Funny Man on the Front Lines
A top box office draw in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mickey Rooney’s star began flickering on Vaudeville stages at the age of 17 months as part of his parents’ routine. By age 5, his parents had separated and he moved with his mother to Hollywood, California.
Born Joseph Yule, Jr. on September 23, 1920, Rooney’s career got a boost when his mother answered an ad looking for a dark-haired child to play Mickey McGuire in silent films based on the Tooterville Trolly comic strip. He completed 78 films between 1927 and 1936, and was credited as Mickey McGuire until 1932 so producers could claim it was his real name and avoid paying royalties. It was then that his mother changed his name to Mickey Looney. The moniker didn’t stick, but Mickey Rooney became a legend. His career took off when he starred with Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” and continued its upward trajectory with roles opposite Judy Garland and Spencer Tracy in the late 1930s.
But soon, the country’s focus was on the war overseas. In 1944, Rooney joined the Army, serving as a broadcaster for the American Forces Network and participating in jeep tours that took entertainment to troops on the front lines. According to his citation, Rooney was awarded the Bronze Star with clusters for entertaining troops under fire. In recounting his ordeal for the BBCs WW2 People’s War project, British soldier Thomas Emyr Davies of the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment remembered stumbling across one of Rooney’s shows as he and fellow escaped POWs worked their way from American camp to American camp.
“On one occasion, we arrived at a base one evening to find a mass of jubilant and excited G.I.s packed tightly around an open stage that had been erected especially for the purpose of putting on a concert where Mickey Rooney was doing his song and dance routine, his antics sending them crazy with delight,” Davies said.
Rooney hasn’t stopped believing in or supporting the United States or its troops. In 2008, he served as the honorary marshal representing World War II in the 2008 National Memorial Day Parade. In a video message recorded for the event he encouraged Americans to remember that Memorial Day is, “not just a day. It’s a day to remember our fallen heroes… and to let the children of America know how important that is.”