I’m a tyke, maybe 5 or 6 years old, laying on my tummy with legs and feet crossed behind me and cradling my head with my hands against my freckled cheeks. I’m taking a rare respite from outside playtime to watch my Grandpa’s huge console television. I do not stop talking or playing for just any show. Only special shows, such as 7 p.m. on Sunday nights for the Wonderful World of Disney. Or the Lawrence Welk show where pastel-laden ladies with bouffant hairdos sing and dance with dapper gentlemen. Their hair is slicked back like my Grandpa’s, smooth, wavy and sleek.
No regular show could get me to shut up or come in from Grandpa’s sweltering backyard in Miami, Florida. I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale but my sister Jennifer and I got to go to Grandpa’s or Nana’s house on a glorious weekend here and there. My Grandpa Bill looked just like Clark Gable and had that swagger, the twinkle in his eye, smooth talker with the ladies, was adoring of my mother and exceptionally sweet to his grandchildren.
He would fry up a plate full of bacon every Sunday morning we were there, especially for “Jenny” as we call her, because it lit her face up with joy as she dug in to it and I liked it too. We would play with his “Playboy” cards and giggle as we snuck to look at the boobies of the ladies on the other side, even though he’d say just look at the “playing” side of the cards, he knew we were sneaking peeks. There was no scolding. It was that haven where you could do no wrong.
It was at his house that I have the fondest memories of television. We received 3 or 4 channels if you were lucky and the huge rabbit ears on top of the television were working particularly well. So the days where an old movie was playing were my absolute favorite. Especially movies with Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, or Mickey Rooney.
My family is reading this now and I can almost hear the collective groans coursing toward me all the way from Decatur, AL, South Daytona Beach, FL, and Atlanta, GA to Durham, NC and I hear it in my mind now, the resounding, “Here we go again, we know, you were on the Mickey Rooney show.”
I was in first grade and was picked to be on The Mickey Rooney show. I barely remember why. Something about being a good reader or talkative. Definitely talkative. All my reports cards say, “Kathy is so smart but just needs to talk less.” My kids love looking at those and laughing at me.
But unlike any “average” 6 year old, I knew who Mickey Rooney was and I had seen his movies, especially A Midsummer’s Night Dream, where he played Puck. If you haven’t seen it, do. It is magical, ethereal and his performance is infused with an infectious laugh, a mischievous grin, bad behavior and I fell in love with the rapscallion. He was the ying to my yang. I was a “handful”, I think is the nice, Southern way of stating it. Like, “Kathy is a pain in the ass, Bless Her Heart.” And Rooney’s performance made me comfortable, happy and began my love affair with theater and theatrics.
On top of the greatness of getting to be on his television show, I got to be transported to the studio by my father Lynn. Alone. I am the oldest of three. My father was a steel company executive and traveled internationally. He worked hard. He is a true self-made man. My mom worked hard too, staying home with three kids in days where you hung up your washing outside (remember that) and money was tight, but she fed us well and we were happy. We played hard, ate a lot and went to bed early.
So I cannot remember any time I was with my father, just me, except for this time and one other time as a teenager I’ll write about later. I’m sure there were other instances but these two stick out in my mind the most. So we drove to the studio and the kids were ushered in to sit in little chairs with cute “mouse” characters designed on the back of each one. Very Disney-esque.
It was a format like “Kids Say the Darnd’est Things” and the children chosen were talkative like me. I was asked by Mr. Rooney, “Kathy, what do you think of girls being in the Army with boys?” You must remember the Vietnam war was still going on, because this was 1972 and the Paris Peace Accords ending the conflict were not signed until January 27, 1973, and were followed by the withdrawal of the remaining American troops.
Being a “boy crazy” girl, I immediately replied, “I think it’s good, because the Army girls can kiss the Army boys.” Then the fact that I couldn’t see my father caused a panic to set in. I can still feel it to this day. Isn’t it funny how memories can evoke a physical reaction like that. Being the non-meek girl I was (and am), I immediately told the Director/Assistant to go get my dad in the striped tie.
They are taping a television show, so this is costing money. Do I care? Ummm, no. I said again and more definitively, “Get my daddy in the striped tie now!” Finally, he came walking in and taping finished as I basked in the comfort of being able to see him. I mean, I loved Mickey but he wasn’t my daddy.
Afterwards, they gave each of us a box of candied fruit slices. I was raised in a health conscious home, so this kind of treat was hard won. And I was a television star, in my mind, so I richly deserved it. Then the hammer fell as my dad said, “Now Kathy, when we get home, you have to share your treats with your sister and brother.” Damn it, I thought or something a tad tamer a child would think to that level of irritation, I’m sure.
So for the rest of my life, to date, I have eventually told just about every person I’ve ever met about my 15 minutes of fame, because “I was on the Mickey Rooney Show.” It is inevitable that I manage to work it in somehow.
Rooney appeared in over 300 films
Nine of his films were with Judy Garland
“Judy and I were so close we could’ve come from the same womb. We weren’t like brothers or sisters but there was no love affair there; there was more than a love affair. It’s very, very difficult to explain the depths of our love for each other. It was so special. It was a forever love. Judy, as we speak, has not passed away. She’s always with me in every heartbeat of my body.” Mickey Rooney
Pictured above, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes in Arms
Rooney lived to 93, married 8 times, had 9 children, and was known for his madcap acting style
Rooney is pictured below as Puck in A Midsummer’s Night Dream
Rooney and Spencer Tracy below, in Boys Town
National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor is another picture where he captured our hearts
Rooney is pictured below with the famous swimming actress, Esther Williams
In 1944, Rooney was drafted into the United States Army. He served more than 21 months, until shortly after the end of World War II. During and after the war, the actor/comedian helped entertain the troops in America and Europe, and spent part of the time as a radio personality on the American Forces Network. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for entertaining troops in combat zones. In addition to the Bronze Star Medal, Rooney also received the Army Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal, for his military service.
Of growing up as a child actor to an adult actor, he said, “You weren’t going to work, you were going to have fun. It was home, everybody was cohesive; it was family. One year I made nine pictures; I had to go from one set to another. It was like I was on a conveyor belt. You did not read a script and say, “I guess I’ll do it.” You did it.”
Rooney and Sammy Davis Jr.
Pictured below is Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Rooney and Judy Garland
Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner are pictured below. Gardner was Rooney’s first wife and hailed from little ole’ Smithfield, NC. If you live in the area, her museum is wonderful. I’ve been there and it’s filled with her costumes, gowns, pictures and really cool, old Hollywood memorabilia. Rooney was a small man and Gardner was tiny. I mean tiny. Her shoes look like a 5 and her gowns looked like triple zeros. She was a gorgeous, talented woman.
Rooney and Gardner are pictured below with Frank Sinatra. Ironically, Gardner’s third and last marriage was to singer and actor Frank Sinatra, from 1951 to 1957.
Gardner had an on and off again relationship with Howard Hughes and a strong friendship with Ernest Hemingway. Once, she swam naked in Hemingway’s pool and it was said he told the staff they were never to drain the pool of the water she swam in.
For over nine decades, Mickey Rooney had an iconic career and profound effect on Hollywood as a superstar and prolific artist. As the last star of the silent film era, he successfully transitioned into television and stage and became an international celebrity.
Rooney’s personal life, including his frequent trips to the altar, proved to be just as epic as his on-screen performances. For me, it is the memory of his movies and my brush with his greatness as a child that forever is linked to the two greater men in my life, my late grandfather and my daddy.