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What Happens Backstage, Doesn’t Stay Backstage

In this new column we will share backstage stories that perhaps should have been kept secret but are too good not to share.

The famous slogan, “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” is now a cliché, but when it was coined by an advertising company in 2003 to promote Las Vegas as the kind of place where it’s okay to drop your inhibitions and party (and lose lots of your money in the process), it quickly caught on because it succinctly expressed the concept of an open secret. Many sectors of society function with open secrets. Even those that appear like strait-laced, mundane places — banks, dentist offices, libraries — probably have all kinds of stuff going on behind the scenes. That’s the thing about humans: they get up to all kinds of shenanigans.

Of course, the ultimate open secret is the theatre. We all know that what is on stage isn’t reality. Real life is what happens backstage, but it is expected to be kept secret so as not to spoil the illusion. Not that anyone in the theatre business is good at keeping secrets; show folks are notorious for spilling the beans because they can’t help but share a good story — and backstage stories can be really juicy. It’s not for nothing that the backstage drama is a popular genre. All About EveNoises Off, even parts of Hamlet, are just a few of the titles in the long list of this genre.

The Shenanigans of Mickey Rooney

“I’m really six feet eight — this is a short costume I’m wearing. But really, I’m not standing in a hole here. This is as tall as I’m going to get.”

That was one of the many self-deprecating lines Mickey Rooney had at the ready when he celebrated his 75th birthday in Toronto in 1995.

Another was: “I’m not really 75, I’m just three 25-year-olds.”

They might have been jokes stolen from vaudeville shows. In fact, that’s where Rooney got his start in showbiz when he was only five years old.

He arrived in Toronto on September 18, and from the moment he stepped into the lobby of the Royal York Hotel, he caused a sensation. The hotel's manager, John Pye, told the Toronto Star: “He has amazing energy . When he arrived he had the whole lobby in a tizzy within three minutes.”

That was an understatement. Rooney, even in his senior years, had more energy than the Tasmanian Devil of Looney Tunes fame. Even more to the point, everywhere Rooney went trouble followed. He had a way of complicating everything and creating chaos out of the calmest moments. At least that’s the way he was in Toronto that fall.

Rooney had arrived to perform the role of Everett, Polly’s dad, in the Canadian production of Crazy For You at the Royal Alex. He would be in the show for just over three months, until December 31st, when the show would close after a two-year run. Polly was played by Camilla Scott, who had won accolades for her performance, as had the rest of the all-Canadian cast. The production had even won the Dora Award for Best Musical, beating out Miss Saigon and Show Boat. Rooney would add new star power to Crazy For You’s final months.

There was also another reason that Rooney was chosen for the part. When he was 23 and one of the biggest stars in showbiz, he had starred in the 1943 film Girl Crazy, playing Bobby, the starry-eyed rich guy who ditched the family business to become a song and dance man in a musical. Girl Crazy, with music and lyrics by the Gershwins, began as a Broadway musical in 1930.  Crazy For You was an adaptation of Girl Crazy. So, for Rooney it was a homecoming of sorts. Except he had gone from playing the romantic male lead to a supporting role as the father of the romantic female lead.

That may have been a bit of a comedown, but Rooney had had more ups and downs than the world’s longest rollercoaster. He had gone from child actor in vaudeville to silent film star, from the world’s number one movie box office draw to guest star on low-rated TV sitcoms, from dinner theatre roles in suburbia to the toast of Broadway at age 60. He had been extremely wealthy and at other times he couldn't pay his bills. But he never stopped working. Laurence Olivier had said Rooney was ’the best there has ever been."

And if his professional career had been busy and frantic, his personal life was just as shambolic. He was married eight times! He had nine children, most of whom he didn’t see or even talk to.

He arrived in Toronto with an impossibly small suitcase and nothing else. The clothes he was wearing when he checked into the Royal York — baggy khakis, a mustard yellow sweatshirt and a newsie cap — was what he wore everyday in Toronto, except when he was in costume on stage. He claimed he didn’t need anything else. 

On his second day in town, he was invited to a news conference in what had been the Imperial Room, for many decades the preeminent and most glamorous nightclub in the country. Rooney arrived in his khakis and sweatshirt and was surprised with a big birthday cake that the Royal York’s esteemed pastry chef had made that morning. His actual birthday was not until a few days later, on September 23, but he seemed delighted with the party. The members of the media were so charmed by Rooney they acted more like fans, singing along to the Happy Birthday song and loudly applauding.

A week later he had his first performance in Crazy For You. Everyone in the cast was enchanted with him. They couldn’t believe their luck. This was the Mickey Rooney they were working with, the legendary actor who had defined a generation in the 1930s and 40s by playing Andy Hardy, the guy who had done everything and worked with everyone. 

The audience also loved him, greeting his first appearance on stage with applause and laughing at all his muggings and double takes. As columnist Jim Proudfoot put in in the Toronto Star, “Mickey Rooney could upstage a monkey."

That's where it got a little tricky because Crazy For You was a delicately balanced musical comedy cleverly concocted out of the 1930 revue that the 1943 film adaptation starring Rooney was based on. Director Mike Ockrent, writer Ken Ludwig and choreographer Susan Stroman had taken what was no more than an excuse for some terrific Gershwin songs and turned it into a musical that had what contemporary audiences expected from musical theatre: a plausible story with interesting characters they cared about, and songs that advanced the story and its themes. 

That meant that none of the actors were allowed to break the fourth wall and call attention to themselves for the sake of an extra laugh. They had to earn the audience’s trust and attention and perform the story as if it really mattered, so that the audience could truly invest their emotions in the story and its outcome.

Rooney, on the other hand, performed the show as if it were still the 1930 musical revue  it was based on, which was where the mugging he was doing had come from. Rooney was so desperate for the audience to like him that he was willing to do almost anything for their affection.

To make matters worse, he didn’t seem able to remember his lines or his blocking. Often other characters had to jump in and fill in a line Rooney had forgotten. And if Rooney suddenly appeared in a scene in which he wasn’t supposed to be in, they had to pretend he wasn’t there or try to find a way to incorporate him into the action. At times, one of the actors had to take him by the hand and lead him on stage so that he wouldn’t miss his cue.

Still, the cast had to recognize and accept the audience’s total adoration of Rooney. Maybe it was because Rooney and actors of his generation knew something that contemporary actors had been taught not to place a lot of importance in: they weren’t there to tell a story but to entertain. That’s what Rooney was doing, using all the tricks he had learnt in almost seven decades as a professional entertainer. 

A few weeks later, the show’s director, the acclaimed Mike Ockrent, came to Toronto to see his show with Rooney in it. Ockrent had been here during the rehearsals with Rooney. Those didn’t go that well, but Ockrent knew that Rooney was a professional and gave him the benefit of the doubt.

Ockrent, a Scottish physicist whose love of theatre led him to an illustrious career directing for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and many West End and Broadway theatres, had had two blockbuster musicals performed around the world, Crazy For You and Me and My Girl, a little known 1937 musical comedy about a Cockney wiseacre who turns out to be an earl. Both were adaptations of long forgotten stale-dated musicals. As Frank Rich explained in the New York Times about these two shows: ‘’They uncorked the innocence of the old-fashioned musical comedy so ingeniously that for once a theatregoer is actually sucked directly into that sunny past.’'

Ockrent described how he made these old chestnuts meaningful to contemporary audiences in an interview: ''My job is to find something that makes a unified evening with a shape, that goes somewhere, and with characters the audience believes in.’’

That’s why Ockrent was aghast at what he saw on stage at the Royal Alex on the Wednesday matinee he attended. 

After the performance, in the manager’s office at the Royal Alex, Ockrent had a meeting with Rooney’s business agent and explained to him what he thought was wrong with Rooney’s performance. The agent listened and went backstage to talk with Rooney. It didn’t take long for him to return to Ockrent and tell him that Rooney didn’t agree with Ockrent’s ideas and he would quit the show immediately. In fact, he had already left the theatre and was headed to the Royal York Hotel. (Where it would not take him long to pack his tiny little suitcase.)

Ockrent was stuck. There was an evening performance still to do that day. Recognizing that who they had engaged was not an actor but a star, Ockrent knew there was no other way around it. A star performs in a style and manner his audience has come to expect. So, Ockrent did not pursue the matter further. He went back home to New York where he and his wife, Susan Stroman, were working on many new projects. (Sadly, a year later Ockrent was diagnosed with leukaemia and died in 1999, just as his wife’s acclaimed new dance musical, Contact, became a massive success on Broadway. The theatre had lost a major talent and Stroman had lost the love of her life.

When the review of Rooney’s performance was published in the Toronto Star a few weeks later, critic Geoff Chapman wrote: “Rooney certainly adds his unmistakable stamp to the role. Having earned applause just for arriving on stage, he shamelessly plays to the audience, underscoring his macho hammy approach when he gets as near as he can to the most glamorous gang of hoofers and singers you’ll see this decade and inserting some unscripted asides as he does a turkey-cock strut.”

Regardless, Chapman found the show was “swifter and glitzier … above all, funnier … the timing is impeccable” since he had seen it on its opening night “740 performances ago.”

There you have it: Rooney was a hit, despite everything he did.

Soon Rooney developed a routine in Toronto. When he wasn’t performing at the Royal Alex, he spent most of his time at the Long Bar at the Sheraton Centre Hotel. The reason: the bar televised the races at Woodbine Racetrack and had off-track betting.

 Rooney lived and died by horse racing. He would arrive just after noon at the Long Bar and have both lunch and dinner there while betting on the nags.

Interviewing Rooney, Jim Proudfoot wrote: “Woodbine’s computer indicated an upsurge in wagering nobody could account for. Then the answer presented itself: Mickey Rooney is in town.”

Rooney explained to Proudfoot, “Yours truly lost $2 on a horse about 70 years ago and I’ve spent $4 million since trying to get it back.” He claimed it all began in Tijuana when he was six years old and had just started making movies. His mother had placed the bet for him. “It was my introduction to what’s been a relaxing hobby for a lot of years. It’s not the money. This is just a wonderful way to spend an afternoon."

One afternoon in early December Rooney was due to unveil the corner Christmas windows of the Hudson’s Bay Company store at Yonge and Queen. A publicist was assigned to go to the Long Bar and escort Rooney the block and a half to the store. 

It took almost 30 minutes to disengage Rooney from the television screens that televised the races, but eventually the publicist managed it.

“Is the car at the front doors?” Rooney asked.

“It’s so close we can walk to it. There’s an underground path system,” the publicist said.

“Walk? Why not a car?”

“It’s rush hour. It would take us longer to get there in traffic.”

Rooney, as if someone had turned on a switch, began to speed walk. The publicist had to run to catch up and direct Rooney two floors down and across the underground path. 

At the underground entrance to the Hudson’s Bay store, a man was leaning against a door, keeping it open. In his hand he held a Tim Horton’s cup for change. Rooney sped through the open door, followed by the publicist, who was nearly tripped when Rooney reversed course and came back out the same door.

Rooney took out a thick wad of green money from his pants pocket. He peeled off two US $50 bills. 

“Here you are, my man,” he said to the beggar, handing over the bills. He added, in a very sympathetic and gentle tone,, “God bless you, my man, and Merry Christmas,” and tapped the man on the shoulder. 

Then, it was instantly back to speed walking. 

The man holding open the door stared at the bills in his hand, immediately stuffed them in his pocket and ran the other way, just in case this had all been a mistake and the generous speed walker, whoever he was, would return and ask for his money back.

When Rooney and the publicist arrived at the designated meeting spot behind the store’s ground-floor corner windows — late by at least 20 minutes — the person in charge gave a big sigh of relief.

“All the TV cameras and newspaper photographers are here,” she said. “We will need Mr. Rooney to stand in front of the windows and pull down the cord to raise the curtains and reveal the interior of the windows.”

“What’s in the windows?” Rooney asked.

“We do this every holiday season,” she said. “We work with the Humane Society and display kittens and puppies that people can adopt.”

“Then I don’t want to be in front of the windows. I want to be inside with the puppies!

Rooney didn’t wait for a response. He opened the back door to the windows and shoved his way in.

The woman looked in bewilderment at the publicist, who shrugged his shoulder. What can a person say to justify a celebrity’s zany antics?

“Okay,” the woman said. “I guess we have to improvise. I will have the store manager pull the cord. As long as you are sure that Mr. Rooney will be in the windows.”

She went off to find the store manager and the publicist went in the door Rooney had gone into. He confirmed with him that this really was what Rooney wanted to do.

“Of course it is!” Rooney said. “Look at these helpless creatures. They need my love and affection. But, I want to say a few words. People won’t be able to hear me through the glass. Can you get me a microphone?’

The publicist rushed out and found the person in charge of the sound system. Thankfully he had an extra cordless mic, which the publicist hustled into Rooney in the window.

The woman in charge reorganized the cameras and the store manager stood in front of the corner windows. People waiting for the streetcar, passersby and shoppers on the street looked onto the proceedings with curiosity. Obviously something exciting was about to happen.

The manager pulled the cord and the gold drapery rose to reveal Rooney holding a kitten in one arm and a puppy in the other. Around him on the floor and in little niches and shelves of the window fittings dozens of other animals scuttled about. 

Rooney put down the kitten. Still holding the puppy, he picked up the mic and said: 

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Mickey Rooney and I want you to remember something very, very important: Dog spelled backwards is God! Think about this profound statement: God spelled backwards is dog. That’s why it is imperative that all these puppies and kittens be adopted before Christmas. I’ll say it again: you have to adopt these precious animals. Please promise me that. Merry Christmas.”

All the onlookers were speechless. How do you respond to such a spectacle? Who among them would dare speak up and say to Mickey Rooney that the statement he had claimed to be profound is among the most hackneyed of expressions?

Rooney put down the puppy and, careful not to step on any of the animals who were now following him, he found his way out of the corner windows. The publicist was waiting for him. Rooney began speed walking again with the publicist trailing and yelling directions as he went. The Long Bar and the horse races awaited. There was still time for a race or two until he would have to leave to make his call at the Royal Alex for that night’s performance.

Read more of Mickey Rooney’s shenanigans in the next issue of Meanwhile.