Mickey Rooney died last Sunday at the age of 93, and I didn't want the SteynOnline week to end without a word about him. Aside from anything else, and as ridiculous as it sounds, we share a musical director. That's to say, Kevin Amos, who conducts and arranges on my Christmas album with Jessica and on our Frank Loesser centenary CD, was also the conductor for Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller when they took their Sugar Babies double-act to the Savoy Theatre in London 25 years ago.
Rooney had been on stage since he was 17 months old, decked out in a moppet-sized tux in his parents' vaudeville act, and by the time he did Sugar Babies he knew everything, and anything he didn't know he didn't want to know. He argued with writers and directors and choreographers, and usually won. You were kind of in awe of a man who could wring laughs out of "He had a freak accident. A freak fell on him." But he did. And he was awfully charming accompanying himself at the piano in the opening number, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby".
I forget how many instruments he could play, but it was a lot. He belonged to that generation of performers expected to be able to do a little bit of everything - act, sing, dance - but Rooney did more: piano, trumpet, drums, sax... Those Mickey-and-Judy let's-do-the-show-right-here-in-the-barn pictures were possible only because, had they needed to do the show in the barn, Mickey could have. In his screen heyday, he didn't sing as well as Judy Garland; in his stage comeback, he didn't dance as well as Ann Miller. But he could do both well enough to keep up, and the combination, and the irrepressible smile and the boyish charm, made him America's Number One box office star of 1939.
After he returned from the war, he found success harder to come by. He reminds me of the old New Yorker cartoon of the theatre marquee with the rave review "Fun For Young And Old!" and underneath, coming out through the doors, a glum-looking middle-aged lady. Rooney was young, and then he was old, and middle-age never happened, because nobody has much use for a five-foot-two leading man. By 1961, he was reduced to accepting the role of the buck-toothed, myopic Japanese photographer Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany's, and, underneath the liberally applied ethnic make-up, did as he'd done with Andy Hardy and gave it 110 per cent, to the delight of the director Blake Edwards. Today, screenings are either picketed and canceled (as in Sacramento in 2008) or prefaced by solemn statements explaining how grotesquely offensive Rooney's portrayal is and on no account are you to laugh.
He survived it, as he did everything, including the discovery of his fifth wife and her lover dead in the Rooneys' marital bed, a murder-suicide committed with Mickey's own gun. There were seven other brides, starting with Ava Gardner: like many short guys, at least in Hollywood, he liked his ladies long and leggy.
He spent 92 of his 93-and-a-half years in showbiz. After vaudeville, he got bit parts in Hollywood, and then landed the title role in the "Mickey McGuire" shorts. That was 1926, and he made 78 films for the series. In my mind's eye, Mickey is eternally enthusing to Judy, "Gee, that'd be swell!" But he was, in fact, a silent star - and the only silent star to survive until halfway through the second decade of the 21st century. His last film is apparently the upcoming Night At The Museum 3, with Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Ricky Gervais. Not bad for a guy who was a box-office name back when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Sr were making movies.
As the decades rolled by, not everyone cared for a short, bald, leering Andy Hardy's hardiness. When he came to London for Sugar Babies, Louis Benjamin, who ran the West End's biggest group of theatres, said to me that he'd turned it down because he couldn't figure out who'd want to see it. "I mean, Ann Miller, she's getting on a bit but okay. But Mickey Rooney, he looks like a suit with a very old penis sticking out of the top."
Indeed. But there were moments of pure joy in that show that I remember with pleasure to this day - Annie and Mickey doing the raggy contrapuntal version of "When You And I Were Young, Maggie", and the final number, gloriously hammered home with all the exclamation points you'll ever need:
ANN & MICKEY: 'On the sunny side!'
MICKEY: 'The funny side!'
ANN: 'The peaches! The cream! And the honey side!'
MICKEY & ANN: 'Cross on over to the
Sunny Side Of The Street!'
This week, after a nine-decade career, Mickey Rooney finally crossed on over. Rest in peace.