MICKEY ROONEY was "to the stage born" in Brooklyn, the son of a vaudevillian (who dropped out of his life when he was 5, not to return for many years) and a chorus dancer. He attributes his first big break into acting at the age of 17 months to a sneeze "that revealed my hiding place underneath the shoeshine stand - a piece of scenery on the stage of the Haymarket Theatre in Chicago - where, ... I was watching the show.
"Even then, I was fascinated with the stage. I'd stand and gaze at the footlights. I'd marvel at the make-believe scenery, the bright costumes, the clownlike makeup my dad wore, the long legs of the lovely girls.
"The theatre was an unusual nursery. Instead of blocks, I'd play with props, and my favorite toy was a mouth organ, which my mom tied around my neck , with a stout cord, so I'd never be without it. And now here I was, under the shoeshine stand in the middle of the show, giving away my position by sneezing."
Little Mickey was pulled out of his hiding place (in plain view of his parents, who were backstage, each indicating to him by silent gestures that he had been naughty and a punishment was forthcoming), and made a part of the ongoing act. Mickey put the mouth organ to his lips and blew. The audience responded with roaring laughter. For his performance, Mickey's parents were offered $3.00 and Mickey became a part of the show.
In the years to come, Mickey proved himself a quick study in vaudeville. Later, after his father had left, and Mickey and his mother had relocated to Kansas City (where he lived among family), both Mickey and his mother made their way to Hollywood. There the both of them struggled and lived hand-to-mouth for sometime. Mickey got into movies in 1927 (appearing in a silent film as a midget, complete with hat, moustache, and an eye for the ladies) and had some success in a series of "Mickey McGuire" films as a wily, mischievous character not unlike the child stars of the successful "Our Gang" comedies.
By the time Mickey was 14, he was already a veteran of film and the stage. Notwithstanding that, a career in Hollywood was not a sure thing. Indeed, when Mickey was first brought to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios (one of the most successful movie franchises in the world), he wasn't interested. He regarded Mickey as a "has been." But Mickey had a powerful and influential supporter in film producer David O. Selznick (who later figured prominently in the making of "Gone with the Wind"), who convinced Mayer that Mickey Rooney had talent and star potential. So began a film career with MGM that lasted for 2 decades. During that time, Rooney starred in such film classics as "Captains Courageous", "Boys Town", "Young Tom Edison" (which I watched on TV when I was a pre-teen), "Babes on Broadway", and "National Velvet." He became, not only a bankable star (earning millions for MGM, of which he received a pittance, such was the power and control the studio system held over the motion picture industry and the lives of its stars), but also Hollywood's top star, ranked by movie fans between 1939 and 1941 above the likes of Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy.
Rooney goes on to talk about in great detail his many relationships with women (he had flings with Lana Turner and Norma Shearer, who, for me was one of the most talented and BEAUTIFUL actresses of that era), his 8 marriages (beginning with Wife No. 1, Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1941; it proved to be a short marriage because - aside from their sexual chemistry - they had very little in common), his Army service in Europe during the Second World War, the postwar slump in his film career, his relationship with Judy Garland (they were like brother and sister), and his various ups and downs.
This is a wonderful book, which has increased my respect and admiration for Mickey Rooney even more. He's a gutsy guy. Besides, his "Andy Hardy" movies (which were a massive success for MGM) will always be among my special favorites. I first watched them on Sunday mornings as a teenager. They always made me smile. Thanks for the memories, Mickey Rooney.