Rooting for Rooney
Who better to fete the effusive actor than Tom LaBonge?
What could be more fitting, on the first day of his last month in office, than for City Councilman Tom LaBonge to be doing what he loves, standing in the cacophony of Los Angeles’ present, taking a moment to commemorate its past?
The L.A. native long has turned the big city small-town — with proclamations, commendations, ceremonies galore.
Monday morning, he had come to the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Orange Drive to rename it Mickey Rooney Memorial Square.
A cement truck bumped past, followed by a car hauler and a city bus. Frustrated drivers leaned on their horns. LaBonge, who spoke in front of an Off Broadway Shoe Warehouse across from Hollywood High School, practically had to shout to be heard.
“On behalf of the great principal of Hollywood High, Alejandra Sanchez, all principals past, all students past, I say good morning!”
At which six young people took center stage and burst into song: “Good morning, good morning, we’ve danced the whole night through. Good morning, good morning to you!”
So began a medley of numbers from Rooney movies.
“I like New York in June, how about you?” slid into “Embraceable You,” which bounced into “I Got Rhythm,” which flowed seamlessly into a classic LaBonge variety show — in an exuberant oratorical scat style all his own.
LaBonge praised Hollywood High, naming famous graduates Judy Garland, Laurence Fishburne, Ricky Nelson. Carol Burnett went there, he said, and he’d given her a square too. He threw in a shout-out to his alma mater, Marshall High.
He called Sanchez up to speak, as well as a surprised, blushing city traffic engineer. Then he somehow linked them together.
“I’m graduating in 30 days from the City Council, and I can’t go back,” LaBonge said to the principal. “So I want to thank Jeannie Shin and all the team from the Department of Trans- portation for all the signs that they made, including this special one for Mickey Rooney.”
Rooney died last year at 93. Kelly Rooney, one of his nine children, had come for the naming ceremony, along with granddaughter Dominique Rooney.
“Through this memorial, my dad will never be forgotten,” Kelly Rooney said. “Isn’t it great that this square is right across the street from Hollywood High School?”
LaBonge told her he liked to ask people where they went to high school.
“When I find out that people go to Los Angeles high schools — Mickey Rooney and all those others we mentioned — that tells you how special this town is,” he said. “And he made it special because he was one of the oldest, 93,and I got to see him at Musso & Frank’s a few years ago. And there’s nobody like your father. But the role that he played as an actor — the song and dance, all that work — will live forever and ever like these great palms on Sunset Boulevard.”
Two actresses who had appeared with Rooney spoke next, their elegant lilts reminiscent of Golden Age movie dialogue.
Margaret O’Brien, dressed to the nines in zebra-pattern pumps, first appeared with Rooney in 1941’s “Babes on Broadway,” when she was little more than a toddler. “Mickey was such a dear friend of mine. He’s the only person in the world that I allowed to call me Maggie,” she said.
When LaBonge asked where she’d gone to high school, O’Brien said she’d had a private tutor, but “I dated some cute boys from Hollywood High.”
“Good job. Were they always polite?” LaBonge asked.
Marsha Hunt talked about the pranks Rooney played on the set of the 1943 film “The Human Comedy.” It would be time to shoot, and no one could find him because he was hiding in a tree. He wrote funny songs too, she said, including one called, “I have tears in my ears from lying on my back and crying my eyes out over you.”
“Mickey lived with the joy of being alive, and somehow it was contagious,” Hunt said.
There were similarities between the man being honored and the man leading the ceremony — both broadcheeked, effusive and often goofy, both in their ways prolific.
Rooney made more than 300 movies. LaBonge events like this one over the years surpass that number. In fact, his critics say he has spent too little time on big issues and too much on the small stuff — from potholes to proclamations.
As for the latter, LaBonge was unapologetic Monday.
He had just unveiled a street sign that read: “Mickey Rooney Memorial Square: Hollywood High alum, Oscar winner, veteran, musician & one of the world’s greatest entertainers.” He’d left Rooney’s relatives smiling, and engaged in the kind of city boosterism that once lured trains full of dreamers out West.
“It makes the blood flow. It makes the people feel good. It makes it the City of Angels when we honor the people who went before us,” he said as he headed to his car. “It’s about celebrating the city. If you don’t celebrate, you don’t want to get up in the morning, and I like to get up in the morning.”
MICKEY ROONEY’S daughter holds his portrait during the dedication of Mickey Rooney Memorial Square on Sunset Boulevard and Orange Drive. The site is near Hollywood High School, which the late actor attended.
TOM LABONGE helps reveal the Rooney memorial sign, one of many celebrations the councilman has held in his years in office.