Root­ing for Rooney

Who bet­ter to fete the ef­fu­sive ac­tor than Tom LaBonge?

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - By Nita Lelyveld nita.lelyveld@la­times.com Twit­ter: @la­timesc­i­ty­beat

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.”

Pho­tog raphs by Christina House For The Times

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.

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