Originally published June 18, 2000.
Oh, my goodness!
Child actress Shirley Temple was a ray of sunshine in the dark-and-gloomy days of the Great Depression.
Her movies offered hope at a time when optimism seemed to be a rare commodity in America.
The curly-haired, dimple- cheeked actress was the nation’s No. 1 box-office star in the 1930s — not to mention the most popular little girl on the planet.
No wonder Akron residents could hardly believe their eyes in June 1938 when “America’s Sweetheart” showed up unannounced in the Rubber City.
The 10-year-old girl rolled into town about 4:30 p.m. June 22 with her parents, George and Gertrude Temple, three bodyguards, one maid and two dolls.
The Temples said they were taking a cross-country trip to Maine by automobile and Akron seemed to be a good place to stop between Chicago and Washington, D.C. They reserved the entire 16th floor at the Mayflower Hotel and then headed downstairs to the Puritan Room for dinner.
Word trickled out about the famous guest at the downtown inn. Newspaper reporters high-tailed it over to the hotel as a small crowd gathered in the lobby to catch a glimpse of the Hollywood star.
“All I had on the trip was some sandwiches and cookies we took in the car,” Temple said as she sat down for dinner.
Akron Beacon Journal reporter Helen Waterhouse listened in on some of the VIP dinner conversation that night.
“Oh, boy, look at those beets!” Shirley exclaimed at one point.
She dined on tomato juice, split pea soup, asparagus and pork chops, but set aside a piece of celery that she said had been “associating too much with a green onion.”
The conversation turned to that night’s heavyweight boxing match between Joe Louis and Germany’s Max Schmeling in New York City.
“But what are they fighting about anyway, Mother?” Temple wondered. “Louis and Schmeling don’t really hurt each other, do they?”
For the record, Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round to win the heavyweight title.
Waterhouse watched as Temple played a practical joke on her Mayflower waiter.
The actress used her cloth napkin to sop up water from a finger bowl on the table. Then she plunked an ice cube in the bowl and called the waiter over.
“Waiter, do you usually put ice in your finger bowls?” she asked with a straight face.
The waiter hemmed and hawed over the apparent mistake, but was much relieved when the actress let him off the hook.
“It’s just a joke,” Shirley said with a giggle.
The waiter smiled, too.
Temple then noticed two little girls sitting behind her at another table. She took a box of candy over to them, saying: “Would you like one?”
The girls were Akron residents Catherine Johnston, 8, and her friend Nancy Osburn. Their presence was no coincidence.
Catherine is now 70 years old, lives in Aiken, S.C., and goes by the name “Kit” Bryant, but she still remembers the night she met Shirley Temple.
Her uncle, Bill Hall, was having dinner with his wife when the child star and her family sat down at the table next to them. He excused himself and raced to a telephone.
“He called my mother and my father and said, ‘I’m at the Mayflower Hotel having dinner and Shirley Temple is here with her entourage. Get Puzzy’ — my nickname was Puzz — ‘get her dressed up and bring her down here right away and she’ll have a chance to meet Shirley Temple.’ And so off we went,” Bryant said.
Catherine and Nancy sat behind the actress, who turned around, offered them candy and quickly befriended them.
“We were both little girls about the same age,” Bryant said. “We got to talking. I think she said ‘Hi’ and I said ‘Hi’ and she said, ‘You want to come up to my room?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ So we went up to her room.”
On the 16th floor, Temple handed one of her two dolls to Catherine. “The doll’s name was ‘Susie Block,’ “ Bryant said. “How I remember that, I’ll never know. She had ‘Marcia’ and I had ‘Susie Block.’ “
The girls chatted amiably about their pet dogs and other childhood subjects. Temple’s parents allowed a news photographer to take pictures.
“She was adorable,” Bryant said. “I was a picked chicken of a kid. . . . She was a dimpled darling and she was a plump little thing with all those curls and she was the cutest little girl you ever saw in your life. And then there was little me. I was pathetic.”
Soon it was bedtime and Temple had to bid farewell to her new friend, leaving Catherine with fond memories and a story to last a lifetime.
The next day, Temple and her parents toured Saalfield Publishing Co.’s South Akron plant, casting some doubt on the family’s assertion that their visit to Akron was by chance.
President A.G. Saalfield had the publishing rights to all books and paper products relating to Shirley Temple, a lucrative deal for the company and the actress. Saalfield sold more than 50 million Shirley Temple books, including coloring books, paper dolls and movie tie-ins of The Little Colonel, Curly Top, Dimples, Poor Little Rich Girl and dozens of others.
Temple greeted Saalfield workers and watched in awe as one of the company’s massive presses rolled off thousands of copies of one of her books.
“It’s swell,” she said.
After the tour, the Temples got in their automobile and prepared for the journey eastward. Akron Patrolman Art Adams revved up his motorcycle to give them an escort out of town.
Shirley Temple noticed an excited group of neighborhood children gathered in the Saalfield parking lot. She rolled down her window, leaned out and gave a cheerful hello to the fans.
It was time to hit the road.
“Let’s get going, Mother,” Temple said.
And with that, the automobile roared off and the greatest child star of all time was gone.