My typically insane days usually end with some hot tea, maybe some pistachio nuts or chips, and a dose of late night television. For me, there is nothing more relaxing than the old black-and-white movies on TCM or one of the other vintage-style networks I watched as a child on our black-and-white TV, with aluminum foil on the bunny-eared antenna.
The other night, “A Family Affair” came on. It was the first Andy Hardy movie and it starred Mickey Rooney, of course. That first installment of the 16-film series came out in 1937 … EIGHTY years ago! Can you believe it?
Actually, Mickey was the only familiar face in this film for me. There are a few actors I remember from those films. Lionel Barrymore was the first Judge Hardy (Andy’s father). Lewis Stone, the Judge Hardy I recall, came along in the second film. And the sweetheart of the series for me, Judy Garland, was in only three of the 16 movies! But Mickey, well, he is one figure who stood out.
Rooney was, ironically, larger than life despite his famously small stature.
A few years back, I hosted Mickey Rooney at The Arcada, as he celebrated his 89th birthday. It was a completely magical experience, one I could never forget. Being in awe my entire life of classic Hollywood and those legendary performers on the silver screen, it was no accident when I acquired this 1926 vaudeville theater 11 years ago. And as The Arcada has been enjoying tremendous success evolving into a top live music venue the past few years, it has also been host to some of the biggest, most recognizable names in showbiz. From Debbie Reynolds to Shirley MacLaine, Don Rickles to Joan Rivers, and Hugh Jackman to Kevin Costner, many A-listers have appeared on the historic stage once graced by Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, The Little Rascals, The Three Stooges, Duke Ellington and so many more.
Up until a couple of years before his passing in 2014, Mickey was doing a multimedia musical career retrospective show with his eighth wife, Jan. When the opportunity to host his show was offered to me, I think it was exactly 12 seconds later when I signed on the dotted line committing to the booking. This was going to be truly something special — talk about Hollywood royalty!
He was a bit standoffish when we first met. But as I went down on one knee as if to kiss his ring, he warmed up pretty quickly. He had this warm, grandpa-ish demeanor, with a 24-carat smile. Yeah, that was him all right. Even though the years had crept up on him, there was no mistaking that Andy Hardy smile.
So we visited Chicago television studios, called into local radio stations and lunched with journalists. It was a press junket frenzy! He was tired, but was tireless when it came to giving the people what they wanted.
“I never want to disappoint people,” he said. “I’ve been in more major motion pictures than anyone else in history, the only actor to have appeared in at least one film for eight straight decades, and that doesn’t happen if you disappoint the fans,” he proudly belted out.
“We were making a movie a month sometimes, especially during the Andy Hardy years” he said. “We were all exhausted, but we just kept going. We (young actors) were taught to stick it out and that stayed with me my whole life. So let’s get this going!”
At dinner, and as the wine was flowing, I let my bold side take over and thought the time was right to cautiously bring up Judy Garland. You just never know how these stars will respond to something as personal as that.
His expression changed to one of sadness. “The biggest loss of my life, of all of our lives,” he said. “Such a tragedy. She really was the most marvelous entertainer in the history of show business.”
I asked why she wasn’t one of the eight women he ultimately married. “She was the sister I never had,” he said as he glanced up to the sky. “She had this major insecurity that frankly, endeared me to her. It was tough on all of us. I tried to be there for her as much as I could, but those early years were especially tough. We worked countless hours a week and slept when we could. Ya know, we barely made $5,000 each for most of our films! And we were the biggest stars of our time!”
One of my fondest memories was when I took him to a meeting of Italian-American war veterans earlier that week. I went to pick him up at the hotel and he walked out of his room with an actual War Veterans hat on. He actually traveled with it!
We arrived at the meeting to a hero’s welcome. There were about 200 former soldiers, some were WWII guys in their 80s, who stood at attention and saluted Mickey as we walked in. It was very reverent and emotional.
The commander of the veterans post welcomed Mickey and thanked him for his service in World War II. “Mickey, what you and your Hollywood friends did for the soldiers overseas, entertaining them and keeping up their morale, was nothing short of heroic,” the commander said.
At that statement, Mickey jumped out of his seat. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I served in the Army under Patton. I wasn’t telling jokes and singing songs; I was fighting. I was in those foxholes just like all you guys.” He then folded back the lapel of his jacket to display his Bronze Star he received for meritorious service in the war. A quiet but very noticeable gasp filled the room.
“I lost friends and I saw a lot of death out there. That is why I am such a proud American. That is why I came here tonight. To thank all of YOU! You are the heroes. It was we veterans who saved America,” he said as he puffed out his chest proudly.
So after a few days of these tremendous experiences, I thought I would host a dinner in honor of his 89th birthday. I had an upscale, Las Vegas-style supper club at the time and it was packed. I reserved my biggest table, right in the center of the room. Nobody knew he was coming so as we walked in, you could hear countless forks being dropped onto plates in utter disbelief. “Holy cow, is that Mickey Rooney?” people at each table whispered to each other. As he turned and smiled, the room burst into applause.
I asked Mickey if he would come to the front of the room to answer a few questions for the guests. Per classic Mickey Rooney style, he not only answered questions but also asked if he could play the 100-year-old piano I had in the restaurant. He was masterful as he played and sang standards. We had all forgotten what a fine musician he was, often playing the drums in his earlier films.
The next night, he and Jan did the show. It was heartwarming and fun and tremendously cute. Songs and stories about a legendary career, with editorials about the politics of Hollywood along the way.
As we said our goodbyes the next day, he did present me with a personally autographed photo from his classic film, “Boys Town,” which I will always cherish. I am sure he is “Striking up the band” up there right now.
As sad as it was to see him go, I can only imagine just how happy Judy was to see him once again. If he was to have had a final film at his passing age of 93, I am sure it would have been, “Andy Hardy Lights Up Heaven!”
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.