Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Three things people forget about Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney's death Sunday triggered many tributes, including one in The Observer. Inexplicably, his Oscar-nominated performance in "The Black Stallion" was not listed as one of his five best. Each to his taste, I guess. Here's a bit of my favorite Rooney performance: "The Comedian," a Playhouse 90 live TV broadcast from 1957 about an egomaniacal comic.

The obits mentioned his youthful stardom, his multiple marriages, his small size and large ego. But three things seemed to be overlooked.

First, you could never really appreciate him until you saw him in person. He came to Charlotte in the early 1980s to do the live show "Sugar Babies," a tribute to vaudeville, and his outsized personality filled Ovens Auditorium. He tore up the stage -- singing, dancing, blasting jokes at top speed -- with the energy of a guy half his age. (He'd have been in his early 60s.) Even Ann Miller, no shrinking violet, paled next to him.

Second, we underestimate his popularity. According to annual polls in Quigley's Motion Picture Almanac, which asks theater exhibitors to report box-office grosses, Rooney was the number one star in America in 1939, 1940 and 1941. Only eight actors in history have topped the charts more then Rooney -- and he did it during the years when "Gone With the Wind" set box-office records around the world!

Third, everyone remarks on his eight marriages, including his first to Smithville's Ava Gardner. But hardly anyone acknowledges that his eighth, to a woman 18 years his junior, seems to have made both of them happy. He had married actress Jan Rooney just a few years before I interviewed him during the "Sugar Babies" tour. "I've made a lot of mistakes with women, but this one is finally the right one," he said. Their 35-year union ended with his death, so I expect that was true.