channel 9 was the place to be on the weekends, too: Sunday mornings for reruns of The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid and episodes of the old Flash Gordon serials; and Saturdays for the old Universal Monsters, Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan films... and, yes, Shirley Temple.

For boys growing up in the early to mid 1970s – in the neighborhood I grew up in, at any rate – it simply was NOT cool to admit that you even watched Shirley Temple movies, let alone enjoyed them. So I kept that little morsel of information to myself. Some of my classmates had already found plenty of other things to make fun of me for; there didn’t seem much sense in giving them any additional ammunition.

To be fair, I originally wasn’t all that keen on Shirley Temple. That’s because the first time I saw one it was at my mother’s bidding; she made me and my younger brothers flip the switch over to Channel 9’s “Saturday Matinee” movie program one morning, because she was tired of listening to whatever cartoon we were enjoying on the other channel at the time. When she saw the movie selection that day was a Temple film, she actually sat down to watch... and when my brothers and I protested, she made us sit down and watch with her. We did, but only because we were more scared of our mother than we were of the kids at school calling us sissies. The other kids we could punch, we figured...

So I joined my mother on the living room sofa and watched the movie with her, at first grumbling under my breath over the perceived unfairness of it all. But slowly that curly-headed moppet started working her magic on me; I stopped grumbling, started paying attention, and by the time Shirley and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were tap dancing up and down that staircase I was hooked.

A few years later I saw an adult Shirley Temple acting alongside John Wayne and Henry Fonda in John Ford’s classic Fort Apache, and I’ll admit I developed a bit of a crush. The fact that this pretty young lady I saw on the TV screen was actually old enough to be my grandmother pretty much went over my head at the time...

Since the news of her death was made public this week, there have been scores of tributes that have cited how this gifted child star brightened America’s mood during the Great Depression... how her songs and her dimples brought a smile to millions of moviegoers... how she grew up to serve her country as Shirley Temple Black, U.S. Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia and American delegate to the United Nations. All of these are matters of public record, and are part of the enduring legacy she leaves behind. 

And yet I can’t help feeling that Shirley Temple’s passing - coming as it does in a day when so many young people seem to treat anything more than a week old with disdain, and view black and white movies as being particularly loathsome – represents another note in our culture’s funeral dirge for simpler times that will never come again.

It’s been a long, hard road from Shirley Temple to Honey Boo Boo. It's a detour our culture never should have made. And the fact that we did saddens me no end...

(Copyright © 2014, by John A. Small)