Jan and Mickey Rooney in Let's Put On A Show!(Photo © Judie Burstein/Globe Photos)
Jan and Mickey Rooney in Let's Put On A Show!
(Photo © Judie Burstein/Globe Photos)
Was Mickey Rooney the 20th century's most talented entertainer? A good case can be made that he at least deserves a slot among the top 10. Rooney could do almost anything the show-biz traffic allowed -- and, as the son of vaudevillians, he did it from an impossibly early age. By the time he was in his teens and had changed his name from Joe Yule Jr. to Mickey McGuire to Mickey Rooney, he could sing, dance, act, play piano and drums and whatever, and do impressions of MGM colleagues like Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore. For a handful of years in the '30s and early '40s, he embodied the freshness and enthusiasm of American youth. He was a one-man industry.

According to what he has to say about himself in Let's Put On A Show!, cutely named after a line of dialogue that he spoke in more than one of his flicks, Rooney generated 55 percent of MGM's hefty revenues in 1940. That figure may or may not be accurate; he gets a few other facts wrong in the nightclub act that he's brought to the Irish Rep, in which he appears with his (eighth) wife, Jan. Where does he err? Well, he says that Words and Music was released in 1949 (it was 1948), and he talks about doing Sugar Babies with Anne Jeffreys (it was, of course, Ann Miller). These are forgivable lapses. And it's not the worst thing in the world that, at one press preview, Rooney did the entire first half of the show -- which is heavy on autobiographical info and old footage -- with his tuxedo incorrectly buttoned. But it was rather embarrassing that, in the second half of the same performance, he kept fiddling with his bow tie; it had become loose and a crackling noise was heard every time he tried to adjust it because his body mike was attached to it.

These gaffes are being made by the man who danced and sang alongside Judy Garland and was perhaps fueled by the same amphetamines, yet has survived to 84 (his birthday is coming up on September 23); the man who played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and received an Oscar nomination for similar horse-training duties in 1979's The Black Stallion; the man who won a 1982 Emmy for Bill and should have won a 1979 Tony for Sugar Babies. It's to his credit that he still possesses the same compulsion to perform that was behind the Andy Hardy joie de vivre, but the fact is that he now speak-sings his ditties and repeatedly raises his arms mechanically as if to embrace the auditorium.

If Rooney's compulsion to get up in front of an audience is completely understandable, must an audience encourage or indulge him when he's in such poor condition? I'm writing here as one of Rooney's great admirers. Those who admire him as much as I do should think seriously about avoiding this opportunity to ogle him and to venture to the counter where he autographs items after the show, as if a West 22nd theater lobby is a Las Vegas lounge.

For much of the outing, I was slinking down in my seat, hoping that what my idol called "a long show" would end soon. I slunk my lowest during the segments wherein the Rooneys, now married for over 25 years, shared the stage. Here, Rooney clung to the missus in the way that a shy child clings to his mother in a bustling crowd. The couple were delivering lame patter that they've written themselves about how they met and how Jan didn't want to go out with him initially. (Mickey had already outlined first wife Ava Gardner's repeated demurrals before she finally capitulated.) Bantering and warbling supposedly germane tunes like "Smile" and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" to arrangements by musical director Sam Kriger, the pair seemed committed to one another but not particularly affectionate; it took Jan Rooney quite a while to notice her husband's bow-tie battle, and when she did, her attempts to help him anchor the damned thing seemed something of an imposition to her because his confusion was distracting from her rendition of "Smile."

A word or two ought to be said about Jan Rooney's talents, which are as much like her husband's as down is like up. Although she has a strong voice -- strongest when she's churning out a Patsy Cline song ("I Got to Pieces," "Crazy") rather than tootling the Gershwins -- she has little idea how to act a song. Often, she smiles inappropriately, like a participant in a Miss Tiny Tyke contest. In her glittery pants ensemble, she makes odd gestures and generally overstays her welcome.

In a stab at saving the best for last, Rooney waves the wife off and launches into a reminiscence of his M-G-M/Garland days. They were great times, as the myriad film clips that he sets before us only begin to attest. Those talent-abundant days extended to 1963, when the spectacular team reunited on Garland's ill-fated television series. Yes, Mickey and Judy made great memories together -- and Rooney made many great film, stage, and television memories on his own. Better for them not to be tainted with sad memories of this formula enterprise; let's put off the show.