Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Copyright © 1984
by Dick Moore.
“but don’t have sex or take the car”
At eleven months, I landed my first job. Most of my peers were three or four years old. Others were jobless until eight or ten. Some of us were local kids. Others descended on Hollywood from Detroit or Cleveland or London or Atlanta. A number spent several years developing their talents before tackling Hollywood. Usually, they took their families with them. In the main, we were Depression kids who supported our families, frequently our studios, occasionally the entire movie industry, and at least once—according to President Franklin Roosevelt—the nation. “As long as our country has Shirley Temple,” FDR reportedly said, “we will be all right.” The 1930s and early 1940s in America were a throwback to the Dickensian era a century earlier, when children were perceived as little adults. Important to Hollywood’s economy and to the public’s need for escape, each of us was a representation, a cliche: Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney were irrepressible little adults who could accomplish more than real adults, and solve their problems.
Jane Withers was the tough kid who broke the rules; Elizabeth Taylor, the symbol of beauty and serene perfection; Jackie Coogan, the little ragamuffin who broke your heart; Roddy McDowall and Freddie Bartholomew expressed intelligence and refinement; Stymie of “Our Gang” was the little “pickaninny,” the only black among us; Spanky, the fat boy of the Gang, was intended to be laughed at. I was Dickie Moore, innocent and pure, who specialized in reconciling wayward parents and bringing enlightenment to folks like Marlene Dietrich. Hollywood stars were the closest thing to royalty America produced. So as children we tasted a life immensely privileged, but laced with deprivation. All of us were extraordinary people at a very early age. All of us shared common lives and times, huge responsibilities, and salaries that shriveled fathers’ egos. Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs.
Crisis gripped the set. The scene called for the actors to give the crying infant a bottle filled with wine. Mother hadn’t been aware of that. “You’re not going to give my little Dickie wine,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” the director said. “It’s only Coca-Cola. We wouldn’t give wine to a baby.”
“You’re not going to give him Coca-Cola, either. He’s only eleven months old,” said Mother.
So production stopped, one hundred people stood around on salary. Paralysis, Hollywood’s most dread disease, suddenly quarantined the set because Mother was protecting my digestion.
John Barrymore, star of the film, who just happened to be on the set that day (he wasn’t in this scene), came over to see what the commotion was about. He peered into the crib at me, the kid with the big brown eyes, then announced majestically, “Jesus Christ, it’s an owl!”
Our Pay and What Happened to It
Money was the only reason that Lillian and Dorothy Gish—two of the most celebrated actresses ever to appear in theater and films—began acting as children. Tiny, delicate, astonishingly beautiful at eighty-eight, Lillian Gish poured tea for me in her New York apartment as she reminisced about her life when Theodore Roosevelt was President. To support the girls, their mother, who had never worked, got a job in a department store. “She gave Papa the money to pay the man when he came for the furniture we were buying on the installment plan. But he didn’t pay it, so she said, ‘Well, look, I can support three people, but I can’t support four. You go out and get a job, and when you can support us, you come back.’ ” Miss Gish spoke precisely.
To supplement her earnings, her mother rented out the girls’ bedroom to two actresses, who encouraged her to try the stage. The Proctor’s Stock Company hired her as leading ingenue. An actress with a company that needed a four-year-old girl took Lillian with her on the road. Another actress took Dorothy. Each girl earned ten dollars a week; their mother, fifteen dollars. They saved enough to get them through the summer, when theaters closed; air conditioning hadn’t been invented. Came summer, Lillian, Dorothy, and their mother visited Aunt Emily in Ohio: In Ohio, hotels had signs saying: “No actors or dogs allowed.” We asked Mother why. We thought actors were such nice people. Mother said it was because actors often got stranded and had no money to pay their hotel bills, so they slid down the water pipe at night and left without paying their bills.
After I went into the movies, Griffith [D. W. Griffith, in whose films the Gish girls starred] ran out of money while we were filming Birth of a Nation. He had only fifty thousand dollars and the picture cost sixty-one thousand. We all worked without salary because we knew he was honest, and we wanted to help. Mother had saved three hundred, which was a fortune for us, and she went to Mr. Griffith and offered to put it into the picture. But he said, “No, I won’t take it. You might lose it all.” I earned a thousand a week in the movies. Mother said, “You think you’re getting a thousand a week? You’re getting fifty dollars, five percent. See that you live on that.” Mother put the rest away for us.
Sex Can Wait?
Marriage was a way for us to prove that we had grown up. Children don’t get married, right?
Wrong! But we didn’t know it then. Not surprisingly, nearly all of us entered into at least one marriage that failed: Jane Powell, Donald O’Connor, Freddie Bartholomew, Deanna Durbin, Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, Gene Reynolds, Peggy Ann Garner, Bobs and Delmar Watson, Cora Sue Collins, Gloria Jean, Sidney Miller, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Stymie, Jackie Cooper, Jackie Coogan, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Kathleen Nolan, Ann Rutherford, Darryl Hickman, Marcia Mae Jones, Edith Fellows, Dean Stockwell, Spanky McFarland, Diana Cary, me. Mickey Rooney was married the first time when he was twentyone, to Ava Gardner. “I needed to be married like you need to paint Shea Stadium at midnight,” Mickey told me. “But I’m happy I did it, because it was part of growing up.” Lillian Gish is among a handful of former child stars who were never divorced. Miss Gish believes that “an actress shouldn’t ruin a good man’s life by marrying him,” so she never married anybody.
Do you recall your homeroom class? Roughly a score or so of children, right? All studying together, kids sorting out life’s early clues; assembled briefly, then dispersed by differences in class assignments, neighborhoods, and fathers’ jobs. It was not that way for us. Homeroom was a clutch of tiny, sometimes solo classes strewn from Culver City to Burbank. Spelling and arithmetic spanned whole careers. Our lives touched each other’s, drew apart, touched again, receded—waves hissing on a beach. From Lillian Gish to Margaret O’Brien, ours was a class of intimate strangers bound by the common experience of being child stars.
Baby Peggy (her real name was Diana Cary) was, in the early 1920s, Hollywood’s first four-year-old self-made millionaire. Her parents probably hold the distinction of running through her money fastest. She was broke at six.
Then came Jackie Coogan, who shares with Shirley Temple the greatest, most enduring fame ever achieved by a child at any age at any time. He was the first child to be merchandised on a national scale. There were Jackie Coogan clothes, Jackie Coogan candy bars, toys—even a Jackie Coogan haircut, which, while copied around the world, could not command a royalty.
Shirley was the first child to carry the full weight of a talking, full-length, “A” picture on her small but willing shoulders. Her every motion picture was a “Shirley Temple picture.” It wasn’t just a film in which Shirley Temple starred. When I bestowed her first screen kiss, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the world was watching—literally. The event was recorded on the front page of every major newspaper. My timid peck on her cheek was the symbolic loss of the world’s most beloved and famous child, the little girl whose energy, pluck, and irrepressible good cheer allowed folks to forget the Great Depression—at least for ninety minutes. There will never be another Shirley Temple. Today, there are kids who make a splash, but they will never command the lifelong recognition we still have. Their films are not rerun on television. The continuity of product isn’t there. And, in Jackie Coogan’s words, “There’s nothing charming about children anymore.” Our group is still around. Try today to track the people you shared first grade with. Most have evaporated, raindrops in a desert.
Perennially visible, we have no place to hide.
Life on the fast track is the seven o’clock news. When you’re the topic of discussion, no one else exists. But when another story breaks, you might as well be dead. And it doesn’t have a thing to do with you. Why did I want to cry? Was it the pressure of unbearable, still buried feelings, feelings of being nobody now because I was somebody once? Was it a montage from the past, of cameras, people, lights, a buzzing noise all focusing on me, the center of attention; so important, so indispensable, until the director yells, “Cut!” and I am whisked into a blackout while someone else moves into camera range?
Even on the set when two or three years old, I must somehow have been aware that this shattering contrast between darkness and spotlights was unnatural. But you can’t handle such emotions at so early an age. So, belatedly, I found myself fighting back the tears.