Created: 04/08/2014 9:31 AM KSTP.com By: Barry ZeVan
Photo courtesy of Barry ZeVan
MICKEY ROONEY AND HIS DAD, JOE YULE: Anyone who's ever visited my house has seen one of my most treasured photos, which has the following inscription: "To my Pal, Barry. Best wishes, Pal. Be a good boy. Sincerely, Joe Yule, Mickey Rooney's Dad. September 10, 1949."
Backstory: It's two years earlier, i.e., August, 1947. My mother and I were walking through the lobby of New York's Edison Hotel during a vacation stay there. Alan Greenspan, who would later become U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, was a musician with Henry Jerome's orchestra (the Edison's "house" band) at that time.
Regardless, while walking through the lobby, my mother stopped me to say, "There's Joe Yule, Mickey Rooney's father!" Having been immersed in show business much of her life, she recognized Mr. Yule from publicity photos and his fame in general. We stopped to talk. He gave her his contact information, was kind in his exchanges, even remarking that Mickey was now married to actress Martha Vickers. "This one's going to be 'it'. This one's a keeper", referring to Mickey;s third wife. Sadly it didn't last, but I'll never forget Mr. Yule's enthusiasm about Mickey's marital choice at that time.
The scene now shifts to late August, 1949, when Mr. Yule, along with Harry Stockwell (Dean Stockwell's father) and David Wayne, were performing in a national tour of "Finian's Rainbow"at Pittsburgh's Nixon Theater. We lived in Pittsburgh (my birthplace). My mother called Mr. Yule, and he invited us to see the performance, but afterward, backstage, and knowing I'd begun the stage acting phase of my career a year earlier at The Pittsburgh Playhouse (taking drama lessons with Shirley Jones, but that's another story), he asked my mother if she'd consider having me be one of the kids who danced around the wishing well (part of the play) in the Pittsburgh performances as well as Cleveland, the next stop. In those days, stars could make suggestions, and they were okayed by road-company managers. She said "Yes", and I got to dance and act as a chorus kid with Mr. Yule for the next two weeks, almost a paid vacation and just in time for me to get back to my Pittsburgh grade school classes.
We kept in touch on and off for a few years until he passed away. The twinkle in his eye and enthusiasm for everything about show business and life were definitely passed along to Joe Yule, Jr. (Mickey). I was blessed to be with Mickey socially a few times in the early to late 1950s after we moved to New York to amplify my acting and singing career, but I only worked with him once, when he was a guest on "The Perry Como Show, whereon I was one of The Ray Charles Singers, Perry's backup group. (I'm listed as a soloist on the 1957 Christmas show if you search THE PERRY COMO SHOW on the Internet. It was my only solo performance during my very privileged two-year stint on the show.)
During rehearsals, my Mom, Mickey and I reminisced about his Dad's kindness to me in Finian, followed by Mickey kissing my Mom smack on the lips. She told me afterward she didn't like that little episode, but, regardless, it happened. The last time I was with Mickey to recall the old days was at Northrop Auditorium in the 1980s when he and dancer/actress Ann Miller were in a touring production of "Sugar Babies." I then also met his last wife, Jan, to whom he was married more years than to all previous seven wives combined. She was/is a lovely lady and was a centering force for "The Mick", as he sometimes used to be called.
His spirit was dichotomously infectious and filled with life, but also with pathos, both on and off stage and screen. He was in real life what he portrayed on the screen and stage: the consummately brilliant entertainer who loved entertaining.
SID CAESAR - When people like Mickey pass, it brings a flood of personal memories regarding that era. One of those was watching the comedic brilliance of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard (Howie) Morris every Saturday night in 1952 and 1953 on "Your Show of Shows." Included in the writing team for that show were Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, when the latter was just a teenager. I was a teenager, too (one year younger than Woody), not knowing I'd get to know Woody and Mel (and Carl) much later in life, but that's also another story.
The point of all this is the wonderment I felt every Sunday morning at 7 when I'd walk into the same NBC television theater wherein "Your Show of Shows" was performed the preceding night to begin rehearsals for the show on which I appeared every Sunday evening at 7 (Eastern Time), live. The show was "Mister Peepers," starring Wally Cox and Tony Randall, along with supporting players Marion Lorne, Gage Clark, Reta Shaw and so many others, such as Elaine Stritch, who would guest star.
I portrayed one of the students in "Robinson J. Peepers's classrom" at the fictitious Jefferson Junior High. (Tony Randall named one of his two children Jefferson, in honor of that great television "Junior High" and the show that launched his television and film career.) It was a delightful two years, but I never lost being in awe of who had performed on that same stage the night before, i.e., The RKO Center Theater in Rockefeller Center (which was eventually gutted to create more lucrative office space in that, the RKO Building).
When learning of Sid Caesar's death a few weeks ago, I was reminded that this comedic genius was, in person, as soft-spoken and self-effacing as any human could ever be. He was the antithesis of conceit. I had the privilege to be with him in person only once, witnessing his humility at a press conference in D.C. in 1976. I simply shook his hand and left, but wanted to tell him about our "sharing" the same stage 20-plus years previously. Several years later, in Las Vegas, Imogne Coca, also very humble in person, visited our television station, and I DID have the privilege to relate that "stage-sharing" story. She smiled and said she was glad the memories were pleasant.
UNPLEASANT MEMORIES - Even though I was only a pre-teen at the time, those of us who "lived" World War Two remember being taught, after the war ended in 1945, about Hitler's armies taking over countries because Germans needed more room to live. They called it Lebensraum, or "living room". Their intrusion into Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland was very reminiscent of Russia's inclusion and incursion of Crimea as part of its territory once again, fomenting the takeover via "elections". President Putin's recent comments about ethnic Russians needing to be re-patrioted into Russia, politically and culturally, were almost verbatim to those Hitler uttered in 1938-39, post Munich Pact. My grandfather (on my mother's side of the family) was born in Kiev in 1890, then part of Russia, but still called The Ukraine. He, his siblings and my great-grandfather and great-grandmother escaped the Pogroms of the early 1890s to flee to America. They settled in Pittsburgh, but never forgot their Ukrainian roots. To envision the possibility of another Nazi-like Anschluss occurring should be unthinkable in the 21st century, or any century, ever.
Secretary of State John Kerry is no naive Neville Chamberlain, but if Russia decides to try to pull another Hitler-like takeover of bordering countries, we and others in our corner will need to make some tough, but very necessary, decisions to prevent it from happening all over again. Different player, different century, same sad story.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read my geezer thoughts and memories.
Barry ZeVan is a columnist for KSTP.com.