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Mickey Rooney: America’s Favorite Actor Steals the Show at FDR’s Birthday Party

Portrait of young Mickey Rooney, 1938.
Rex Hardy Jr. —The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Portrait of young Mickey Rooney, 1938.

Two photos, made decades apart, capture Mickey Rooney's appeal: the sweet kid who could be tough as nails; and the inveterate goofball.

Mickey Rooney, who died one year ago at 93, grew up on stage and on the big screen — appearing before an audience for the first time when he was less than two years old, with his parents in their vaudeville act. Few American actors of any era were as well-known to as many generations of moviegoers as the pint-sized kid from Brooklyn with the outsized talent — and the energy to match.

To get a sense of how popular Rooney was as a young actor, one need look no further than the Feb. 12, 1940, issue of LIFE, when the magazine ran an article titled, “America’s Favorite Movie Actor Steals the Show at President’s Birthday Ball.” This was the scene, as LIFE reported it to the weekly’s millions of readers:

Toward midnight of Jan. 30, in the jam-packed ballroom of Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, Major Ernest W. Brown, District of Columbia police chief, saw judge Fay Bentley of the District Juvenile Court climb up on a chair and peer eagerly over the crowd. Gallantly he asked if he could be of assistance to her.

“No, no!” cried Judge Bentley. I just want to see Mickey Rooney.”

At 19, Mickey Rooney ranks as America’s favorite movie star. . . . Last week, with 17 other Hollywood celebrities, he went to Washington to help [President Roosevelt celebrate his birthday.] Clowning, mugging, kissing, lap-sitting and otherwise exhibiting his screen personality (he is subdued and gentlemanly at home), Rooney easily stole the Washington show.

The photos here, above and below, capture something of Rooney’s appeal: the sweet kid who, at times, could be tough as nails; and the inveterate goofball who seemed to get as much pleasure out of his kooky personae as did the audiences who, for eight decades, made him one of Hollywood’s most enduring stars.

Mickey Rooney during shooting of the movie, "The Bridges at Toko-Ri," 1954.
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