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Lights, Camera, Action!

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The recent death of Shirley Temple Black has brought many newspaper articles about her uplifting effect as a child actor. Those articles said that with her acting, singing and dancing, she provided morale boosts for people who suffered through the Great Depression. Many female entertainers across all of the fields that comprise the performing arts have opened up new horizons for us and provided us with enjoyment and enlightenment. Let's learn about a few of these amazing women.

One of the premiere ballerinas of all time, Maria Tallchief grew up on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. As with many child prodigies who begin at a young age, she started ballet and music lessons when she was three. She joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after graduating from high school. After that, she became the first American ballerina to debut at the Paris Opera (1947). Tallchief served for 18 years as the prima ballerina for what today is called the New York City Ballet. After her retirement, she started ballet companies and served as artistic director. Tallchief received the National Medal of the Arts (1999) and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. I had the pleasure of meeting her at her induction in 1996 -- what a graceful and gracious woman.

From ballet, we move to television. Known for her comedic persona on the beloved 1950s television show I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball was actually a tremendous force in the television world. A groundbreaking female executive in the television industry, Ball's I Love Lucy was the first show to use three cameras, a set and be filmed in front of a live audience. She broke barriers by being shown on television when she was visibly pregnant. Ball was influential in ensuring that the television show Star Trek (one of my personal favorites) was made and kept on the air. Ball received Emmy Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Lucille Ball's trailblazing was of great benefit to media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey is the first African-American woman to own her own production company. Oscar-nominated, she is deemed the richest African-American of the 20th century. She began her talk show in 1985. Actress, producer, director, talk show host, editorial director of O, The Oprah Magazine, and co-founder of women's cable network Oxygen Media, she has exerted much influence on the American TV viewing public. In acknowledging the women who came before her, she says: "I have crossed over on the backs of Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Madam C.J. Walker. Because of them I can live the dream. I am the seed of the free, and I know it. I intend to bear great fruit." Winfrey has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Like Winfrey, Rita Moreno has had a multi-dimensional performing arts career. A pioneering actress and singer, she was the first, one of the few people, and the only Hispanic, to have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy. Child prodigy Moreno starting taking dancing lessons early and appeared on Broadway by the time she was 13 (1945). In her twenties, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine (1954). Her portrayal of Anita in the film version of West Side Story (a part originated on Broadway by Chita Rivera) earned her an Oscar. Among her many television and film roles was the recent portrayal of the mother of Fran Drescher's character in the sitcom Happily Divorced. Moreno has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And, now we move to opera. Beverly Sills made her professional debut on the radio at age three as Bubbles Silverman (1932). An operatic soprano, Sills is crediting with making opera accessible and understandable to the masses. She introduced the use of subtitles for foreign language operas so that American audiences could understand the lyrics. Opera houses all over the world adopted this practice. When she became head of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1993 she made history in many ways. Sills was the first performing artist in that position, the first woman, and the first former director of an arts company. A thrilling performer in her own right, Sills brought opera to America and the world. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

We learn, laugh and smile as we discover these women and see footage or photos of their performances. All of them are profiled in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We thank them for opening up our minds and our hearts.