In Memory of Mickey Rooney

In Memory of Mickey

Mickey Rooney
1920 – 2014

Mickey Rooney Waving Goodbye. May 17, 2013, behind Musso & Frank's in Hollywood.

Mickey Rooney Waving Goodbye. May 17, 2013, behind Musso & Frank’s.

Words & Photos by PAUL ZOLLO

Mickey Rooney died last night. His career spanned almost the entire life of the movies themselves. Like Buster Keaton, he got his start as an infant in vaudeville – at 17 months already used in slapstick routines – and he made his first movie appearance in 1926, in the heart of the silent era. He became one of the greatest movie stars ever in Hollywood, eternally beloved and linked in our mind’s and hearts with Judy Garland, his childhood partner.

I met him twice. When I was working on my book Hollywood Remembered, I wanted very much to interview him, along with many of his friends who I interviewed for their memories of old Hollywood. I attended a memorial service for Stanley Kramer in February, 2001 at the Director’s Guild on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. And there was Mickey. Okay, I recognized this wasn’t the ideal venue for a meeting – the funeral of a friend. But I approached him anyway, when he was leaving, out in the glaring sunshine on Sunset Boulevard. He scowled at my attempt, and walked away.

But that was my fault. Though he was only in his 80s then, and had years to go, it was an inopportune time for such an attempt. But I was redeemed on May 17, 2013, when Mickey joined famous friends like Jane Withers and Buzz Aldrin at a 95th birthday party for their friend, and mine, A.C. Lyles. A.C., who was friends with most people in Hollywood, was friends with everyone in Hollywood from Johnny Depp through Ronald Reagan. That Mickey would show was evidence of A.C.’s adoration.

We were at Musso & Frank’s Grill, the ideal venue for a classic Hollywood party as it is the most legendary restaurant in town, a place of great history and also present-day greatness. And people waited patiently for the chance to talk with Mickey, and to have a moment with this great legend.

I will admit I annoyed him by taking too many photos with my bright flash flashing, but in the company of Hollywood greatness I want to not take any chances of missing a great photograph.

I took several when Mickey was talking to Adolph Zukor, Jr., the son of the founder of Paramount, and Mickey’s face shone with joy at early memories. Though he was most famous for his MGM movies, he spent a lot of time among the Zukors at Paramount.

A.C. Lyles & Mickey at A.C.'s 95th birthday party.

A.C. Lyles & Mickey at A.C.’s 95th birthday party.

When it was time to go and the party was over, he went out the back of Musso’s, and sat down in a lawn chair there as he waited for his car and driver. It was my chance. I asked him if I could take a photo, and he said okay, though he didn’t smile. I then told him what I know to be true – that he is the greatest star of all.

He smiled brightly at this, and clearly liked that someone so many decades younger than him recognized who he was, and why he mattered. “Who do you work for?” he asked, and I told him about my book, and my love of Hollywood history, and I had my moment with Mickey. “It’s a history gone by fast,” he said with sad wonder.

When I big him goodbye, I raised my camera in the universal sign for “Can i take one more photo?” and he smiled that famous, million dollar smile, that smile that has cheered movie screens since before movies could talk. And he waved goodbye.

Statement from Mickey Rooney’s family:

“Mickey passed away from natural causes at the age of 93. Two years ago he requested through the Superior Court to permanently reside with his son Mark Rooney and Mark’s wife Charlene. With them he finally found happiness, health and a feeling of safety and was able to enjoy life again. In an effort to provide Mickey with a better life, Mark and Charlene reunited him with both old and new friends. Even someone of Mickey’s iconic statue was quite star struck and was extremely thrilled to attend Vanity Fair’s Oscar party recently. Just last week Mickey was ecstatic when they surprised him by reuniting him with one of his great loves, the race track. There they spent time with Mel Brooks and Dick Van Patten. He had exceptional care and a new lease on life. Recently, Mickey was proud to be part of Night at the Museum 3 with Ben Stiller. He had the time of his life and the utmost respect for the cast and crew. Mickey was finally enjoying life as a bachelor and the morning of his death they spoke of all their future plans. He loved the business he was in and had a great respect for his fellow actors. He led a full life but did not have enough time to finish all he had planned to do.”

He was born Joe Yule Jr. on September 23, 1920 in Brooklyn, New York. He first took the stage as a toddler in his parents’ vaudeville act at 17 months old. He made his first film appearance in 1926. The following year, he played the lead character in the first Mickey McGuire short film. It was in this popular film series that he took the stage name Mickey Rooney. Rooney reached new heights in 1937 with A Family Affair, the film that introduced the country to Andy Hardy, the popular all-American teenager. This beloved character appeared in nearly 20 films and helped make Rooney the top star at the box office in 1939, 1940 and 1941. Rooney also proved himself an excellent dramatic actor as a delinquent in Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy. In 1938, he was awarded a juvenile Academy Award.

Teaming up with Judy Garland, Rooney also appeared in a string of musicals, including Babes in Arms (1939) the first teenager to be nominated for an Oscar in a leading role,Strike up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), andGirl Crazy (1943). He and Garland immediately became best of friends. “We weren’t just a team, we were magic,” Rooney once said. During that time he also appeared with Elizabeth Taylor in the now classic National Velvet (1944). Rooney joined the service that same year, where he helped to entertain the troops and worked on the American Armed Forces Network. He returned to Hollywood after 21 months in Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (1946), did a remake of a Robert Taylor film, The Crowd Roars called Killer McCoy (1947) and portrayed composer Lorenz Hart in Words and Music (1948). He also appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. Rooney played Hepburn’s Japanese neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi. A sign of the times, Rooney played the part for comic relief which he later regretted feeling the role was offensive. He once again showed his incredible range in the dramatic role of a boxing trainer with Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). In the late 1960s and 1970s Rooney showed audiences and critics alike why he was one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars. He gave an impressive performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film The Black Stallion, which brought him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He also turned to the stage in 1979 in Sugar Babies with Ann Miller, and was nominated for a Tony Award. During that time he also portrayed the Wizard in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Eartha Kitt at New York’s Madison Square Garden, which also had a successful run nationally.

Rooney appeared in four television series’: The Mickey Rooney Show (1954-1955), a comedy sit-com in 1964 with Sanunee Tong called Mickey, One of the Boys in 1982 with Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane, and the Adventures of the Black Stallion from 1990-1993. In 1981, Rooney won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of a mentally challenged man in Bill. The critical acclaim continued to now for the veteran performer, with Rooney receiving an honorary Academy Award “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of memorable film performances”. More recently he has appeared in such films asNight at the Museum (2006) with Ben Stiller, and The Muppets (2011) with Amy Adams and Jason Segel.

His personal life, including his frequent trips to the altar, has proven to be just as epic as his on-screen performances. His first wife was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, actress Ava Gardner. Mickey permanently and legally separated from his eighth wife Jan in June of 2012. In 2011 Rooney filed elder abuse and fraud charges against stepson Christopher Aber and Aber’s wife. At Rooney’s request, the Superior Court issued a restraining order against the Abers demanding they stay 100 yards from Rooney, Mickey’s stepson Mark Rooney and Mark’s wife Charlene. Just prior, Rooney mustered the strength to break his silence and appeared before the Senate in Washington D.C. telling of his own heartbreaking story of abuse in an effort to live a peaceful, full life and help others who may also be suffering in silence.

He requested through the Superior Court to permanently reside with his son Mark (a musician) and Charlene Rooney (an artist) in the Hollywood Hills.

When news of his death swept through Hollywood and the world, his friends remembered Mickey.

Liza Minnelli: “Mickey was somebody that everybody loved, but to me he was part of the family. He was one of a kind, and will be admired and respected always.”

Rose Marie: “Showbiz has just lost one of the great talents that our industry has ever had. We were very good friends. I shall miss him and the world will miss him.”

Carol Channing: “I loved working with Mickey on Sugar Babies. He was very professional, his stories were priceless and I love them all … each and every one. We laughed all the time.”

Rip Taylor: “Mickey was such a friend and pro, that he even gave me advice, when I replaced him inSugar Babies. … As if it could ever be possible to replace Mickey. It was the treat of my life, to receive tips from the great Mickey Rooney.”

Margaret O’Brien: “Mickey was the only one at the studio that was ever allowed to call me Maggie. He was undoubtedly the most talented actor that ever lived. There was nothing he couldn’t do. Singing, dancing, performing … all with great expertise. Mickey made it look so easy. I was currently doing a film with him, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — I simply can’t believe it. He seemed fine through the filming and was as great as ever.”

 

Mickey Rooney at 23

Legends of Songwriting: Hoagy Carmichael

HOAGY CARMICHAEL

Inside the Stardust 

 Hoagy 1

By PAUL ZOLLO

Hoagy Carmichael once said that he didn’t write “Stardust,” he found it. “[I felt] that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me,” he said.  “Maybe I didn’t write it at all.“  This quality – that a song is not an invention but a discovery – is a sensation many songwriters of recent generations, such as Paul Simon and Bob Dylan,  have described. But it’s not the general thinking of those from Hoagy’s time, those Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths who shared Sammy Cahn’s famous sentiment that inspiration  comes not from a muse, but from a phone call. Songs in that era were written on assignment; contrived, crafted and delivered in quick order. Hoagy didn’t do it like that. And for that reason the miraculous melodies that he “found,” such as “Stardust,” flow with a natural, unfettered, organic beauty that few other songwriters have ever captured.

Hoagy wrote music, and left the writing of the words to some of the greatest lyricists America has known, such as Frank Loesser and Johnny Mercer. But while the wordsmiths were mostly content to stay in the background, Hoagy always had the urge to perform his own songs.  Though popular music then divided singers and songwriters into two separate camps, Hoagy was the first to belong to both groups,  a true singer-songwriter long before American had ever experienced such a phenomenon.

He described his singing style, which is not unlike that of a father singing gently to a child, as “flatsy through the nose.” It’s an apt description, and one of the reasons people loved him.  As Smithsonian music curator John Edward Hasse said, “His singing style made him seem like one of the people… His songs appealed to all sections of American society — from the Wall Street broker to the sharecropper farmer. He was a musical democrat.”

That dynamic also can be found in the universal quality of his musical expression, which generated tunes so ingrained in the American memory that it seems they have simply always been with us. “Heart and Soul,” for example, which every beginning piano student learns right around “Chopsticks” time, was written by him, as were so many other classics of the American songbook, including “Rockin’ Chair,” “The Nearness of You,” “Skylark,” “Georgia On My  Mind, ” “Two Sleepy People,” and his most popular song ever, “Stardust,” which has been recorded more than a thousand times, by singers as diverse as Pat Boone, Willie Nelson, Louie Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Liberace, Barry Manilow, Ringo Starr, Frank Sinatra, and Los Hombres Calientes, to name only a handful.

Hoagy’s music fused the timeless aspects of American folk and jazz to create a new kind of American song which had never been heard before. “No one would mistake his songs for those of Gershwin or Porter or any other songwriter,” wrote Hasse. “While there is no single Carmichael `sound,’ his songs nonetheless sound like him. His melodies are strong and distinctive, they move to unusual intervals, cover a wide range, and display the instrumental influence of jazz. Most have few repeated notes, and travel an unpredictable path…  And that’s one reason why so many of them have remained with us for decades.”

The legendary Johnny Mercer, with whom Hoagy wrote 36 songs, miraculously managed to match with words the simple complexities of the American folksy jazz intrinsic to Hoagy’s tunes. So immediate  and charged was their creative connection that the first song they attempted together, “Lazybones,” took all of twenty minutes to complete.

“[His] music is… American,” Mercer said. “It’s home-stuff. It sounds like the South. Like Indiana. Like any other place we used to know. Hoagy is self-taught, and his chords and melodies are unique. He doesn’t borrow except from himself. Rhythm is a part of him, which is more than a lot of us can claim.”

He was born Hoagland Howard Carmichael in Bloomington, Indiana on November 22, 1899. His dad was an electrician, and his mom played piano at parties and for silent movies. It’s from her that Hoagy inherited his love of the instrument, which she encouraged, but certainly never as a profession. She hoped her son could have a better life than that of a lowly musician, and urged him to become a lawyer.  She mastered Scott Joplin’s famous “Maple  Leaf Rag,” which was written the same year Hoagy was born, providing the context for his famous quote, “Ragtime was my lullaby.” Well-aware of his professional inclinations, she told him, “Music is fun, Hoagland, but it don’t buy you cornpone.”

Hoagy 2

But there was no stopping him. His had an almost insatiable hunger to hear and play music of all kinds, and he would go anywhere, places both sacred and profane, to find it.  His Sunday mornings, for example, would begin in a series of churches, where he’d happily bask in the rich soul of down-home gospel music for hours. From there he’d head to a local carnival or circus, if one was in town – to hear the ragtime and jazz bands there. By sunset he could usually be found sitting in with bands at  little restaurants, bars and  brothels.

When his family moved to Indianapolis in 1916, his mother changed Hoagy’s life forever by allowing him to get piano lessons from ragtime virtuoso Reginald DuValle, whose instruction gave Hoagy a foundation in  stride and jazz that forever seasoned his own music.  “Never play anything that ain’t right,” Duvalle told him.  “You may not make a lot of money. But you’ll never get hostile with yourself.”

Hoagy attended Indiana University to study law. But like Cole Porter,  who also studied law before devoting himself to songwriting, Hoagy discovered that his hunger to make music was only intensifying. Befriending the legendary  jazz cornetistBix Beiderbecke in 1922, Hoagy saw first-hand that a life in music could be a lot more exciting and lucrative than his mother ever dreamed. He took a shot that paid off – writing a song targeted directly for Bix and the band he played with, The Wolverines. “Riverboat Shuffle” was one of the first songs Hoagy ever wrote, as rhythmically propulsive as it was sweetly melodic, and the group loved it. Within a month it was recorded, released, and on the radio, and it became the Hoagy’s first hit. The first of many.

His next recorded song was “Washboard Blues,” cut by Red Nichols in 1927. Though Hoagy was still studying law at the time, hearing that song the first time on the radio was the impetus he needed to devote himself totally to songwriting. It proved to be a good choice, as one of the next melodies that Hoagy “found” became one of America’s most famous and beloved songs, “Stardust.”

In his autobiography, The Stardust Road (which proved he could be as melodious with a pen as with a piano), Hoagy preserved for all time the genesis of this special song:

 “It was a hot night, sweet with the death of summer andthe hint and promise of fall. A waiting night, a night marking time, the end of a season. The stars were bright, close to me, and the North Star hung over the trees… The town and the university and the friends I had there flooded through my mind… All the girls young and lovely…

But most of them had gone their ways.Gone as I’d gone mine.

I looked up at the sky and whistled `Stardust.’”

From The Stardust Road
By Hoagy Carmichael

On Halloween of 1927, Hoagy became the first of more than a thousand artists to record “Stardust.” His was an uptempo solo piano rendition. It was songwriter/bandleader Isham Jones who first recorded it in a much slower ballad tempo, which is the way it’s usually performed. The words by Mitchell Parish were added after both of these records were released, and yet matched the arc of the melody so perfectly it seems as if both were conceived simultaneously. Though Parish wrote many other famous songs, he said, “`Stardust’ is in a class by itself.”

Hoagy moved to Manhattan in 1929, quickly inserting himself into a thriving jazz scene that also included Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Beiderbecke, and Glenn Miller. Not  only did they enjoy his company, they also started cutting his songs, including “Rockin’ Chair,” “Georgia On My Mind,”  “Lazy River,” and “Lazybones.”

Hoagy drifted away from the jazz community after Bix’s death, and started spending more time in the Broadway corridors of Tin Pan Alley, collaborating with a score of gifted wordsmiths, including Mercer, Loesser,  Ned Washington , and Paul Francis Webster.  It was then that Hollywood came calling, and in the forties Hoagy not only became a staff songwriter at Paramount, but also began appearing in a string of movies. Starting with his sweetly laconic appearance playing the keys for Lauren Bacall in To Have And Have Not, which also starred Bogie, Hoagy soon became an iconic fixture at the piano in films such as Johnny Angel (1945), The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946), and Young Man With A Horn (1950) and others. “He was everybody’s favorite sidekick,”  Owen McNally wrote, “…as much in the American grain as Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper.”

Despite the international renown that came his way, Hoagy always remained the folksy, unassuming guy from Indiana. “When we were growing up in our house on Sunset Boulevard,” said Hoagy’s son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael, “we had absolutely no frame of reference for being famous. My dad and mom were from the Midwest. We considered ourselves to be `homegrown.’ My dad’s phone number was still listed in the book when he died in 1981.”

Throughout the forties and into the fifties Hoagy continued writing  the beautifully-crafted songs that made him famous, and in ’51 created yet another classic with Mercer, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.” By the sixties, though, he  felt cast aside, as did most songwriters of his era, by rock and roll, and turned away from popular music to write two orchestral works, “Brown County In Autumn,”  and  “Johnny Appleseed.” But with little enthusiasm from the public for this music, he started spending less time at the piano and more on the golf course. The last years of his life were spent in Palm Springs, where he died on December 27, 1981.

His ongoing significance as an American songwriter was already a given during his lifetime, and has continued to expand exponentially. In 1999, the centennial of his birth, retrospectives of his life coincided with retrospectives of the century, an era enriched immeasurably by his work. When Paul McCartney was asked to list his top ten favorite songs of the 20th century, he put “Stardust” near the top of a list that also included two songs by John Lennon, and one by George Harrison.

New and old collections of Hoagy’s songs have been recently released, including The Great Jazz Vocalists Sing Hoagy Carmichael (Capitol Jazz), which features Nat King Cole’s timeless rendition of “Stardust,” and also singers from Dinah Shore to Cassandra Wilson. Hoagy Sings Carmichael With the Pacific Jazzmen (Pacific Jazz) was recorded in 1956, and features Hoagy’s poignantly off-key vocals set against a great jazz backdrop arranged by Johnny Mandel, and featuring classic players such as Art Pepper and Harry “Sweets” Edison. Both are ideal avenues into the timeless songs of Hoagy Carmichael, songs which have never stopped celebrating and enriching the real heart and soul of America.