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Wednesday, 13 September 2006 00:00

Putting on a show: Mickey and Jan Rooney come to WCU’s Fine and Performing Arts Center Sept. 17 for a night of songs, reminiscences and jazz

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By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Mickey Rooney.

Chances are that if you’re into classic Hollywood you’ve seen at least one of his films, and even if you’re not, well you probably know the name. Pretty much everybody does.

And there’s a reason. Rooney is the recipient of an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, a five-time Oscar nominee, five-time nominee and one-time Emmy winner, and also boasts two Golden Globe Awards.

“I’ve made 250 pictures, more than anyone else in Hollywood,” Rooney said last week in a phone interview from California.

But for all his success, Rooney hasn’t been above a little self-doubt. Classic Hollywood is a thing of the past, and with the changing times and a little age — Rooney turns 86 Sept. 23 — the famous actor faced the possibility of having become outdated.

“He had a thing that he thought he was all washed up,” said Rooney’s wife, Jan. “I don’t think he particularly was used to the way they were doing things in the new world.”

And so with an entrepreneurial spirit, Rooney and Jan simply decided to do things their own way. The couple teamed up, Jan having long been a singer who was first recognized for her Patsy Cline-like voice, and began putting together a show that drew from Rooney’s stories about old Hollywood, movies, and jokes. The show kicked off in Australia and after several re-workings and the incorporation of Rooney’s work with Judy Garland developed into a full-fledged stage piece that ran for five weeks Off-Broadway.

“Gleaned from 81 years of show biz memories, a non-stop cavalcade of heartfelt anecdotes pours out, classic songs (backed by a three-man combo), cornball jokes (“I’ve been married so many times ...”) and film clips that range from ‘National Velvet’ to ‘The Black Stallion,’” read a Hollywood Reporter review. “Along the way, the Brooklyn native recalls everything from his short-lived marriage to Ava Gardner and lifelong friendship with Judy Garland to his World War II service and earning of a Bronze Star — never mind an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody. Throw in some slick piano work and dead-on impressions of Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and Lionel Barrymore.”

Rooney and Jan will perform “Let’s Put on a Show,” at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17 as part of Western Carolina University’s Fine and Performing Arts Center’s Legends on Stage Series.

While Rooney and Jan have worked together on stage before, the show is the first work that has taken on “book” or scripted form, making it something that can be performed over and over. “Let’s Put on a Show” has taken the couple to the United Kingdom, giving Jan her first experience working on the English stage and the two a chance to tour together.

“We get along so much better now that he’s not on the road so much,” Jan said.

For years, Jan said, she put her own career on hold raising two sons and pushing Rooney to take work such as the nostalgic review “Sugar Babies” with Ann Miller on Broadway in 1979 — one of several works Rooney didn’t originally want to do, Jan said.

“The one thing I couldn’t get him to do was ‘Dances With Wolves,” Jan said. “I think we both regret that now.”

But over the years, the public appreciation for Rooney and his work has remained rewarding.

“We treasure every minute when we hear the people’s applause,” Jan said. “That mean’s you touched someone’s heart strings. That keeps you going.”

Currently Rooney is working on a new film, “Night at the Museum” with Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais and Dick Van Dyke to be released Dec. 22. In the film the museum artifacts come to life.

“It’s a big one,” Rooney said.

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