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Shirlee Smith | Around the Corner from La La Land

Published on Monday, April 24, 2017 | 5:14 am

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 his 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 the mysterious minstrel, but I learned from one of my daughters that my mother, a domestic, 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.

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 mother’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 but I simply think of this as a sign of the times and of our proximity to La La Land.

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