Monday, April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney (1920–2014)

[post 369]

Remember the excitement you all felt when you decided that, gosh darn it, we're going to convert this run-down junk heap into a snazzy theatre and put on a show that will knock 'em dead? Well, that kind of enthusiasm no doubt predates Mickey Rooney by a few millennia, but he sure did come to personify it in all those MGM movies with Judy Garland. And what better representative of the eternal optimism of show business than Rooney? At 93, he was not only one of the last of the vaudevillians—having joined his parents' act at the age of 17 months—but was even a veteran of the silent film era. Just a couple of weeks ago (!!) a print was found of Mickey's Circus from 1927, in which he played the ringmaster of a kids' circus.

In Mickey's Circus (1927)
I do have two personal memories connected to Rooney. In 1980 or so I had the pleasure of seeing Rooney (and Ann Miller) live when he revived his career with the Broadway musical Sugar Babies. This was based on the heyday of American burlesque, which was fitting since his mother had been a dancer in a burlesque chorus line. The show itself was sanitized and corny, but Rooney was funny, super energetic, and had the audience eating out of his hands. It ran on Broadway for three years and he toured with it for another four.

Much much earlier, 1959 to be exact, Rooney's son Teddy had been cast to star in a TV production of The Ransom of Red Chief, based on the O'Henry story. Unfortunately, Teddy was apparently as wild as his father and as bratty and impossible to control as the hyperactive character he was portraying. NBC was understandably in a panic. This was most likely a live performance so they couldn't take any chances. That's where I came in. I was hired to learn the part and be ready to play it in case of a meltdown, though I believe without the Rooneys ever even knowing about it. As things turned out, young Teddy calmed down and did the show (and had a bit of a career as an actor), and meanwhile I lost my chance to perform with two other legends, William Bendix and Hans Conried. Close but no cigar.

Rooney was a fine actor, comedian, dancer, and musician, and I've included a few clips below that show he was no slouch when it came to physical comedy.

Here he is tap dancing at the age of 12 or 13 in Broadway to Hollywood. (Thanks to Hank Smith for the link.)

Puck's final speech from Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Rooney played the role as a 13-year-old in Reinhardt's stage production at the Hollywood Bowl, and then in the movie about a year later.

Here's a physical comedy gem from Love Laughs at Andy Hardy, as Mickey (who on a good day was 5' 2"/157cm.) does his best dancing with a much taller partner. The two-shot slide thru her legs looks faked, but other than that legit and funny. Some good moves and some great takes by Rooney.

You won't find Sugar Babies on DVD, but Rooney and Miller did perform an excerpt on the 1980 Tony Awards Show. The comedy partnering starts just short of the 2-minute mark. (They also did a version of this at a gala at the Kennedy Center.)

The NY Times obituary.
The Sugar Babies cast album.
See a video of the Broadway production of Sugar Babies at the Lincoln Center library.
The official Mickey Rooney web site.

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