Mickey Rooney's '80s Comeback Tied to Dad's Burlesque Days

Mickey Rooney's '80s Comeback Tied to Dad's Burlesque Days

After Mickey Rooney hit the big time at MGM, he was “embarrassed” by his father, burlesque comedian Joseph Yule, Sr., according to producer Ewing Miles “Lucky” Brown, an old friend of the Hollywood legend.

Brown recently reminisced about his old friend “Mick,” who died April 6, age 93, at the actor’s home in North Hollywood.

The peripatetic Rooney was Hollywood’s “most talented” star in the ’40s, Cary Grant famously said, only to hit rock bottom in the ’60s and climb back in the ’80s thanks to a show inspired by his father.

He was born Joseph Yule, Jr. on September 23, 1920 in a Brooklyn tenement to a mother and father, Nell Carter and Joseph Yule, Sr., who made their living on the burlesque circuit–Nell dancing in a chorus line, Joseph, playing a lead comic on second-tier circuits.

They brought their son on stage before he was two and separated by the time he was four–splitting their $40 in savings. Lucky met Mickey around 1926-27, when both were six. Lucky’s family were Hollywood founders. His relatives built Brunton Studio, at Melrose and Gower, in 1917, selling it to Paramount in 1926; his Uncle Jack Neal was MGM vice president for foreign distribution; and his father was doctor to the stars.

According to Lucky, the two acted together for a while in Our Gang, produced by Hal Roach and financed by MGM. (At one point Roach became his own distributor; so MGM began producing The Little Rascals, which became Hal Roach’s Little Rascals upon his return.) 

Lucky played the rick kid, “Stinky” for six months or so.  (As he likes to say, “I didn’t have lots of talent, just lots of relatives.”) Mickey played the tough kid, known as “Mickey Yule,” later “Mickey Maguire,” who wore a battered derby hat and chomped on a big cigar.

The series, based on Fontaine Fox’s comic strip Toonerville Trolley, used actors’ own names, as in Mickey Yule.

Of course, it’s more commonly, though not exclusively, reported that the Mickey Maguires, an Our Gang competitor, were distributed by RKO Radio Pictures–Rooney’s mother having passed on Roach’s $5 offer. But Lucky remembers meeting Mickey and hanging out with him on the MGM lot, doing some two-reelers, with scenes in the school house–whether in Our Gang, the Mickey Maguires or perhaps some other iteration–and that’s good enough for me.

“In those days, burlesque meant comics: movies, plays, musicals, whatever–skits,” said Lucky. When Mickey signed with MGM in 1935, as “Mickey Rooney” (Mickey Maguire was a copyrighted name), Mickey’s father Joseph Yule, Sr., got a job at the Burbank Burlesque House down on Main Street–the marquee announcing, “Mickey Rooney’s Father, Joe Yule starring in…”

So, Mickey went right down there and said, “Dad, you can’t do this.” So they put him under contract for $150 a week, said Lucky. “I think he was earning $100 a week at the burlesque house and he said, ‘Where do I sign?'” 

Initially, they put him in lowlier roles, e.g., bartender, street cleaner, stagehand, elevator operator, and the like. He finally landed the starring role in the Jiggs and Maggie film series (1946-1950).When his father died in 1950, Mickey and his friend (a fellow musician in his films, whom Mickey was living with then, he was so poor), went over to his house in North Hollywood, and “they were going through his belongings,” said Lucky.

“And, they see this big old chest of drawers–file cabinets, ex-military. And, they were sitting, reading stuff they’d pulled out of the drawers,” said Lucky.And, suddenly his friend starts laughing uproariously. “And, Mickey says, ‘What’s so funny?’ And he says, ‘This stuff from your father’s old act.’ And, they went through it and the guy said to him, ‘Mickey, this stuff–I can put a show together.'”

Well, Lucky said to Mickey, as he’s telling him this story, “Boy does that sound familiar.” Of course, many of Mickey’s films, starting with Babes in Arms, and including the Andy Hardy series of films, were variations on the “Let’s put on a show” plot line.Only this was real.

Sugar Babies–a paean to his father’s burlesque era–debuted on October 8, 1979 to warm reviews. It was a fast-paced and engagingly funny show that ended with a patriotic number performed by a red, white and blue-clad company surrounding Ann Miller as the Statue of Liberty. After 1,208 performances and many more warm reviews, it closed on August 28, 1982.

One time when Mickey was in town during the 2nd National Tour of the show in 1984 and 1985, which reunited Rooney and Miller, Lucky got together with his friend for lunch, and didn’t mince words:

“You know,” he said. “You were ashamed of your father because he was burlesque. But, he reached out from the grave and grabbed you and put you back on top–his material. Right out of the grave that hand came out and took you from broke to a big star, again. You ought to be proud of Joe Yule.'”

The last time Lucky saw his friend was at longtime Paramount producer A.C. Lyles’ funeral on November 11, 2013. “And, he was down to 5 feet. He had just shrunk. I said ‘Hi, Mick.’ And, he looked at me and no recognition. And a friend came over and said, ‘It’s Lucky–Stinky, you know the rich kid.’ We were put together over the years, but he was not with us anymore. And, I came home and broke down and cried like a baby.”

For someone like Lucky who knew what it was like when Hollywood was a small town with a close-knit family feel, one can’t help but weep. But out of the ashes will surely come another glorious day.

Mary Claire Kendall is currently writing a book about legends of Hollywood, focused on stories of recovery, for publication in 2015.