A theater baby grows up
So Mickey Rooney, an actor at the age of 11 months, veteran trooper at 10, and screen star at 16, writes his autobiography.
by Mickey Rooney
When a fellow grows up to be a man, he’s got to face pictures of himself when he was a baby, with nothing on and no teeth and hardly any hair.
I guess I’ve hidden those pictures a hundred times. Mom always finds them and puts them away in the battered old theatrical trunk which she says was my only crib.
Mom remembers everything about me. My dad was Joe Yule, who is still one of the best comedians in vaudeville. Mom’s stage name was Nell Carter. She was a dancer and played in vaudeville with my father. She left the show to stay in Brooklyn while I was being born. When I was 11 days old, I went on a train ride to Albany. That’s where my mother caught the show again.
Mom thinks it is wonderful that I walked by myself when I was 7 months old and I could talk and sing a song before I was 15 months old. What’s worst, she has pictures to prove it. There’s one showing me when I went on stage for the first time. I was supposed to be the New Year and all I wore was a piece of ribbon. It was at the Palace Theater in New York. I was about a year old.
Strayed before the footlights
Dressing rooms were the only real nurseries I had. When mom’s act was on, the other players would take turns amusing me. They taught me songs and told me stories. They even rehearsed their acts with me as an audience. Twice, Mom says, they scared her to death. Once when an acrobat taught me to stand on my head. The other time, they painted me up as an Indian.
One night, mom hurried out to do her dance and forgot to close the door tight. I have to depend on mom for details. That was the beginning of my career. Some way, mom says, I got into the wings. A headline act, Sid Gold and Babe LaTour, was on the stage.
They were singing a duet, and it was a number I had learned from them, “Pal of My Cradle Days.” I can remember that, because in mom’s trunk is a copy of the song they autographed to me. Whenever I wanted attention, standing on my head would get it when nothing else would. Gold used to pick me up and sing to me when I did that. So I walked out on the stage and stood on my head.
Gold and LaTour must have been surprised when the audience laughed in the middle of their sad ballad.
Gold turned and saw me. He waved to the audience for silence and then motioned to me.
“Come over here, Sonny,” he intoned, indicating the center of the stage.
Then he said, “I suppose you can do the act better than I can?”
“Sure,” I answered. “And I can do your song better than you can, too.”
A regular place in the act
This was the sort of playing Gold and I did down in the dressing room. It was vaudeville lingo, and I knew it by heart.
“All right,” he replied. “I’ll bet you a dollar.”
That might have stumped me if the orchestra leader hadn’t handed me a dollar. He was another of my pals.
I sang the song and must have made a big hit, because when the curtain went down, Mom grabbed me and held me tight. I think she was scared and angry at what I’d done, but, if I know my Mom, she was a little bit proud, too.
Sid and Babe talked to Mom after the show. They wanted me in the act as a regular attraction. That’s how I got my start. They taught me jokes and songs and how to dance.
To me, it wasn’t work, but fun. I did my turn with Gold and LaTour until I was 2. By then, I had a routine of my own. It was a song-and-dance act, and I was billed under my real name, Joe Yule, Jr.
When I was 2 1/2, I did my first imitation. It was of the Two Black Crows, which was the hottest thing in vaudeville then. I learned to imitate Moran and Mack from phonograph recordings. I played both parts. I would start out on one side of the stage as Moran and say: “The early bird catches the worm.” Then I ran to the other side of the stage and spoke Mack’s line, “What worm?” The first time I tried the imitation was in Chicago. It was going swell until I forgot my lines. I don’t usually do that. But the training I got from vaudeville actors helped me that night as it still does. I cracked, “The record’s stuck.” That crack stayed in the act as long as I did the Moran and Mack imitation, and was good for a laugh. That’s the funny thing about gags. The best ones just pop out unexpectedly.
Old formula still good
During all the time I was in vaudeville, I began my act with an introduction that went like this, “Friends and folks. Pardon me for calling you friends and folks, but I feel I know you too well to call you ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for the use of the hall.”
It’s still good. I know, because I used it last year. I had to make a speech after the world premiere of “Boys Town” in Omaha. I thought of a lot of things to say, but none of them sounded right. So I pulled that old introduction and it got a big hand. It seemed just like old times to be facing an audience again.
When I was 5, Mom took me to Kansas City and we stayed with her folks for a while so I could go to school. Some friends were riding to Hollywood, and Mom had a chance to go with them if she paid our way. Her share of the expenses was to buy a new tire. Mom figured that the climate would be good for me and I could go to school and work in pictures if there was a chance.
In Hollywood, Mom took me to all the agents and studios, but there was nothing for me. Generally, we didn’t get past the front gate.
So Mom got a job managing a bungalow court for our rent and I went to kindergarten. I wore long pants. That made the other kids in the neighborhood take notice. On Sundays, Mom would pack a lunch and would go for long bus rides. I couldn’t go often enough to Beverly Hills. I never had seen homes like those. I bothered Mom, asking her why we couldn’t live there.
Lived in a dream world
This is another kid story Mom tells about me. Some people came to inquire about a bungalow to rent, and I went to the door. I said, “Yes, my mother is in, but we don’t really live here. We have a big house in Beverly HIlls in the middle of the bridle path.”
I like to imagine things even now, and I thought a lot about having a home for Mom and me. Everything I imagined came true last year, only it isn’t a house in Beverly Hills, it’s a ranch and we like it swell. I think our ranch made Mom happier than anything else.
Will Morrissey gave me my first break in Hollywood, but not in pictures. He was casting for a revue at the Orange Grove theater in Los Angeles.
But Mom wanted me in pictures to give me more time for school and to play.
It looked as if I had got my big chance when Mervyn LeRoy saw me in the revue. I got a part playing a midget in “Orchids and Ermine,” with Colleen Moore. I wore a mustache and had to smoke a “cigar.” When I bit down on the “cigar,” one of my front teeth flew out. After that picture, people said I really was a midget, and it took Mom a long time to get the studios to believe that I actually was a boy and small for my age. So that didn’t work out so well.
Became Mickey McGuire
One night, while I was still with the Morrissey revue, Mom became very excited. In the paper, she read about a contest to pick a Mickey McGuire for a series of pictures based on Fontaine Fox’s comic strip in the funny papers. Mom was sure I could do it, and together we acted Mickey out. My hair was the only thing that was wrong. It was lighter even than it is now, and Mickey had black hair. The day we went to the studio, Mom tried burnt cork on my hair, but it came off. So she used lampblack.
There were hundreds of kids waiting to be interviewed when we got to the studio. My hair bothered me most of all. I always have had a habit of running my hands through my hair. It won’t stay down unless I put a lot of stuff in it. Besides, I thought I looked silly with black hair. Mom held my hand all the time we waited.
I forgot about my hair when it came time for the test. That’s where my vaudeville training came in handy. Going before a camera wasn’t much different from being on the stage, and I had faced audiences all my life. I was given a derby hat, which Mom put on carefully so as not to smear the lampblack, and a chocolate cigar. After the test, I ate the cigar. That was the best part.
The next day, Larry Darmour, who produced the Mickey McGuire comedies, called Mom to talk about a contract. It was Darmour who suggested that I take the name of Mickey McGuire. That was all right with me. I didn’t like the “junior” on my real name.
As Mickey McGuire, I made ninety-five short comedies in six years. I had played Mickey McGuire for so long and was known by that name, it seemed like mine. But the character belonged to Mr Fox, and when I quit playing the part, I couldn’t use it. Another boy was picked to play McGuire. Mom gave me my third, and I think my last name, Mickey Rooney. Rooney is one of her family names.
Typed as a “tough kid”
For a while, I tried to get another good part in pictures. But I was typed as a tough kid, and, as Mickey Rooney, nobody seemed interested in me. So Mom and I thought we would try vaudeville once more.
Mom was as excited as I was when we left for Chicago to open a vaudeville engagement at the Palace theater. I worked over my old routine, learned some new songs and added a few jokes. The act went over well, and I guess the fact that audiences knew I was the original Mickey McGuire helped.
I lasted ten weeks. Vaudeville wasn’t the same. People were going to motion pictures instead. Mom and I came back to Hollywood to try again. The worst thing was my hair. When I played Mickey McGuire, my hair had been dyed. My hair started to come out yellow at the roots. It was purple about half-way down and black at the ends. I had to go around for months looking corny and didn’t dare take off my cap. It was a year before it came out natural.
I had to start all over again. For a while, I took extra parts and bits, but I worked regularly, and in eighteen months, I had appeared in forty pictures.
Director WS Van Dyke II picked me for a part in “Manhattan Melodrama.” It was the first picture that William Powell and Myrna Loy made together, and Clark Gable played a gangster.
Tries not to “act”
Mister Van (that’s what we call him) talks my language. When I did my first scene for him, he told me something. He said, “Mickey, forget about acting and be yourself.” I always have remembered that. I honestly never try to act. Some people say I mug too much, but that’s me, on and off the screen.
It was through Mister Van that I got another part in “Chained,” and then I did a picture called “Blind Date.” When Mister Van made “Hideout,” with Robert Montgomery and Maureen O’Sullivan, he called me in for an interview. He had a part for me, but it wasn’t a kid part, it needed a boy character actor.
When I finished in “Hideout,” Mister Van took me up to see Louis B Mayer. He was swell to Mom and me then and he has been ever since. He said he thought I had a future and told Mom he wanted to put me under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I signed the contract, and Mr Mayer gave Mom a car, our first, so it would be easier to get to the studio.
Mom and I moved to a little apartment. Now I had more time to play and we were sitting pretty swell.
I started a kid football team, and Mom bought me a piano. I never took lessons on the piano, but I picked it up.
Spencer Tracy his ideal
The next thing I did was to go back on the stage for Max Reinhardt’s production of “Midsummer NIght’s Dream,” which he premiered in the Hollywood Bowl. I played Puck. When the picture was made, Mr Reinhardt wanted me for Puck.
“Riffraff,” my first picture with Spencer Tracy, made a different man of me. I decided then to pattern my career after his. In “Captains Courageous,” I stopped clowning and watched Tracy.
I didn’t know it, but I was preparing for my biggest break. It came when I was cast in “A Family Affair” and met Andy Hardy. He’s become the biggest influence in my life. It’s got so I don’t know whether I’m Mickey Rooney or Andy Hardy. Most of the people I meet call me Andy and a lot of my fan mail comes addressed to Andy.
I wouldn’t be happy just playing Andy, because I don’t want to get typed again. What makes acting interesting is variety, playing different parts and with other actors. The best break I got last year was playing with Tracy in “Boys Town” and going back to Omaha to visit Father Flanagan. There’s a great man, too. Seeing all those boys getting a chance made me think about my own future, because, at my age, a fellow has to look ahead.
My future is all planned. Mom and I have talked it over many times. Acting is a great career, if you can be like Spencer Tracy. If I thought I could be as good as he is, I’d stick to acting for life. But that’s asking too much. By the time I’m an old man, about 35, I want really to have accomplished something.
Would be a director
Directing is a fine profession, and that’s what I want to be. I am sure that I could direct a picture right now. Then, after I’m a good director, I’ll become a producer.
The biggest break I ever got was having Mom. She never tries to interfere with a man’s work. She’s always depended on me, and I hope I never let her down. Mom meets all the girls I take out and arranges parties for me and cooks swell food. We don’t have a cook.
I’m 5 feet, 2-1/2 inches tall and weigh 130 pounds. I have a car, like Andy’s.
I find time for everything I want to do. People are always asking me how I get around so much. For one thing, I wouldn’t be happy unless I was doing something, organizing a band, or song writing, or playing football, golf, tennis, swimming or some sport. It must be terrible to get old and retire. I hope I never do.
There isn’t much more a fellow needs to keep him contented. You know, I’ve got everything there is worthwhile, my Mom, a home and my job. That just about takes care of the past and present. Well, the kid stuff’s behind me now. I’m going to try to make the future just as bright for Mom and me. She’s not worried, and neither am I. Wahoo! It’s a swell life.
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Source publication: Kansas City Star
Publication date: March 5, 1939