To the Depression-heavy hearts of her fans, to her parents and especially to the Fox film company, which she rescued from the brink of bankruptcy, Shirley Temple must have seemed Heaven-sent. But it was the child star's down-to-earth composure, her unmannered gaiety and naturalness on-screen that made her a celebrity of colossal proportions in the 1930s and keeps her appeal alive decades later.

And when her golden curls darkened and she outgrew the baby-doll dresses, when her chubby legs and thin voice didn't keep pace with what Hollywood demanded, the same cheerful levelheadedness guided her. After being the top-rated box office draw for four years running, and starring in more than 40 films, Temple outgrew child stardom. She retired from moviemaking, eventually becoming a full-time wife and mother (since 1950, she's been known as Shirley Temple Black). Years later she reentered the public sphere as a middle-aged woman with political aspirations, embarking on a diplomatic career that carried her to the United Nations, Ghana and Czechoslovakia under three presidents.

Unlike the other artists being honored by the Kennedy Center tonight, Black hasn't devoted her life to the arts. She peaked as a movie star when she was barely old enough to read and was dropped by her studio when she was 12. Yet her films still remain classics -- recent reissues on video have sold in the millions.

Now she is 70, and Black's days of warbling "On the Good Ship Lollipop" are a distant memory. But still, there's something unmistakably Shirley Temple-ish about her. She answers the door of her hillside house south of San Francisco wearing a peacock-blue silk pantsuit and heels, a small woman with a bouncy step. She no longer has the famous curls (God forbid) or the dumpling cheeks, but the dimples haven't left her smile. And in her round, excitable eyes one can still see traces of the child who charmed the world.

At Black's side is Sparky, her brown and white boxer. Panting, he keeps to her heel, down the hallway, past the picture windows overlooking the bay, into the cheery living room. Orange, Black announces, is her favorite color, and it's in the carpet, the upholstery, even the flowers that ring her terrace. It colors her lips and nails.

Shirley Temple Black seems as perky as ever. After all, it takes a certain type of temperament to live with the color orange and a dog named Sparky.

"I think I'd call my life a great roller-coaster ride," she says. Her voice is surprisingly deep, almost muddy.

"I've led three lives: the acting part, wife and mother -- which is a career -- and international relations," she says. "I'm proud of my career, the first one, and I'm proud of the other two, too." Tapping a Talent

Shirley Temple was a gifted little girl, to be sure, but a very, very lucky one, too. She was her mother's answered prayer: Gertrude Temple already had two boys and longed for a blond baby girl.

She enrolled Shirley in dancing classes near their Santa Monica, Calif., home at age 3, and it was there that the child was spotted by a producer of "Baby Burlesks," a series of one-reel takeoffs on popular films that featured all-toddler casts. Shirley starred in a number of shorts over the next two years, which led to bit parts in a few feature films.

One of those was "Stand Up and Cheer" at Fox, soon to become 20th Century-Fox. When the film was still in rehearsal, the studio signed her to a seven-year contract. In the chubby-cheeked 5-year-old lay the failing company's hopes for salvation. She delivered, and then some. By the time she was 7, her films had brought the studio millions of dollars in revenue.

Even by today's tie-in standards, Shirley Temple spawned a hefty endorsement industry, with hundreds of thousands of look-alike dolls, a line of clothes, jewelry and other items from soap to shoes. (For the record, she never got a penny for the Shirley Temple cocktail, a sickly sweet ginger ale and grenadine mixture she says she hates but has been obligated to drink -- cheerfully -- all over the world.)

She says her childhood was a happy one -- despite the fact that she was forbidden to swim (it might damage her hair), was kept away from other children out of fear she might get sick, rarely took a break from daily filming until her parents insisted that vacation time be stipulated in her contract, and was followed by her mother every waking hour of the day. As Black writes in "Child Star," her 1988 autobiography, it was her mother's devotion, as well as an inborn self-confidence, that translated the isolation and professional demands into a dream world she loved.

"Most important of all," she writes, "I was at peace with myself. . . . I just stood there in my socks, paid attention and worked with an uncluttered pose."

Fox paid Gertrude Temple extra to accompany her daughter on the set and, especially, to take care of Shirley's hair. The nightly curling routine was sacred. Mrs. Temple brushed each curl -- there were always 56 -- around two fingers and secured it with a bobby pin. Meanwhile, George Temple read to his daughter, typically the Oz stories of L. Frank Baum.

Shirley's hair was washed once a week with Castile soap and a vinegar rinse.

"The only thing I hated was the vinegar," says Black. "I've never liked vinegar since."

The studio cranked out movie vehicles for her as fast as the writers could write. Fox also scripted nearly her every move, including off the set. The studio gave her a live-in bodyguard -- he even trailed the Temples in a separate car when they went on vacation. In her earliest days at the studio, Shirley would hang out with the cast when off-screen, eating in the commissary with everybody else. Studio head Winfield Sheehan quickly decided that his valuable icon of wholesomeness risked being coarsened by mixing with adults. He declared the commissary off-limits and provided an on-site bungalow where Shirley took her meals, studied with her tutor, played with studio-supplied toys and received visitors -- among them Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein, J. Edgar Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt.

"She can't get spoiled, Mrs. Temple," Sheehan warned, as Black relates in "Child Star." "She gets spoiled, it shows in the eyes."

Sheehan was thinking of his investment, not of young Shirley's personal development. But Black thinks the advice turned out to be golden. Shirley's mother kept her daughter's ego scrupulously in check. The child never saw her fan mail. Rarely did she touch any of the thousands of toys sent to her; most went immediately to charity. Her only inkling of her immense popularity was when she saw the crowds gathered at her film premieres or trying to catch sight of her on family vacations, which were usually the only times she was out in public.

"When I would say, Why are people shouting my name?' my mother said, Because your films make them happy,' " Black recalls. "It wasn't personalized. She was very matter-of-fact. It was a wise thing for her to do, in retrospect."

So when did she realize just what a phenomenon she was? Black says she never really spent much time thinking about it. "It was a profession. It was a fascinating job that I had, and one that I enjoyed thoroughly. I'm proud of my work. But I don't think of myself in any other way."

Shirley danced with a number of partners -- Buddy Ebsen, Jack Haley -- but her most famous duets were with legendary tapper Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Shirley and Robinson were celluloid's first interracial couple, initially paired in 1935's "The Little Colonel" as foils for the prickly Lionel Barrymore. In their famous staircase dance, Shirley matched the veteran pro tap for tap, beat for beat, after scant rehearsal.

"I would learn by listening to the taps," she says. "I would primarily listen to what he was doing and I would do it. I can't explain that too well, except I could hear it."

She and Robinson made three more films together -- "The Littlest Rebel," "Just Around the Corner" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." She called him "Uncle Billy," and remembers him for the presents he brought her -- the best of which was a red and white tot-size race car with a peppy engine that she still has. She drove it wildly around the lot with Robinson on the back, but her thrill was short-lived. The next day, she says, "it went like a snail." The studio had tinkered with the car to keep its driver -- and top property -- out of trouble.

Shirley's youth was cold currency for Fox. When she signed with the studio, her birth certificate was changed to make her a year younger. (She didn't find out her true age until her mother told her on her 13th birthday.) The baby look was carefully maintained: Her dresses barely covered her bottom, and she was hoisted into the arms of her co-stars whenever possible.

Other studios tried to tap into Shirley's popularity. MGM wanted her to star in "The Wizard of Oz," and a deal was worked out where Fox would loan out its actress in exchange for MGM attractions Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Black remembers being tremendously excited at the prospect of playing one of her favorite storybook heroines. Then Harlow died unexpectedly, and the deal was off.

"I don't think anyone could've played it better than Judy Garland did," Black says now. "She was superb in the role." Besides, she adds, she would have been only 10 at the time, and quite a bit shorter than the teenage Garland. "I don't think they could've found any Munchkins smaller than me," she quips, and laughs long and hard.

A year later, she was unemployed, cut from her Fox contract 13 months early after her final two films flopped at the box office. Tastes had changed. Nazi tanks had rolled across Poland. The little-waif-with-boundless-optimism seemed hopelessly naive, and Fox couldn't figure out how to deal with Shirley's adolescence. She continued to make movies until she was 21, most of them forgettable, none coming close to matching the popularity of her earlier work; in fact nothing she ever did would approach the fame she had when she was barely out of kindergarten.

On top of her professional disappointments, she discovered the $3 million fortune she had earned as a child had dwindled to nearly nothing due to her parents' lavish lifestyle and her father's bad management of what was supposed to be set aside in trust.

"For reasons some may find inexplicable, I felt neither disappointment nor anger" on discovering how little money was left, Black writes in her book. "Perhaps years spent ignoring such matters had insulated me from disillusion. The spilt-milk parable surely played a role in my equanimity, as did the power of bloodline and family ties." A Second Public Life

Frustrated by a fizzling film career, the tangled finances, her omnipresent parents, she wanted out. At 17 she married Jack Agar, a soldier, had a baby -- and just as swiftly, got divorced.

Soon after, she met former naval officer Charles Black, who had never seen any of her films. So much the better for a fresh start. They married, Black retreated to quiet family life and had two more children. The Blacks lived for some time on River Road in Bethesda, when Charles was recalled to the Navy.

"The fire bell didn't ring for me anymore," Shirley Temple Black says, explaining why she gave up making movies. "David Selznick would call and offer me parts and I would say, I'm sorry, I'm pregnant,' or I have the chicken pox' or I'm baking a cake -- sorry.' "

Today, her two daughters and a son all live nearby in the Bay Area; she has a granddaughter, whose photo adorns her piano, next to the full-size Oscar given her in 1985 to replace the diminutive one she was awarded 50 years earlier for her "special achievement."

But Black didn't stay anonymous for long. An active Republican, she made an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1967. Two years later she was tapped by President Nixon to be the country's United Nations delegate.

Then came the breast cancer. After her modified radical mastectomy in 1972, Black gave a televised news conference from her hospital room, sitting up in bed in considerable pain. She later described her experiences in an article in McCall's magazine. Pre-Happy Rockefeller, pre-Betty Ford, Black shocked the world with her frank discussion of what was considered a highly private matter.

"I did it because I thought it would help other women, my sisters," says Black. Two weeks after her surgery she was back at work as a member of the federal Council on Environmental Quality.

Black was posted to Ghana by President Ford in 1974, served as White House chief of protocol and was ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to '92. The last was, she says, the best job of her life.

She didn't have a lot of diplomatic experience outside her stint at the U.N., but she did have name recognition. "The wonderful thing about the blending of the two careers, acting and diplomacy, is when I go to a country, people there already know me, and they think of me as a relative almost," says Black. "In Prague, I'd go out walking, and when I'd see someone I'd say Dobri dan,' which is Good morning,' and they'd sort of look down. Then they'd sidle up to me later and pull out their wallets and I thought, What's this going to be, Communist Party card or what?' and they'd pull out a little card, well worn -- and at least 50 times this happened to me -- that said, Shirley Temple Fan Club, 1937 or whatever. There was a big fan club in Czechoslovakia. So there's a recognition that was very helpful when you want to explain your country's position on various foreign affairs."

Black says she hopes that phase of her life isn't over; she says she yearns for another "substantive job." For now, she's working on the second volume of her autobiography, this one concerning her diplomatic missions. As she did with "Child Star," she is writing it out in longhand.

Her vast doll collection, her movie costumes, all the memorabilia left of her childhood is packed in storage. She says she almost never thinks about it anymore, though she clearly enjoys showing a reporter her bound collections of still photos from each of her Fox films.

Sparky snores at her feet. Black is asked a final question.

In her remarkably full, eventful life, what does she consider her greatest achievement? She answers without pause: "Marrying Charlie Black." And bursts into a hearty, throaty laugh that startles the dog.

She had a magical childhood, found the man of her dreams, overcame a life-threatening illness to continue serving her country, spreading good cheer wherever her charm, her name, her dimpled smile could do some good. Her life has been more than a little bit like those relentlessly upbeat Shirley Temple movies.

"I think I have a better script," Black says with another gush of laughter. "I like it more because I don't know the ending." CAPTION: What a doll: Shirley Temple on the set during her "first career" -- movie actress -- which eventually gave way to motherhood and, later, international diplomacy. ec CAPTION: Shirley Temple Black at her California home with the full-size Oscar given to her in 1985 to replace the diminutive one she was awarded 50 years earlier. ec