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He Put on a Show: A Memory of Mickey Rooney

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MICKEY ROONEY
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Today we're not just saying goodbye to one of the greatest screen legends of all time. We're saying goodbye to an era that, like most of our past, is quickly dissolving into the soft, fragile liquid haze of memory mist that so many of our dreams are made of.

Mickey Rooney was not just a star. He was one of the grand, anointed MGM stars whose constellation featured the greatest talent ever assembled on any soundstage. Movies, once upon a time, were not about just about heroics, pyrotechnics and special effects. They were a lush fantasy escape from the every day rigors of war and depression all housed and projected onto the screens of outsized metropolis cathedrals.

They reinforced our faith in man, in ourselves and reminded us of our common decency. Love was not only possible, it was eminently reachable in a mere two hours.

Happy endings weren't just imagined, they were achieved and most of all expected. Movies were the definition of optimism and unbridled joy.

Movies used to come as regularly as trains and always in A and B pairs, with a few cartoons thrown into the mix for fun. It was the only place where darkness was neither feared nor final. We sat together to watch giant images of Edison-invented, incandescent flickering light that delighted us like an enthralled circus tent crowd.

It was optimism with popcorn.

It was the grand scale reading of three dimensional fairy tales that lulled and respected us, taught us, even. It was new technology church where our prayers actually worked on demand.

We didn't just project film, we projected ourselves onto those giant screens and just like that we were high in the saddle, or flying in the air, or lost in the arms of the most beautiful people on the planet.

Movies supercharged us, made us feel important, sexy and adored. Understood. It was like walking into a giant dictionary that defined each and every one of us with each and every word of dialogue.

Passion was the steel and software of the once upon a time movie. Our lives were magnified to the size of Oz and everyone we met appeared to us like a God. And yet, there we met everymen named Deeds and Smith, cliff-hanging superheroes like Zorro and Superman -- but most of all we met stars, glittering luminaries who quickly became our handsome and beautiful surrogate and cherished parents.

We could relax in those rich velvety movies seats that not surprisingly rocked us like cradles, because we felt completely safe and secure in there because the price of a ticket guaranteed that virtually every single aspect of our lives would be re-calibrated and corrected by those wonderful, bigger-than-life characters whose pretend existence somehow mirrored our own very real one.

All we had to do was sit by and watch, armed with nothing more than a small box of Raisinettes, as obstacles were obliterated, faith and order was restored and love conquered all.

And unless you happen to catch a glimpse of yourself in the lobby mirrors on the way out, (which is why we always rush out quickly) you felt every bit as powerful and beautiful as any one of those stars as you drifted home on that magic carpet ride that was carefully stitched together with the fine, golden thread of your own imagination.

We often raced our way into our bedclothes because that night's dream to come was a part of the show that wasn't quite finished yet. We got to drift off, like candles on rafts along the calmest of shores, and watch the film again, only this time, we got to be the stars in the cinema of our hearts.

Movies were, once upon a time, very personal things for each and every one of us whose stories and stars whispered to us as softly and lovingly as our mommies and daddies who knew just how to tuck us in at night.

Movies whispered to us and we heard them loud and clear, because we were engaged by their subtext. We participated with them, like magician assistants, in order to facilitate the illusion and it did not matter if we knew how the trick was done because all that mattered was that the trick was being performed for us and it made us feel mutually evolved and adored.

So it is with great sadness that I say my goodbye to Mickey Rooney as he is one of the last bridges that connected us directly to the world of once upon a time. Who is left? Olivia De Havilland comes to mind. Louise Rainer. Forgive me if I've forgotten the few that remain here on Earth.

The hardest part of growing old is watching your many Kings and Queens not only disappear but be forgotten, erased like casual, classroom mistakes. Who is Bob Hope today? Johnny Carson? Sid Casear? Chaplin? Mickey Rooney?

As each and every giant falls, we are reminded of our own mortality and the loss becomes consistently unbearable and sad.

But the truth is, the impact that they had on us will never diminish, as they are enshrined in the soft clay of our souls which are as every bit as permanent as the hands and feet imprints that sit like statues in the cement blocks in front of Graumann's Chinese Theater.

I will never forget the sound of Al Jolson/Larry Parks singing to Julie Benson from his Broadway in The Jolson Story. I will never forget the lyrical sound of Hepburn's royal New England cadence or Puck/Mickey Rooney's final epitaph in the beyond magical Midsummer's Night Dream. Like the line in Penny Lane: they are all in my ears and in my eyes. So perhaps we should end with that speech, which seems to sum up everything that needs to be said... and felt:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to 'scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.