How are Hollywood veteran Mickey Rooney and his wife celebrating Christmas this year, 6,000 miles from home? Jane Hall caught up with the couple between panto performances in Sunderland to find out.
WITH enough children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren between them to form two American football teams, the festive season for Jan and Mickey Rooney is usually a chaotic affair.
The couple, who have been married for 29 years, believe in celebrating with all the trimmings: turkey, mistletoe, decorated Christmas tree, lots of presents and, of course, surrounded by family and friends.
In many ways, it’s what is regarded as a traditional English Christmas, but without our inclement winter weather. For the Rooneys live in California and are more used to temperatures around 70F at this time of year – not the sub-zero ones the pair are currently struggling to cope with.
“It’s so cold,” Mickey says as he bustles in to Jan’s dressing room at Sunderland’s Empire theatre.
When it’s pointed out the weather has warmed up and the thick hoar-frost that has clung to everything like snow for days has gone, Mickey gives a withering stare and says: “Well, I think it’s very cold,” before settling down next to Jan on a navy sofa.
Having spent 83 of his 87 years living in California’s equable climate, the veteran Hollywood actor can be forgiven for any grumpiness on his part at finding himself temporarily dwelling in Sunderland in December.
“Oh now, don’t be like that Mickey,” Jan says as she pats her husband’s hand. “The welcome we have received from everyone in Sunderland has been more than warm enough to make-up for the cold.”
“Sure, everyone has been great,” Mickey interjects. “This year we are doing panto over Christmas and we are thrilled to be here in Sunderland. You know, The Times newspaper has voted this pantomime the number one show in all England to go and see. Can you believe that? The top panto!”
Mickey slaps his knee with relish and smiles broadly. He seems genuinely thrilled with the endorsement; at least as happy as if he had just been handed the two special Oscars, two Golden Globes and handful of Emmys he has to his name.
It’s disconcerting to find him so fired up by a newspaper recommendation, yet at the same time gratifying to know he takes as much pride starring in Cinderella in a provincial English city as he has over any of the 280-plus films he has to his name.
But then Mickey is very much an actor from the old school. The son of two Vaudevillians, his parents incorporated Joseph Yule Jr, as he then was, into their act when he was just 17 months old.
At the age of four, his mother took him to Hollywood and he started making films. In a career that has spanned nine decades, he has starred alongside everyone from Judy Garland to Spencer Tracy and Marilyn Monroe.
He was the lead alongside Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He played a bitter boxing trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and a panicked man in a pilotless plane in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
His first girlfriend was Lana Turner, and the first of his eight wives was Ava Gardner.
“I’m from a different era,” Mickey points out. “I’ve done film after film. I’ve done musicals with Judy. Nineteen Andy Hardy pictures. I knew Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. I was friends with Winston Churchill and served in the last war.
“I was awarded the Bronze Star by General Patton himself. I still have it. I’ve worked with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor...” Jan raises her eyebrows and says “Honey, we’re here to discuss Christmas and what we’ll be doing this year so far from home.”
But the quick resumé of Mickey’s life perhaps explains why an actor of his obvious calibre and status cares that Cinderella should be voted this season’s must-see panto.
His early ‘the show must go on’ theatrical background coupled with the part he played in Hollywood’s golden era and service with the American Forces Network in World War Two, means he treats every job with equal respect, whether it’s a film, TV advert or panto.
But why Mickey and his wife have decided at the age of 87 and 67 respectively to leave their family, friends and waterside home in Los Angeles behind to fly 6,000 miles to appear in panto in the depths of an English winter is more of a mystery.
“Because I was asked,” Mickey says. “As simple as that.” Perhaps sensing he has been a bit curt, he elaborates. “It’s a challenge. Panto is not something either of us has ever done before.”
“We had heard about panto, but never seen it,” Jan adds with a wide smile. “In America, we don’t have it, but it is such an English tradition we felt we wanted to be a part of it.” Mickey is playing Baron Hardup and Jan the Fairy Godmother. It’s apparently a dream come true for Jan.
“She has always dreamed of playing the Fairy Godmother and now to be playing it is magic for her,” Mickey says, giving his wife an affectionate look.
“Mickey is as cute as can be as Baron Hardup,” Jan says with equal admiration. “He is just adorable. He gets the kids going and the reaction from the children is wonderful. It’s great to have the children talking back to you. That’s not something we have in the States, but that’s panto I suppose.”
“We do a little cabaret spot together and sing Fred Astaire’s Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, and the kids go crazy,” Mickey adds with a delighted laugh.
The pair are the undisputed stars of Cinderella. There is still a sense of disbelief that the legendary Mickey Rooney should be treading the boards at the Sunderland Empire.
But there is no doubt he is a box office draw. Many grandparents are contemporaries of his, parents grew up watching his films, and now a new generation has been introduced to him courtesy of the 2006 hit family movie Night at the Museum in which he starred as a grumpy soon-to-retire security guard alongside Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobbs.
What do Jan and Mickey think of their co-stars, TV favourite Les Dennis, pop stars Michelle Heaton from Gateshead and her husband Andy Scott-Lee and ex-Emmerdale stalwart Dale Meeks?
Mickey stays quiet. Jan is more effusive. “Everybody is top flight. The Ugly Sisters (Chris Dennis and Richard Pocock) are so funny. I was talking to my sister in America and I was telling her how many times we’ve now done this show, and how each time the Uglies come on, I just laugh and laugh. They are side-splitting.
“I have to pay tribute to the writer. It’s hysterical. You think we have seen it so many times and still it makes us laugh. The costumes are brilliant and the kids’ chorus are so cute. They’re so professional. But it’s Les who is the glue, he’s the one who keeps it all together.”
“We met the Queen you know, in Washington earlier this year,” Mickey suddenly says. It’s got nothing to do with Christmas or the pantomime. Or perhaps it has. Both Mickey and Jan are enamoured of British tradition and, of course, there is nothing more constant than the monarchy.
Mickey has a tendency to go off on a tangent; it’s not always easy to follow.
Mickey’s meeting with the Queen hit the headlines after he broke with protocol and kissed her hand. “I think the Queen rather enjoyed it,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “He got a reprimand from me,” Jan says with mock severity. “We love the Queen,” Mickey continues. “My father was from Glasgow and Jan has her roots in Wales. Her name is Chamberlin, but without the final ‘A’.”
He pauses and repeats: “Chamberlin, but without the ‘A’.”
Is Mickey saying Jan is related to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who famously tried – and failed – to stave off war with Nazi Germany? “I think I am related,” Jan says, “but we have removed the ‘A’ from the name.” “Everyone runs Neville Chamberlain down now,” Mickey roars. “But he was a brave and heroic man.”
Mickey may only be 5ft 2in tall but after decades of taking centre stage he knows how to command attention. He stopped growing when he was 12, but it didn’t prevent him having a successful acting career – or stepping out with some of Hollywood’s most famous and glamorous women. He has always had an eye for the ladies, as his eight marriages attest to.
He has nine children and “oodles of grandchildren. It costs us a lot at Christmas.”
The Rooney’s great grandchildren Hunter, five, and Harrison, three, have just returned home with their father after paying grandma and grandad a flying visit in Sunderland. Christmas this year promises to be a quiet – and cold – affair.
“Christmas is certainly going to be a bit different,” Jan says. “You’re telling me,” Mickey interposes. “But it will be fun,” Jan adds. “We will miss the little elf tree that I bought Mickey 33 years ago – we’ve been together 35 years now. It’s still going strong. Every year it comes out. And we’ll miss our dog Sir Digby. He gets very excited when we call home. We’re just regular people.
“Oh, and Mickey will miss his egg nog.”
“I always have egg nog at Christmas, but you can’t get it here,” Mickey laments.
A man pokes his head around Jan’s dressing room door warning they have just 30 minutes’ to curtain up on the matinee performance. “We’ve got to get ready, we’ve got to get ready,” Mickey flusters.
As he heads back to his own dressing room, he stops and says: “Pass this on to your readers. We wish peace on earth and goodwill to all men and love, which is one of the strongest commandments; not to kill but to love.”