Commentary

Saunders: NC man makes timely find of Shirley Temple photo

bsaunders@newsobserver.comFebruary 16, 2014 

Brian Ewing of North Carolina said he found this photo of Shirley Temple behind another framed picture that his wife had purchased years ago. He found the Temple photo last week on the same day that Shirley Temple Black died.

COURTESY OF BRIAN EWING

Who hasn’t seen Shirley Temple’s work, even if in grainy black and white footage of the ringletted, precocious tyke singing “On the Good Ship Lollipop” or dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson?

You’ve probably seen Brian Ewing’s work, too, but didn’t know it.

Last Monday, on the day Shirley Temple Black died at age 85, their lives intersected. Okay, sort of.

Ewing is no hoofer: he’s a master plaster artisan living in Burlington who has been honored by Capital Area Preservation Inc. for his work on the Senate chambers at the state Capitol.

On the day Temple Black died, Ewing was fixing to do his thing – which was to fix a frame on a picture his wife had bought – when he found beneath it a picture of Temple, apparently autographed by her.

His wife, he explained, had bought a framed picture of some beautiful cherry blossoms from a flea market at the Daniel Boone Village in Hillsborough in 1988 or 1989. The picture had been lying around since then, much remarked upon but pretty much undisturbed.

“I don’t know what got into me,” he said of that day last week. “I was looking at the painting and decided to do some work on the frame. I was going to tighten it back down because it was kind of loose.

“It still is, because I stopped working on it when I found the picture. The first thing I did was take the pins out and I took the brown paper from the back of the painting, and underneath was the picture.

“This was before I’d heard that she had passed away,” he recalled. “When I heard ... I said ‘Wow, I just found her picture today.’ That’s what I call serendipity.”

Inscribed in ink on the picture is “Hello Everybody, Shirley Temple.”

A Durham performance

The “Carolina Theatre” stamp on the back of the picture gave some clue to the picture’s provenance, so Ewing said he called the theater to see if there was any record of her performing there.

Aaron Bare, the theater’s director, called Ewing’s find “a really neat story. ... I’ve always heard rumors that she played the theater. We put an exhibition together in 2011 and looked pretty extensively into our background” but saw nothing on Temple’s possible appearance, he said.

That means little, Bare told me, because judging by Temple’s age in the picture, it was probably taken in the early to mid-1930s. Temple was born in 1928 and “looks to be 4 or 5, 6 at the most,” Bare said. “We have nothing in our archives on that period ... it wouldn’t surprise me if she played here. In the ’40s, we had Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Reagan, a lot of the touring acts of the day.

Temple at one time was the biggest star in Hollywood. The New York Times said Clark Gable was “a distant second.” Gable never had a famous, non-alcoholic drink named after him, either.

“There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence (that the former ambassador traipsed across the Durham stage), but I just don’t know,” he said.

‘A high-class lady’

Was Ewing a Temple fan even before his serendipitous discovery, I asked?

“Who wasn’t?” he replied.

It wasn’t just her irrepressibility on the screen that made Ewing a fan, though. He had heard from his father about what a kind person she was, he said.

“It was after a USO event when my dad was in the Navy and he was seated in the chow hall and Shirley Temple came in and sat down next to him and the other guys at the table,” he recounted. “My dad said she was nothing but a high-class lady. ... Easy to make laugh, he said.”

Ewing said his wife and he “are debating whether to donate this photo or put it on eBay.”

Whether it proves to be worth major moolah – hey, have you seen what an autographed Bieber or One Direction photo goes for? – or turns out just to be a sentimental conversation piece, Ewing said he’s glad he found it.

“I was pretty sad when she died,” he said.

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