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The Shirley Temple Effect

Posted on 24 October 2008

By Harvey Jacobs

Between political pundits and financial gurus burbling all over radio and television these days, one phrase emerged that is new to me. Several analysts of the global fiscal debacle speak about a phenomenon they call: The Shirley Temple Effect.

In the midst of chatter about the “bail out” –or is it “out on bail”?— while I listened to various worse case scenarios about the coming  apocalypse, when they mentioned Shirley’s Effect, images of Volker, Greenspan and Paulson dissolved. There came the sound of tiny feet tap-dancing up a storm, or down a circular staircase, while a sweet little crinkly voice sang “The Good Ship Lollipop.”

The vision of a curly-headed nymph, navigating the peaks and valleys of The Great Depression, suddenly appeared, shooing away frightening bar charts and graphs showing lightning bolts crashing into former dreams of affluence.

Of course, I recognized that impossibly impish, entirely lovable child. It was Ms. Shirley Temple, the fortunate recipient of my first valentine, a five-cent epic (plus a two-cent stamp) that had the words JEEPERS CREEPERS preserved inside a flaming red heart. I was also reminded that I am still waiting for her answer though a few decades have somehow slipped by since I sent it.

I’d read that a woman calling herself Shirley Temple was reported to have been forced to laugh and cry on cue by the ultimate stage mother during a miserable Hollywood childhood. She was now full-grown, married, a Republican who once served briefly as our representative to the United Nations. She has the audacity to claim that she had once been that magical child! Well, I didn’t believe a word of it. My Shirley occasionally pops up on the TV screen, looking exactly the same as the living doll I remember, bursting with innocent, joyful chubby-legged energy– every inch the centrist liberal I assumed her to be. Bottom line, she hasn’t changed a bit.)

So, what is The Shirley Temple Effect these excess prophets are talking about? In the 1930s, while FDR was trying to piece together a broken America, when “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?” was number one on the hit parade, hundreds of millions of desperate people here and abroad headed for the movies seeking respite from a dismal reality. And the biggest grossing star of the Depression era was, yes, my own valentine, Shirley Temple!

There was something mystical about watching that “darling of the silver screen” scatter demons of despair and kindle candles of hope in the battered hearts of her unemployed audiences. Her Effect was to actually make people feel happy.

There is another Effect, call it The Princess Effect, that replaced Shirley’s during World War II. Watching Princess Elizabeth and her sister, Margaret, standing in decimated London during the blitz, confirmed America’s resolve to help the Brits survive and crush the Nazis. Another song, “My Sister And I,” cemented our resolve to make Hitler pay for putting those children in jeopardy. (Oddly, the song wasn’t written about the royal sisters—just generic sisters.)

The need for Effects faded after the war, along with Shirley Temple’s career. But wait…now, here in the 21st Century, I am told by the anointed knights of Dow Jones, that, in this moment of chaos, when the floor has been pulled out from under anything even resembling stability, what we really need is  Shirley Temple to trigger our will to survive and prosper.

Leadership, sure. Wisdom, definitely. Action, absolutely. But mostly, something to conjure The Shirley Temple Effect to get us through this monumental mess.

It isn’t hard to imagine a migration of the walking wounded staggering toward the Sag Harbor Cinema, searching urgently for transformative diversion, murmuring “The Effect, The Effect”  like Zombies in a George Romero film. But where is Shirley when we need her?

Judy Garland might have been helpful as a Shirley substitute. Marilyn Monroe would have done her bit to offer some semblance of damage control. The sad truth is, we have nobody to replace the magnificent moppet who once saved a dismal day.

Consider our choices:

Britany Spears? Never.

Paris Hilton?  She might capsize “The Good Ship Lollipop.”

Miley Cyrus? Maybe for a baby crisis.

The Vanna White Effect? Close, but could Vanna lead us to Bonus Land?

Sarah Palin? Effective?

It’s amazing that the guardians of our solvency are forced to turn to old film reels to find a feel-good metaphor culled from a time when the need for rescue was as pressing as it is today.

We look to the past to help predict the future, but often we ignore the lessons of other people’s experience, however obvious. What does the Soup Kitchen generation have to teach us? Aren’t we so much smarter, so much better defended against doom and gloom then our hobo ancestors? They harvested  “The Grapes Of Wrath.” We have tofu and buffalo burgers.

So how come the “global market” is in the tank? How come so many citizens of the richest country in the history of the world are losing their homes, not to mention their cars, laptops, cell phones, 401Ks and medical insurance?

How come, in this age of microchips and genetics, implants and transplants, satellites and space stations, we’re suddenly reacquainted with a five-year old changeling  transformed from being a kid into being an Effect?

And we’re reminded of a deep hunger to reconnect with a vibrant, loving life-force always waiting in the wings to bail us out of our own conundrums—along with some work and a little luck.



Harvey Jacobs’ new novel, Side Effects, is due around December from Celadon Press in Sag Harbor.

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