Mickey Rooney a regular in Pittsburgh

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In 1940, Mickey Rooney breezed into Downtown Pittsburgh to do a week of appearances at the Stanley Theatre. For a brief frenzied time in the city, even the Nazis were relegated to second-tier status in the news.

“Hitler? He was lost in the shuffle,” wrote Florence Fisher Parry in a September 1940 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette column. “He could have had a Blitzkrieg on Pittsburgh, and I doubt if we’d have noticed it.”

The multitalented Mr. Rooney died Sunday of natural causes in his Los Angeles home. He was 93 and a man known for a long lifetime of entertaining from vaudeville to films, from television to Broadway. He was last in Pittsburgh in 2005 with his eighth and last wife, Janice Chamberlin Rooney, to help the Jonas Salk Foundation celebrate the 50th anniversary of the polio vaccine. He had been a longtime March of Dimes volunteer in the fight against polio

It was that week in September 1940 — 65 years earlier — that epitomized the star power commanded by the actor known for years as everyone’s favorite big-screen optimist, Andy Hardy.

Fifty-five newspapers around the country voted to choose which Hollywood actors should be Box Office King and Queen. Bette Davis was the runaway Queen, and although Mr. Rooney was runner-up locally to Indiana, Pa., native Jimmy Stewart, he edged 1939 champ Tyrone Power for the national crown.

Robert R. Hagy Jr.’s story in the Post-Gazette noted that despite Mr. Rooney’s fame, there was something of the Every Man to him.

“This is the Mickey Rooney who hopped into a hired automobile between shows yesterday and went riding around Pittsburgh, seeing the sights. The Carnegie Tech Campus and all the boys were swell. Pitt Stadium and the Cathedral of Learning were swell.”

A series of articles — autobiographical and apparently written by Mr. Rooney, then 19 — was published in The Pittsburgh Press that week to promote his appearances at the Stanley (now the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts).

In them, he describes the early years of a life spent entertaining others.

“Dressing rooms were the only real nurseries I had,” Mr. Rooney wrote. “Maybe that seems a poor kind of life for a baby, but my first memories are of dressing rooms and being happy.”

Joe Yule Jr. was born to Joe and Nell Yule in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 23, 1920. Although there would be turmoil in the early years — Mr. Rooney wrote that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” and his parents divorced when he was 5 — Nell Yule was remembered as a loving woman who took young “Sonny” everywhere when performing.

According to stage lore, vaudevillians Sid Gold and Babe LaTour were in the middle of their headliner act when little Joe escaped the dressing room and toddled into the wings.

Gold invited the 18-month-old onto the stage, where the child proceeded to charm the audience by standing on his head. Then he sang “Pal of My Cradle Days,” the duet he’d interrupted.

A star was born.

After a few years, Mrs. Yule would head for Hollywood, where breaking into the film business proved difficult. She managed a bungalow court, and her son landed an early film role portraying an adult little person chomping on a cigar. He wasn’t yet 6.

Short of stature but big on talent, his break came when he was cast in a film series based on the “Mickey McGuire” comics, and he legally changed his name to match. Once he’d finished starring in dozens of these, he discovered he couldn’t keep the name, so he changed it to Rooney. He went on to appear in upward of 200 films.

The boyish Mickey Rooney was one most people remember. He was the versatile actor who put on backyard shows in films with co-star Judy Garland. (“She’s a trouper,” he once said of her.) He played Andy Hardy as the fine, upstanding and amusing young man of the 1930s and 1940s and found time to appear in films with more mature luminaries of the day, such as his career idol Spencer Tracy, in 1936’s “Riff Raff” and 1938’s “Boys Town.”

Years later, Mr. Rooney would create memorable supporting roles in fare such as 1962’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” “Requiem” was based on a teleplay by Rod Serling, who also wrote the “Twilight Zone” episode “The Last Night of a Jockey,” starring Mr. Rooney.

There was no doubting Mr. Rooney’s talent: He played a multitude of musical instruments and wrote plays, poems and songs. His Stanley appearances included full-on standup comedy and stunts.

But he was no saint, despite passages such as this, from The Pittsburgh Press series when he was 19:

“The thing that has been most embarrassing has been this puppy love business,” he wrote. “It’s played for laughs, but people have gotten the idea that I’m a regular Don Juan or something. Why, I didn’t have a date until a year ago.”

Decades later, it was revealed Mr. Rooney had an affair with Norma Shearer in 1938, when he was 18 and she 38, according to Gavin Lambert’s 1990 biography of the actress.

A born-again Christian later in life, Mr. Rooney weathered the travails of gambling addiction and infidelity. He married eight times and was father to nine children and two stepchildren and had four grandchildren.

His first marriage was to Ava Gardner in 1942, which ended in 1943. In 1944, he married beauty queen Betty Jane Phillips, divorcing her in 1948. His third marriage, to Martha Vickers (1949), and fourth, to Elaine Mahnken (1952), were short-lived and ended in divorce. In 1958, Mr. Rooney married Barbara Ann Thomason, but she died in a suspected murder-suicide in 1966 when her lover apparently killed her thinking she was going to reconcile with Mr. Rooney from whom she was estranged. He married her friend Marge Lane. That marriage lasted 100 days. Next was Carolyn Hockett from 1969 to 1974, and finally in 1978 he wed Janice Chamberlin in a union that would endure more than 35 years.

One of his children with Thomason, choreographer Michael Rooney, was in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2011, working on the ABC Family film “Lovestruck: The Musical.”

Michael Rooney and his father worked briefly on the same film, 2011’s “The Muppets”: The former choreographed dance scenes; his father made a cameo.

Mr. Rooney was given two honorary Oscars and was nominated four times. He also had five Emmy nominations, including a win in 1982 for “Bill.”

Although Mr. Rooney’s screen career peaked in the early 1960s, he made a comeback with his Tony Award-winning turn in 1980’s “Sugar Babies.” He continued to work steadily in small parts and as voice talent for animation.

“It must be terrible to get old and retire,” he wrote in 1940. “I hope I never do.”

He and Janice Chamberlin Rooney developed some of the “Sugar Babies” shtick and toured the country in 2000. Tour stops included Jimmy G’s Ballroom in Sharpsburg and the old Holiday Inn on Fort Couch Road in Bethel Park.

In 2005, Mr. Rooney was featured in Patricia Sheridan’s “Breakfast With” column in the Post-Gazette. Asked “How do you think you will be remembered?” he replied, “Well, I don’t think one ever knows. I think you just do the best with the life God gave you.”

This week, Mr. Rooney is well remembered.

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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