Mickey Rooney died last week at age ninety-three. Born on September 23, 1920, he first went on stage at seventeen months and made his first movie when most children his age were just entering grade school. Mickey Rooney's show business career lasted more than ninety years, his movie career nearly as long. In fact, he was the last actor from the silent era to appear in movies of the twenty-first century. An actor in more than 200 movies, a husband of eight women, and doubtlessly a lover of many more, Mickey Rooney said, "I don't regret anything I've ever done. I only wish I could have done more."
Mickey Rooney was born Ninian Joseph Yule, Jr., or Joseph Yule, Jr., or just plain Joe Yule, Jr., in Brooklyn, New York, to a pair of stage performers. Sources disagree as to the name the Yules gave their son. In 1925, Joe's mother took him to Hollywood. He made his movie debut the following year in a short subject called Not To Be Trusted, in which he was credited as Mickey McBan. In 1927, Mickey appeared in his first feature length film, Orchids and Ermine, starring Colleen Moore. Although he was still calling himself Mickey, the young actor had by then acquired a new surname. Billed as Mickey McGuire, he also played a character named Mickey McGuire in Orchids and Ermine. For most of the next seven years, that would be his stage name and the name of his fictional counterpart on the silver screen.
The character played by Joe Yule, Jr., was not the first fictional Mickey McGuire. Joe's Mickey McGuire was preceded by another, a character who was part of the very large and colorful cast of Toonerville Folks, one of the most popular newspaper comics of its day. Also called Toonerville Trolley, Toonerville Folks began in the Chicago Evening Post on February 19, 1910. The cartoonist was Fontaine Fox, Jr. (1884-1964), a Kentuckian by birth but a Hoosier by education, however brief that might have been. Fox attended Indiana University for two years before setting out on his career as a newspaper cartoonist. Landing in Chicago, he began drawing cartoons about the Louisville suburbs he knew in his youth. Those cartoons grew into Toonerville Folks (a title not used until 1916), which was eventually syndicated in more than 300 newspapers. Fox's comic was also adapted to movie shorts and animated cartoons of the 1920s and '30s.
The star of Toonerville Folks--if it isn't the trolley itself--is The Skipper, operator of the Toonerville Trolley That Meets All Trains. The town's residents, every one of them as distinct as the real people they represent, number in the dozens. They include The Powerful Katrinka; The Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang; Grandma, The Demon Chaperone; Aunt Eppie Hogg, Fattest Woman in Three Counties; Uncle "Chew" Wilson, Two-Quid Man; Little Woo-Woo Wortle, Who Has Never Been Spanked; and Uncle "Pegleg" Sanders, the official rattlesnake killer, for, after all, "He don't give a snake much real flesh to strike at!" Also in residence is Mickey McGuire, more properly called Mickey (Himself) McGuire--if you know what's good for you. Mickey is the head of a gang from--literally--the wrong side of the tracks. He's the terror of Toonerville and always spoiling for a fight. Unlike Scut Farkus from The Christmas Story (authored by another Hoosier), Mickey isn't a weak bully--he's just plain tough.
Toonerville Folks was adapted to two series of short subject films in the 1920s and '30s. Dan Mason starred as The Skipper in the first series, which ran for nine episodes released in 1921-1922 and ostensibly written by Fontaine Fox. The character Mickey (Himself) McGuire is not listed by the Internet Movie Database (IMdB) as being in that series. However, Mickey played a lead role in the second Toonerville series, produced by Larry Darmour from 1927 to 1934. The star of that series was the young actor Mickey McGuire, better known to us as Mickey Rooney.
It isn't clear to me that The Skipper or the Toonerville Trolley played very significant roles in the second Toonerville series. Larry Darmour, the producer, may have had something else in mind in trying to compete with Hal Roach's very popular Our Gang series. In any case, the Mickey McGuire films came to an end in 1934. By then, Joe Yule, Jr., was known to millions as Mickey McGuire. You couldn't have blamed him for wanting to hold onto the name. "Mickey McGuire" was Fontaine Fox's property however, and after a successful lawsuit, it remained his. The young actor, then still in his teens, would have to find another stage name. And that's how Joe Yule, Jr., better known in his youth as Mickey McGuire, became Mickey Rooney.
Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley