Mickey Rooney made me do it
This is a post from 2008. I have republished it today in honor of Mickey.
When I was a kid growing up in America I used to watch the old black and white films with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, the stories where Mickey and his pals would put on a show of some kind, stage it in a barn or a neighborhood playhouse. Something about those old films clicked for me and in junior high and high school I got involved in local productions – I think I was probably 10 when I first went on stage.
Much later while working on a film, the producer, who had been a casting director, had the idea of casting Mickey in a small but significant role. I hadn’t thought about him in decades but when the day came that Mickey was to arrive for the shoot, I was given the assignment of picking him up at the airport and driving him to the small city in Utah where we would be filming his scenes. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone of his age with so much energy. He was as intense and bright and talkative as his character Andy Hardy had been in his films of the 40’s, there was little about him to indicate that forty or fifty years had elapsed since he was the bright-eyed MGM superstar inspiring his thespian collaborators to action. It was an hour’s drive or more to the location and he did most of the talking, which certainly made things easier for me because I must admit I was more than a little star-struck.
A few years later I was producing a TV show in New York and there was an episode that called for a character not unlike Mickey to make a guest appearance. I persuaded the Executive Producer to hire Mickey for the show and again I had the chance to work with him. The cast of this show was comprised of solid New York actors, folks who worked in the theatre and did summer stock and when Mickey arrived there was a noticeable buzz in the air – he was a hero to all of them. When it came time to do his key scene Mickey bounded into the studio and after greeting all of his co-stars, proceeded to start the scene. I don’t think he had learned his lines or if he had he must have decided that they didn’t suit him particularly well so we had to do the scene a number of times. At some point the Director suggested that Mickey just sing his lines and so he did, improvising a tune that made the points his character was supposed to make and in the process charging the room with that inestimable Mickey Rooney energy – it was perfect.
Last night I performed in a concert here in Cologne. The other musicians were brilliant – I was far and away the least professional among them, but they were all very gracious and made me feel at home. It was as exciting as it had been years ago, preparing to go on stage, the billions of butterflies swarming through me, the sweat beading on my forehead as I waited in the wings to go on. Then there was the performance itself, little of which I remember. It was as if I had entered a space capsule and was transported to another realm where my memory banks were cleared before I was allowed to return to earth.
This morning, however, I am feeling a very familiar feeling, but one I haven’t felt for a long time. Anyone reading this who has ever done a play or worked with a group of other artists on stage knows what I’m talking about. You come together with a group of strangers and after rehearsing and commiserating with each other you go out there in front of a crowd and bare your soul. The bond created in such a situation is unique and after it is over, after the butterflies fly back to wherever they live when they are not torturing us, when the audience has left and the room is being swept clean, the lights taken down and the cables wrapped for storage, it isn’t just the theatre that is empty, there is also a place in your heart that hurts just a little because you know that as soon as you walk out that door and return home – it will all be over. Even if the project is a long one, a film or a TV series or a concert tour – there is always a point when the magic ends, when the audience leaves, when you are no longer a performer getting ready to step into the lurch – but you are just yourself again and you really miss all those folks you worked with on the production and no matter how difficult it was or how scared you were to go on stage or any of it – you want to do it again.
This morning I was reminded again why Mickey Rooney holds such a special place in my memory. He was the one who introduced me to the stage. And the wonderful thing about Mickey is that he has never lost that enthusiasm, he stills loves it. He still loves putting on a show and so do I.