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Mickey Rooney: A tale of 4 members, 1 photograph, and 2 autographs

Back in October of 2000, Plymouth Owners Club member Barry Cheslock emailed me, writing that he had acquired a 1941 P12 convertible, resplendent in Charlotte Ivory. The car caught the attention of a writer who decided to feature Barry’s car in a syndicated newspaper column on old cars.

I wrote to Barry and congratulated him on having his car appear in the newspaper. Barry has long been the owner of various 1941 Plymouths, but the convertible was the culmination of his collection. Barry asked me an interesting question: Did I remember the photograph featuring Mickey Rooney painting the number 4,000,000 on the windshield of a similar car? Yes, I did. In fact, the photo had been used in my book, Plymouth, 1946-1959. Then Barry asked if it would be possible to get a copy of that photo. “No problem,” was my reply.

At this point, Barry sprang a surprise on me. He stated: “I’ve found Mickey Rooney’s address in California. Do you think if I sent him a copy of the photo that he would autograph it and send it back to me?” Without much hesitation I said it was worth a try, with one addition: there would be two photographs sent for Mr. Rooney to sign, one for Barry and one for me.

I had three copies made of the photo—one for Barry, one for myself, and a third one for Mickey—and shipped them to Barry in Virginia. In turn, he mailed them to Mr. Rooney in California. Months went by without a reply, and then the package arrived, containing the photo of Mickey Rooney standing in the ’41 convertible, smiling broadly as he wielded a brush applying the number 4,000,000 to the windshield.

I wrote about the story in my Benji’s Page column in Plymouth Bulletin 247, including photos of Barry with his ’41 convertible and the autographed 1941 picture. There was just one problem: the title of the column had been overlaid on the top portion of the picture which read “To Jim.” Oh well, the world knew that Barry and I had autographed photos directly from The Man himself.

Or did we? Having read about the dishonesty in the sports world regarding celebrity autographs, I began, out of curiosity, searching eBay for autographed photos of Mr. Rooney. I soon discovered that a lot of signed photos are available… in all forms of handwriting. Still, the photos had been sent directly to him and I had to assume that we had the “real thing.”

Some time later, I got a call from Carl Wegner in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Grand Rapids is home to the Judy Garland festival, the Judy Garland of Wizard of Oz fame. As Mickey had co-starred with Judy in several movies, he had been invited to perform at a theatre in Grand Rapids that summer. Carl thought it would be fun to reunite Mr. Rooney with a real ’41 Plymouth convertible, re-enacting the photo 61 years later, and to get Mickey to autograph the original 1941 photograph, provided I could make copies for Carl and the car owner, fellow club member Roger McLean.

Copies were no problem; but once again extra copies were sent along in hopes that Mr. Rooney would sign them “in the presence of witnesses…”

At this point I’ll let Carl and Roger tell their stories before finishing mine:

Roger’s perception of the Mickey Rooney affair:

In the end, Carl, Roger, and I each ended up with autographed copies of the 1941 photograph, personally witnessed by Carl and Roger as being signed by Mickey. But what of the first photographs that Barry and I had received in the mail?

When Carl and Roger placed the photos on the autographing table, Mickey’s wife Jan grabbed the first one and signed it. As Carl stated, the other photos were spirited away so only Mickey himself would sign the photos. After receiving my copies sent by Carl, I made a comparison with the handwriting on the photos Barry and I had received earlier. It’s obvious, without doing much detective work, that Jan Rooney had signed those first photos. Jan’s handwriting is graceful and readable; Mickey’s is little more than a scrawl.

In the end, I have two photos, one signed by Mrs. Mickey Rooney and the other by Mickey himself, signed in the presence of Carl and Roger as witnesses, so I know I have the “real thing.”

Compare “Mickey’s autograph” on the photograph mailed to Jim Benjaminson with those above, signed in person.

Interested in reading about more historical Plymouths? Visit our main history page or the Plymouth Owners’ Club.

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