Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!
Mickey Rooney’s mantra. His first time in the spotlight was at the age of seven months, when crawled onstage during his parents’ vaudeville act and sneezed. For the next nine decades he continued to put on a show.
Very few people, that I worked with over the years, took such complete joy in their work as Mickey did. And his joy was infectious, not only to the audience, but to everyone who had the good fortune of working with him. On three separate one-week engagements, two weeks of SUGAR BABIES, one week of THE WIZARD OF OZ, I had this good fortune. What a pro! What a warm, kind, friendly man! And working with him was like shaking hands with history. Consider just a little of his career:
VAUDEVILLE: Joined his parents’ act at age 15 months, singing, dressed in a tux, and sporting a rubber cigar. He was the last living, big time star that had made their start in vaudeville.
SILENT MOVIES: He started acting in silent films at age 5. At age 7,he had his own series, MICKEY MCGUIRE. He played Mickey in 78 shorts, 23 of which were silent films. Although there are still a few people living who were in silent films, like Dickie Moore of Our Gang shorts, none were stars of their own series nor became a star of Rooney’s magnitude.
GOLDEN AGE OF HOLLYWOOD: He was one of the biggest stars in MGM’s studio, home of the greatest stars in the era. The year 1939 has been acknowledged as the greatest year for movies, with such features as GONE WITH THE WIND and WIZARD OF OZ, and that year the biggest box office draw was Mickey Rooney. He followed up the honor in 1940 and 41. His two series at the time, ANDY HARDY and the Garland/Rooney musicals were, not only MGM’ s most popular features, they were also the most profitable. Of the stars of the MGM studio those years, Mickey outlived all of them except for Olivia de Havilland.
THE GREATEST GENERATION: Mickey tried to enlist right after Pearl Harbor, but was turned down. Later, he was drafted. Served 21 months entertaining the troops. He was awarded the Bronze Star for entertaining in combat zones.
FILM CAREER: Prior to the MGM years, he worked in many films for various studios, like Warner Brothers, where he played Puck in A MIDSUMMER’S DREAM. He was 15 at the time and had a broken leg. After his military service, his physical stature worked against him. He he continued to work in the movies, but never reached the superstar status he had as a teenager. While his nominations were many, the only Oscars he received was a ‘Juvenile Award’ and a Life Time Achievement Award. Both Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando called him the greatest film actor. He is the only person who made at least one film in ten consecutive decades.
RADIO: One of the busiest voices during Radio’s Golden Age. In addition to appearing in the great radio shows of the day, he headlined in three series.
TELEVISION: He has countless credits on TV, including many starring roles during the Golden Age of TV. He headlined in 4 different series. He won an Emmy for BILL in 1981.
STAGE: His stage work ran the gamut from Shakespeare to the revival of burlesque. His Broadway appearances were in SUGAR BABIES and WILL ROGER’S FOLLIES. After 1,208 performances of SUGAR BABIES in New York, he and Ann Miller, his co-star, spent five years touring it. They brought it to Minneapolis twice. He toured in many other stage productions including THE WIZARD OF OZ with Eartha Kitt, which spent a week in Minneapolis.
HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME: He has 4 stars, Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, and Live Theater.
He worked extensively doing voice-overs in animated films. He recorded music albums, cast albums, singles, and spoken word. It was said that he never found a musical instrument he couldn’t play. He wrote books, directed and produced films, and his last ‘big show’ was speaking out about elderly abuse before a Senate committee.
And in amongst all that work, he managed to marry 8 different women. “I had a license made out ‘to whom it may concern’. I always got married in the morning, that way if it didn’t work out, it didn’t ruin the whole day. Took me eight times before I got it right,” he said. Joking aside, his last marriage lasted over 30 years.
He had a rider that called for cable TV in his dressing room. Why I don’t know. He spent very little time in his dressing room. When he wasn’t on stage, he was usually offstage talking to people.
He’d see a new face and he would stick out his hand. ‘I’m Mickey, and you are?’ The second time through with SUGAR BABIES, he said to me, ‘I forget the name but I remember the hat.’
‘Don,’ I told him, which opened the door for one of his improv skits.
‘That your name or the hat’s? You know all the stagehands use to wear a hat. Now there’s just you and maybe that prop man in Peoria. Course he’s probably long gone by now.
‘And women! They always wore hats. Feathers and fruits.” In your Easter Bonnet, with all the frills upon it”.’ Then he broke into a little dance. ‘I taught Astaire these steps. Adele, not Fred.’
Mickey was never above telling a joke, no matter how corny or how old. Once he came off stage after doing the skit LITTLE RED SCHOOLHOUSE to thunderous applause. He cupped his hand to his ear listening to the cheers from the audience. ‘And they said I was a has-been. But just think where I has been.’
Once I was in a wing waiting to do a cue, when Mickey started telling me about how a bellboy led him to find religion. ‘Changed my life. Now Mickey Jr. really got born-again. Has his own church. Wants me to go there and preach a ser..
Just then the chorus girls came off stage. One ran out through the wing where Mickey and I were. Mickey reached out and pinched her behind. She jumped and gave a little squeal. Mickey laughed. ‘She’s new. You don’t see the other girls get that close to me,’ he laughed.
Somehow I couldn’t picture Mickey as a preacher man.
Another time he came up to me just as I finished a cue. It was a Goodbye Sunday, two shows and an Out. Between shows I stocked up on protein with a big steak. He asked what I had for dinner. I told him steak and he said he would have bet that would be my answer. Then this little guy, about a foot shorter than me, looked up at me and began to tell me how it wasn’t good for me to eat red meat.
It was funny at the time; but hey, he lived to be 93.
One of the hands asked him about his Bronze Star. He smiled and shook his head. ‘What an honor! They gave me some other awards like the WWII Victory medal and they even gave me a Good Conduct Medal. Kept me awake at night wondering when they would come to their senses and take the Good Conduct Medal back.’
As carefree as Mickey was, his co-star, Ann Miller. was the polar opposite. Very serious. Appeared backstage only when she had to. Spent the rest of the time in her dressing room. She was close to 60 but neither her face nor her figure betrayed her age. She looked younger than many of the girls in the chorus line. In addition to her years on stage and in films, she was famous for two other things. One, she popularized pantyhose, and two, she was billed as the world’s fastest tap dancer. And she hadn’t slowed down, even a tap.
When the show was being loaded in, Joe, the road prop man, immediately began to lay the plywood dance floor. It was a work of perfection. He selected only the best panels for the center, using the less than perfect panels on the outside. He used his whiskey stick, (level), and shims to assure was as flat as could be. He used a portable sander to removed any bumps, which only he could see. And then Ann came in.
‘Are you ready for me, Joseph?’ she would ask. And then she would walk and dance on the floor, stopping every so often and pointing down. Joe would take a piece of chalk and later would sand down the bump that even he couldn’t see, Ann had felt it through her dance shoes. Joe used the sander and Ann would try again. She checked out the floor before each show, always finding a little something that had to be sanded down.
Between Ann in her tap shoes and Mickey in his baggy pants, the show was a real winner. It disbanded and for a while a bus and truck version toured, stopping for a week in Minneapolis. It had Jaye P. Morgan and Eddie Bracken. Jaye P. was funny and had a good voice. Eddie Bracken, whose latest claim to fame had been as Roy Wally, owner of Wally World, the Griswalds’ favorite amusement park, was capable but… Mickey had been an aggressive comic, in the manner of Phil Silvers, who had been a top banana both in burlesque and in the movie, TOP BANANA. Bracken was a passive comic, relying more on reaction than action. The tour was short lived.
Luckily, a few years later, SUGAR BABIES came back to town as a national tour with both Mickey and Ann reprising their routines. And of course with Joe, or Joseph as Ann called him, as the dance floor layer extraordinaire.
The third time Mickey came through was as the Wizard in the stage version of WIZARD OF OZ. His co-star, playing the Wicket Witch of the West, was another of my favorites, Miss Eartha Kitt.
Mickey was Mickey – warm, friendly and funny. He enjoyed playing the role made so famous by Frank Morgan. The audiences loved it and it was fun to work.
Mickey and the stage manager had a little skit prior to the start of each show. The stage manager would caution Mickey about talking too loud backstage and Mickey would jump behind a masking leg, peek around the end, and shake the cloth. ‘Paaaay no attention to the man behind the curtain,’ he would say. Funny bit! I don’t think we could have done the show without it.
And he brought back a lot of his backstage routines. One of my favorites was him telling about losing money on the horses. ‘First time I bet on a horse, I lost two bucks. Been spending the rest of my life trying to win it back.
‘But you know what nag cost me the most money? Santa Claus! Norman Lear wanted me to play Archie Bunker. I turned him down to do the voice of Santa Claus – in a cartoon. Lear told me Archie Bunker was a rough, bigoted-blow hard. Never work, I told him. Doesn’t sound funny and people just won’t buy it. I took what I thought was a sure thing and did the Santa Claus. Didn’t want to take a chance playing an old racist. What’d I know? What’d I know?’
This coming from a man who created the only speed bump in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, namely the role of the bucktooth Asian landlord, Mr. Yonioshi . Both the critics and the general public hated the portrayal, calling it both racist and unfunny. Mickey took a lot of heat on that one. But what’d he know? What’d he know?
And while Mickey was his usual outgoing self, Eartha Kitt was quiet and introspective. Quite unlike the Eartha that had come to town years before in TIMBUKTU. Then she was funny, talkative, and of course, very sexy. There had been a cue I had to do standing in the wing that Eartha used to go on stage. Each time she passed by me, she rubbed my stomach and gave out a sexy purr as only Eartha could do.
During WIZARD, I was reading a paperback written by Loren Estleman. In it, his protagonist, P.I. Amos Walker says he is going home, open up a bottle of whiskey and listen to his Eartha Kitt albums. His idea of heaven. I marked the passage and gave it to the stage manager to show Eartha. Eartha came out of her dressing room and smiled, handing me back the book asking where she could get a copy. ‘You keep this one. I finished it,’ I lied. Later, Mickey came up to me and thanked me for ‘being so nice to Eartha’. Mickey cared about people.
That week was the last time I was privileged to work with either Eartha. or Mickey .
I’ll always remember how serious and silent Mickey was, almost as if he was standing at attention, whenever the girl playing Dorothy was singing SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW. And his silence thundered backstage. One could almost hear him thinking back to a different time when a different actress was playing Dorothy and singing that song. The Golden Days.
OZ came back a few years later with a very forgettable actor playing the Wizard and Grace Jones replacing Eartha. The only thing I really remember about that production was how small Grace Jones was in real life. In all her roles in action movies, she always appeared to be a tall no-holds-barred woman. Of course, when I met her co-star in Conan, Mr. Schwarzenegger I was shocked at how short he was also.
It’s a wonder what camera angles, shoe lifts, and apple boxes can do to make a person look taller. Some things that Mickey Rooney never had to use. He always stood tall, both as a talent, (Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!), and as a human being, (He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.).