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July 31, 2014

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Mickey Rooney, decades-long fixture in Las Vegas, dead at age 93

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Frank Micelotta / Invision for Academy of Television Arts & Sciences / AP

Mickey Rooney attends the Governors Ball after the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theater on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013, in Los Angeles.

Mickey Rooney Dies at 93

Actor, singer and dancer Mickey Rooney is shown in this undated photo. Launch slideshow »

In Las Vegas, Mickey Rooney loved the ladies – he married eight of them including actress Ava Gardner at the Little Church of the West on the Strip – as well as swilling booze, abusing drugs and shooting craps.

Rooney’s devotion to Las Vegas’s more colorful lifestyle choices nearly put him in the poor house as Rooney found no lasting success – not with love, not with imbibing alcohol and not at the green-felt gaming tables.

The 5-foot-3, pie-faced raspy voiced actor, perhaps remembered best for his Andy Hardy movies, saw all of his eight Las Vegas marriages end badly – six in divorce, one in murder and his last in separation. Also, Rooney’s drinking and bad luck with the dice put him in bankruptcy court, as he wound up in the 1960s owing the Internal Revenue Service $1.75 million.

But, when Rooney hit the stages at the Flamingo , Riviera , Dunes, Sahara, Stardust, Caesars Palace and other venerable resorts with his longtime song-and-dance and comedic act, he attained legendary status that equaled – and in some cases surpassed –his brilliant and acclaimed work in Hollywood films, television and on Broadway.

Rooney, a star childhood actor with the boy-next-door look who won an honorary Oscar, an Emmy and two Golden Globes, died Sunday after several months of illness. He was 93.

Rooney used to say of his visits to Las Vegas specifically to get married, that he was the only man in the world whose licenses from the Clark County Marriage Bureau read “to whom it may concern.”

His marriage record: actress Ava Gardner (1942-43), Betty Jane Rase (1944-49), Martha Vickers (1949-51), Elaine Devry (1952-58), Barbara Ann Thompson (1958-66), Marge Lane (1966-67), Carolyn Hockett (1969-75) and Jan Chamberlin (1978-2012, when they were separated).

Rooney and Rase had sons Mickey Jr., in 1945 and Tim in 1947. Rooney and Vickers had son Theodore in 1950. Rooney and Thompson had children Kelly in 1959, Kerry in 1960, Michael in 1962 and Kimmy in 1963. Rooney adopted Hockett’s son Jimmy (born in 1966) from a previous marriage and the couple had a daughter Jonelle in 1970. Tim Rooney died in 2006.

Asked in an interview if he would marry any or all his eight wives again, Rooney said, "Absolutely. I loved every one of them." Of the way he felt after marrying the beautiful Gardner, Rooney once said at the time he was “6 feet 4 inches tall.”

Still, one has to wonder just how seriously Rooney took marriage. He was almost late for his September 1966 wedding with Marge Lane because Rooney was mesmerized in front of a television set in a lounge at the Desert Inn watching the Cassius Clay vs. Karl Mildenberger heavyweight boxing match.

Rooney reportedly had to be pulled away from the television set 15 minutes before the service was to begin at the Little Church of the West. Almost immediately after the wedding, Rooney left for a lengthy performing tour of Australia – without Lane. The marriage to Lane, not surprisingly, lasted only 100 days.

Rooney, though not a Las Vegas resident, has been a fixture in the neon desert oasis since the 1940s, when he was a regular visitor to the Boulderado Dude Ranch in North Las Vegas.

Rooney headlined the Flamingo just a few years after mobster Bugsy Siegel built the resort. In 1955 Rooney spilt his performance time between the Dunes and Riviera hotels.

On the Jan. 14, 1962, episode of the “Ed Sullivan Show” on CBS emanating from the old Stardust hotel, Rooney appeared on the bill with singer Patti Page and comedian Rip Taylor. In 1964, Rooney was performing at the Sahara Hotel. His familiar voice can be heard on Tony Bennett’s “Live at the Sahara” album, which was recorded that year.

At that point in his career, Rooney was pulling down $20,000 a week performing at Strip resorts. But by his own admission, his alcohol consumption was taking a serious toll on him and he was losing at least twice that amount each week at the craps tables and betting on horse races.

The murder in 1966 of his fifth wife Barbara sent Rooney spinning into a deep state of depression, including drug abuse and increased alcohol consumption. Still, he continued to perform before large and adoring Vegas crowds.

In 1968, Rooney appeared at Caesars Palace with Tony Randall in the Neil Simon play “The Odd Couple,” with Randall reprising his TV role as fusspot neat freak photographer Felix Unger and Rooney taking on the part of the sloppy sportswriter Oscar Madison.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Rooney was a top attraction at the Sahara and started to rebuild his fortune by giving up alcohol, drugs and excessive gambling. He credited his turnaround to having found God and joining the Church of Religious Science in 1975.

In December 1996, Rooney did a retrospective of his career by sharing memories and telling jokes in a show at the Gold Coast. Rooney again headlined at the Sahara in June of 2000.

When not performing in Las Vegas, Rooney enjoyed taking in local shows to support other entertainers. In 2010, Rooney went to the Mirage to watch ventriloquist Terry Fator perform. After the show, Rooney was invited backstage to chat with the modern Las Vegas star.

Aside from Las Vegas, Rooney had a memorable career in the movies, television and on stage.

Rooney was said to be the only surviving actor to appear in silent films and continue to act in movies during the 21st century. His film debut was in the movie “Not to Be Trusted” (1926) at age 4.

As the seemingly eternal teenager, he played the role of Andy Hardy in 20 films of the 1930s and ‘40s. He starred with a young Elizabeth Taylor in the 1944 movie “National Velvet,” but Rooney has said his favorite film performance was in another equine film, “The Black Stallion” (1979).

On television, Rooney was the voice of Kris Kringle in the animated show “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Rooney was considered for the role of the acerbic bigot Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” in 1971 and won his Emmy for his lead role in the 1981 television movie “Bill.”

He was nominated for Broadway's 1980 Tony Award as Best Actor for the musical “Sugar Babies.”

Rooney has four Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – for motion pictures, television, radio and live theater.

Born Joseph Yule Jr., on Sept. 23, 1920, the son of a Vaudeville couple, Rooney appeared for the first time on stage before he was 2 years old.

During World War II he served nearly two years in the Army, including a stint in the Third Army of Gen. George Patton. Rooney attained the rank of sergeant and earned a Bronze Star.

After the war, Rooney resumed his acting career that continued until his death. According to the IMDb website, Rooney had three films in pre-production at the time of his death.

In addition to playing Andy Hardy, a young Rooney also appeared in the reoccurring film role of Mickey McGuire.

As he grew into adulthood, Rooney starred in musicals alongside Judy Garland. Their films included “Strike Up the Band,” “Girl Crazy” and “Babes in Arms.” His “Babes” role at age 19 landed him an Academy Award nomination for a leading actor role – the first teenager in history to achieve that honor.

Rooney’s other films of note included “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the 2011 comedy “The Muppets.”

Rooney underwent double heart bypass surgery in 2000.

A longtime conservative Republican, Rooney in recent years supported Democratic President Barack Obama.

Rooney’s survivors include his children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Ed Koch is a former longtime Las Vegas Sun reporter.

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