Shirley Temple still dazzling collectors, film fans

More than 25 years after she started, Mary Lou Lober of Greensburg, Pa., hasn’t lost her passion for Shirley Temple dolls.

“My home is filled with dolls,’’ said Lober, who has collected since 1982. “The only room where you can’t see those tiny little eyeballs is my bathroom.’’

Lober and an army of Shirley Temple fans nationwide became addicted after watching old movies and television shows.

Temple, born in 1928, was a mere child when she first entertained millions of the Great Depression generation, beginning in the 1930s, she starred in 14 short films, 43 feature films and 25 storybook films, and is still alive in California at age 81.

Ellen G. King, a doll collector and owner of King’s Antiques from Hilliards, Pa., said today’s economic hardships remind people of the days when Shirley Temple was tapping across the golden movie screen.

“The Shirley Temple doll takes us all to a place when things were a lot less complex and people actually looked out for one another,’’ said King. “We simply do not see performers like Shirley Temple today."

Part of Temple’s appeal was that she was always cheerful and always did great things, according to King. The fact that her characters were often in perilous situations, but managed to triumph over adversity resonated with a Depression-era audience.

King said the Shirley Temple collectibles that are the most valuable are the ones issued during her original entertainment reign in the 1930s. Some rare 1930s Ideal brand Shirley Temple dolls are selling for more than $2,200,

The Ideal Novelty and Toy Company’s composition Shirley Temple doll was created under the watchful eye of little Shirley’s mother, who allowed the company to put dimples on her bottom along with the requisite dimples on her cheeks. Shirley dolls, some $6 million worth of them, ultimately were marketed in conjunction with several of the child star’s films, and were dressed in costumes identical to those in which she appeared, from the knife-pleated dress in Baby Takes a Bow to the Scots-plaid kilt of Wee Willie Winkie.

Shirley Temple dolls have been eagerly collected since their introduction, and have also been extensively reproduced in the United States, France, Germany and Japan. And an interesting sidebar on such widespread reproduction is the fact that the celluloid pin worn by the original Shirley Temple doll is considered by collectors to be so important that it has actually been faked.

Mark Janiel of New Castle, Pa. devotes an entire second-story room to a Shirley Temple doll collection that his sister began and he acquired. “I have them all from the 1930s to the 1950s, and I get literally swamped with collectors wanting more,’’ said Janiel, whose dolls range in price from $200 to $400.

Not only are Shirley Temple dolls all the rave now, but the books and movies about this famous child-star also continue to fly off bookshelves.

“I just spent more than $100 for some Shirley Temple clothing for my dolls and I am still trying to purchase any books about the child star,’’ said Sharon Dececco of North Versailles, Pa.

Perhaps the most popular book about the child star was How I Raised Shirley Temple by her mother Gertrude Temple. In fact, one of the more recent paper doll books was published in 1986, when Temple was 58, an affirmation of the continuing appeal of her personality and film work.

“Nobody ever talks about the fact that she was ambassador,’’ said Mary Ann Gradisek, a life-long member of the Laurel Highlands Doll Club which hosted its 28th anuual doll and toy show April 19 in Greensburg, Pa.

“Temple was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Ghana and Czechoslovakia and was a representative to the United Nations. Even a non-alcoholic cocktail was named for her,’’ said King.

Eileen Mosteller of Dollworks in Westerly, R.I. said Shirley Temple dolls have been popular forever. “I really can’t think of a time when the Shirley dolls were not popular’’ said Mosteller. “In fact, people love collecting the look-alike Shirley Temple dolls because they have difficulty finding originals in good condition.’’

And Ruth Omberg, 87, of Wheeling, WVa., says she can still remember her father standing for hours at a local toy shop in the early 1930s to get her a Shirley Temple look-alike because they could not afford the Ideal Novelty doll which sold for more than $25 back in the 1930s.

Other collectors like Wilma Roche of Detroit, Mich. said she sold her original 1930s Shirley Temple doll for $1,000 to help her unemployed daughter pay the rent.

Erlene Reed of Washington, D.C. said she may have to dig out her rare 1930s Shirley Temple dolls and place them on the auction block if the stock market continues to plummet. Frank Crest of Pittsburgh, Pa is already creating a Web site to sell some of his mother’s old Shirley Temple dolls to help pay for his graduate tuition in business administration at the local community college.

But Susan Jones of Washington, Pa. vows to hold on to her 25 Shirley Temple dolls and photo memorabilia.

“I have one black-and-white photo of Shirley Temple that was given to me by my late husband for Christmas 1984. My husband was killed a day after Christmas and the photo is the last thing he gave me,’’ said Jones, a retired school teacher. “I think if more children today played with dolls and other traditional toys, we would not have so much violence. There was no computer animation in all those old Shirley Temple movies; people had to act back then.’’


Chriss Swaney is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist for Reuters, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Engineer and Horse World, and an avid antique collector.