No Business Like Showing It

No Business Like Showing It

At 83, Mickey Rooney and his bride are still putting on shows

All my life—well, ever since I was a much younger person—a line and a moment from an Andy Hardy movie has haunted me. Young Andy has come to try to make it in New York. He’s back on his uppers. It’s a tougher town than he could have imagined. He’s hungry, he’s broke, he’s exhausted, in fact he’s starving.

“In this city,” he says—Mickey Rooney says with bleak despair, like a fighter coming up off the canvas—”they dime you to death.”

Well, I guess I’ve felt exactly that way—with cause—a few million times since I first saw that movie and heard him say it. I think the picture must have been “Life Begins for Andy Hardy.”

“Do you remember that line, Mr. Rooney?” the actor was asked.

He was in Minneapolis, in a hotel there, with his wife Jan. The two of them have an act, “Let’s Put on a Show”—some songs, some words, some laughs, some memories, with which they’ve been touring the country, preparing to bringing it to the sweet little Irish Repertory Theatre, right here on Manhattan’s West 22nd Street, for a month-long run starting Tuesday, August 10.

“Do you remember that line?” the moviegoer asked on the telephone from New York, attempting to communicate some of its personal impact.

A growled negative comes over the phone from Minneapolis, followed by, “It’s just a line in a movie.”

Another little-known, but noteworthy fact: Maya Deren, the Greenwich Villager who was the first, most poetic and to this day greatest American avant-garde filmmaker, once confessed that she still cried at Andy Hardy movies.

Does Mickey Rooney ever watch any of them these days?

Brusquely: “No, no.”

Jan Chamberlin Rooney was altogether charming and outgoing on the same telephone. Yes, she said, in response to a question, there is in fact a script. “We talk about Mickey’s early childhood, and his entry into show business.”

From the cradle, wasn’t it?

“Yes, literally.” (Not quite, but close enough.) “Mickey jokes, tells stories, does incredible imitations. Jimmy Stewart, Jimmy Cagney, Bogart, everybody. Boy, he hasn’t lost that!”

Mickey Rooney made more than 300 motion pictures, won two Academy Awards, was married eight times, starred on Broadway and in London and done countless TV guest and other appearances. How did he and Jan Chamberlin meet?

“At an agent’s party in Hollywood in 1974, and we’ve been together ever since. Mickey actually lived near me when I was growing up in the San Fernando Valley, but I didn’t know that.

“Warren Beatty had me recorded,” she said, “before I ever met Mickey, but I was kinda shy and still a little young [so the recording went nowhere]. I was doing a nightclub act, and then I meet Mickey, and we did ‘The Love Boat’ together on TV and I played a nun, which was not type casting, I assure you.

“I was married only once before, to a fella in the industry. And Mickey, who has nine children from different marriages, raised my two sons from when they were little kids. His wives? I spoke with Ava [Gardner] a couple of times on the phone. A lovely person. I met two of the others. But this is the marriage that took.”

Her husband comes on the phone.

“We’ve been doing this version for five years,” he said. “We love working together. It’s fun.”

In the act, he sings a bunch of the great old MGM-era standards like “Where or When” and “But Not for Me,” plus a number of songs with his own lyrics (“Guess I’m Coming Down With the Blues,” “We’re Married,” “Judy”). Mrs. Rooney, who has a considerably more flexible vocal range than her husband at this stage of the game, does a Patsy Cline medley, and she and he combine on “Making Whoopee.”

Had Rooney ever done a double before? (Not counting the gigs with Donald O’Connor.) A double with any of those other ladies?

“No, never,” he said. “This is the only one that counts. Nah, there’s no script. We wing it.”

Does it begin with the beginning of your life?

“No, no, not that far back… I was born in Brooklyn,” says the son of vaudeville artists Joe Yule and Nell Carter Yule. “When I was two days old we left and went to Garden City.”

You made 300-some movies and your book is called “Life Is Too Short,” but, Mr. Rooney, your life has not been short.

“No,” said 83-year-old Mickey Rooney, “but I got news for you: You gotta keep going. They just gave me another star, you know, on Hollywood Boulevard” [this time, in April, for Mr. and Mrs. Rooney].

When you were a kid making all those movies at MGM, did you ever sleep? Were you insanely overworked, the way Judy Garland later said she always felt?

“That’s not true. Well, it was a different time. Now it takes them two years to make a picture. We made ‘Boys Town’ in two weeks. And Judy and I, when we did those musicals, each of them took all of five or six weeks.”

Short pause. Then, half-said, half-grunted: “Whatever she did, she did to herself.”

Mr. Rooney, did you ever put on a play in a barn?

“No. But that’s what we call our act, ‘Let’s Put on a Show.’”

Pressed to name a couple of his favorites among those 300 movies he made, at first he said, “Oh, I don’t know,” but then, one by one, as if minting them, Rooney came up with “Boys Town” (1938); “National Velvet” (1949); “The Bridges of Toko-Ri” (1956)—”and, I guess, the Andy Hardy movies” (1937-1947).

If he doesn’t watch any of his old movies now—and he again said he doesn’t—what if any current films has he liked?

This time there was a sustained silence. Finally: “Well, that one with my friends Sean Penn and Tim Robbins—‘Mystic River.’ Tim Robbins and I were in ‘Erik the Viking’”—the 1989 satire in which Rooney played Erik’s (that is, Robbins’) grandfather, and John Cleese also appeared.

At that point, Jan Rooney chimed back in, “We were at Anthony Hopkins’s wedding in Malibu a couple of years ago, and John Cleese was there, and we talked of old times, and I sang ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Over the Rainbow.’”

Mrs. Rooney, did you ever watch any of your husband’s old movies?

“Of course I did, because I’m a horse lover, and Mickey of course was in ‘National Velvet.’ Do you remember when kids had trading cards? Well, in my family the important trading cards were Seabiscuit and Man of War. I loved Seabiscuit, and 25 years ago I got the [cinematic] rights to ‘Seabiscuit,’ and when I got married to Mickey I loved the idea of my husband playing Seabiscuit’s trainer, but Mickey said: ‘Nobody’s interested in Mickey Rooney playing Seabiscuit’s trainer.’”

So that didn’t happen. And then he went and made ‘The Black Stallion,’” with Rooney as Henry Dailey, the comeback trainer, in 1979.

Neither Mickey Rooney nor his eighth wife, this one of more than 25 years, has ever before been to the Irish Rep. “How many does it hold?” he wanted to know.

Jan Chamberlin Rooney offered a more cosmic closing: “Do you believe in feng shui? If you believe in feng shui, number eight is the luckiest number.”

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