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Family members never gave us the information as to who our minstrel relative was. “He’s related” was all I heard back from my mother after spotting this old-time photo among her boxes of treasures.

I grew up in Los Angeles around the corner from La La Land. There wasn’t just this mysterious minstrel, but I learned, in later years, from one of my daughters that my mother, a domestic, had confided in her that she had had a quiet yearning to become a torch singer.

But instead, she was a maid for the wealthy, a child-care provider for industry people, a driver for several Hollywood designers and production staffers, and a hat-check “girl” at Bullocks Wilshire, where she came upon the rich and famous.

In our home, there were constant stories surrounding Edith Head, the costume creator who won many Academy Awards, for whom my mother drove.

The fancy convertible Mom maneuvered while on errands through the streets of  “La La Land”was a center spot for  laughter at our dinner table, as were the tales of well-heeled shoppers at the famous Bullocks on Wilshire Boulevard.

Growing up in Los Angeles, for us Hollywood was always at our front door, across the street or around the corner.

PEOPLE  ON OUR CORNER WHO MADE THE STAGE LIGHT UP

Irvele Ashby, the child of Irving Ashby, guitarist for, among others, the Nat King Cole Trio, was just one of the toddlers my mother cared for in our home.

Eddie Anderson, who played Rochester on “The Jack Benny Show,” lived around the corner and across the street from my elementary school. His swimming pool was often open for neighborhood children to enjoy.

Juliette Ball, the glamorous older sister of my playmates Harold, Alvin and Dolores, was an actress who sometimes was a stand-in for Lena Horne.

LA LA LAND IN OUR HOUSE

Hollywood — La La Land — had such an influence that my mother determined, in 1937, to name me Shirley Annette because of Shirley Temple, with the middle name from the second-born Canadian Dionne quintuplet born in 1934.

Professional family photos show me, Shirley Pickett, in my young years, with hot-comb-straightened hair and a loose assemblage of “Shirley Temple” curls that were created with an old-time curling iron.

shirlee and beverlee

Shirlee with older sister Beverlee

Seems I bought into the Shirley Temple image because at Sunday school one morning, when all the classes were assembled in the main sanctuary and the superintendent began the morning quiz by asking each of us what we wanted to be when we grew up, I answered “I want to be a movie star.”

Not the right answer for a Mennonite ministry training young disciples to go forth into the world and make it a better place.

The superintendent said he would come back to me. The older kids in the pew behind me told me to say I should be a missionary. I argued but they said we wouldn’t be dismissed until I gave a right answer.

“I want to be a missionary,” I reluctantly said when I was again called upon.

“God bless you,” said the superintendent.

 WHAT DOES ANY OF THIS MEAN ?

I suspect I will never know who the minstrel relative was as there are no more elders in my family to identify him.

I suspect my nother’s beautiful voice — that I often had the privilege to hear because she always sang to her children — was her best act without a microphone, a stage, and a paying audience.

I never knew I was living in La La Land or that the people who were at our front door, around the corner, or across the street were anything different from my mother the domestic or my father the waiter.

Brother Shupe, the Mennonite Sunday school superintendent, had a seemingly profound influence on my life’s journey.

The Dionne quintuplets, who were taken from their parents and marketed as a tourist attraction by the Canadian government, tend to suggest my mother had some forethought in choosing my middle name, as I’ve worked for years regarding Child Protective Services removing children from their families.

I served on the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families, where they didn’t seem to like my attitude.

I served as chairperson of the Los Angeles County Adoption Commission. The county soon shut down the commission.

But in spite of it all, I received the United States Congressional Angel in Adoption Award.

Brother Shupe’s words follow me into the women’s prison where I provide the program “Mothers Behind Bars — The Parent Puzzle. “

Maybe it wasn’t the Sunday school session that set me on a path of “missionary” work but growing up near Hollywood fortunately doesn’t seem, in the final analysis, to have shaped my life’s work.

Although it did apparently play a role in those Shirley Temple curls I had, which I think were a sign of the times and of our proximity to La La Land.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Laura Monteros

    I think “Hollywood” has more influence on those who don’t live nearby. I grew up in the Valley, which was one of the centers of the development of the new medium of television, and never thought of stars as anything but regular people.

  2. Bill

    Dear Shirlee,
    Thank You for sharing such a rich and formidable family legacy that you grew up in, during your youth. By the mere virtue of your indomitable SPIRIT and INTELLIGENCE and COMPASSION and ACTIVISM—–it is obvious that you were influenced by…talented, forthright, hardworking and sensible parents; whom instilled in you THE NEED TO SERVE OTHERS; in helping to make this world a better place for men, women and of course CHILDREN! You were also influenced by “Hollywood”
    as well, for (consciously or sub-consciously)—–you learned how to make “Major Productions” out of social issues, that are far more relevant than most “Hollywood scripts.”

    You ALWAYS set up the right premise of what needs to be addressed; you ALWAYS have the right amount of facts, quantitative and/or qualitative information to set up the logic and/or logistics of a situation. Your (demographic) settings are ALWAYS relevant to aspects of society whom are under-served, disenfranchised, oppressed, taken advantage of by “the System,” or to people whom have “no voice” to speak for themselves. You bring a “Rational Relevancy” to our most topical or controversial of social issues…that can only be pushed forth for greater scrutiny in a luminous light—–by using your VOICE OF REASON & JUSTICE/MOTHER WIT/and GOOD OL’ COMMON SENSE. Ultimately, you set the stage for major blockbusters. And if some of your “co-stars” can’t “get with the program,” you’ll banish
    them from the set; or convince them that it is better if they go off and be on a “lesser sound stage.” It is ALWAYS your desire to help people to feel that they are bigger and have more power to be “stars” in their own lives; than La La Land would ever have given them an opportunity to have.
    I’m sure if given the chance and if there were a “level-playing field,” your mother could have had her God-given talents well-received by society (and maybe even “Hollywood”). I’m
    sure that your relative in “Blackface” just wanted some recognition for something that he
    felt a “burning desire” to do—-simply to “express his talent.” And to be respected for his talent…for being a person…for being a man. That’s all any of us want—–a little stage to “shine our God-given lights/talents/abilities/intelligence/gifts.” To be
    acknowledged for doing something good or even extraordinary. And to be treated respectfully…like decent human beings. So Shirlee, even if you don’t have the “Shirley Temple Curls” anymore; you’ve ALWAYS been bigger than Temple or any other star, Hollywood and La La Land itself! Why? Because YOUR productions are ALWAYS focused on “the people” and the CHILDREN being the “stars.” While the screens are much BIGGER in our current cinema theaters… I’m afraid that “Hollywood” and La La Land have made the people’s brains much smaller. Well, I think “that’s a wrap” (as we say in “shew biz”), (Smile).
    —–Bill Allen, Jr.

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