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

by Jim Benjaminson, Copyrighted by the Plymouth Bulletin. Reprinted by permission.

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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.

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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:

Meeting Mickey Rooney (by Carl Wegner)

The 2002 Festival was to also feature actresses June Allyson and Margaret O'Brien. Mickey Rooney co-starred in many Judy Garland films, including Boys' Town, the Andy Hard
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y films, National Velvet, and Midsummer Night's Dream. As usual, there would be opportunities to meet and mingle with the Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. The 2002 Festival was scheduled to be a big event, drawing thousands of Judy Garland fans from all over the world to this small Northern Minnesota town. ... That's when the idea struck me: Would it be possible to replicate the 1941 event and get a picture of Mickey Rooney in a 1941 convertible with the same pose, same smile…everything, 61 years later? Expectations ran high.

My first contact was with John Kelsch, chairman of the 2002 Festival. I asked John whether my idea had any possibility of happening and he said, yes, that he could probably arrange a meeting and photo opportunity. Boy, now I was really fired up!

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I called Roger McLean, a Tall Pines Region member from Duluth. He volunteered to bring his '41 convertible for the picture: "Just name the time and place." I talked with several other people about my plan, including Jim Benjaminson, who sent me four unsigned copies of the original 7x10-inch promotional picture of Mickey in the 1941 convertible and asked if I would try to get Mickey to autograph them.

My next meeting with John was somewhat disappointing, as he mentioned that there had been some problems with setting up a meeting with Mickey. Having had many difficulties with airline scheduling and accommodations, he didn't feel comfortable imposing on Mickey at that time. But he said he would try to get something arranged. I felt that John was tactfully telling me that someone had said no, it wasn't going to happen. I was realizing that this is an opportunity that just doesn't happen every day. Mickey Rooney would be in town and a '41 convertible would be only 80 miles away, so I needed to make every effort to cause this to happen.

I met again with John. This time I showed him the picture of Mickey in the four-millionth Plymouth and the Bulletin articles, emphasizing the historical value of a re-enacted photo as well as the interest expressed by members of the Plymouth Owners Club. His response was that Mickey was to be staying at a private estate on a local lake and had indicated that his entourage was not to be disturbed. John suggested that my best chance of success was to try catching Mickey at the stage entrance before his scheduled 3:00PM Saturday matinee performance with his wife, Jan.
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Knowing we had only this one opportunity, I called Roger and asked if he would still be willing to drive to Grand Rapids, even if it might become a wild goose chase. Roger said he'd be at my place at 1:00 pm. Right on time, Roger and his friend Marian arrived. We had some refreshments and departed for Grand Rapids, planning to arrive before Mickey and Jan got there.

We decided we would park the convertible, top down, and be ready to do some fancy talking when Mickey and his wife arrived. I was told that they would probably arrive early to get ready for the performance and to avoid possible crowds.

At 2:00 PM, Roger, Marian and I arrived at the stage entrance. A few other cars were there but it was pretty quiet. Roger parked his convertible away from the modern cars; I parked my '41 coupe nearby. During this time it began to rain pretty hard and Roger had to put up the convertible's top.

At 2:50 pm, a Jeep Cherokee arrived at the entrance, and out jumped Mickey's son John, his wife Jan, and, finally, Mickey Rooney himself. They quickly unloaded some bags and headed for the building. I cut them off at the pass, so to speak, introduced myself, and asked if they had the time to let Mickey have his picture taken with a 1941 Plymouth convertible.

Mickey's initial response was: "I don't have my picture taken with old cars." This was when I took out the original 7x10 of Mickey taken in 1941 and expressed our desire to duplicate the event.

Mickey's son John was very helpful in convincing Mickey that he should take some time for a picture and Mickey agreed to spend a minute or two with us. It was still raining, though lightly, so the pictures we got with Mickey do not include him standing in Roger's convertible, but at least we got some pictures.

Mickey and Jan put on an excellent show consisting of comedy, music, and a lot of reminiscing about his first seven wives, his movies, Judy Garland, and his life in general. Following the show, John, Jan and Mickey set up a souvenir table from which they sold photos, tapes and other items. About 100 people lined up to buy pictures of Mickey and have Jan and Mickey sign them. After about an hour, I got in line and took out the pictures that Jim Benjaminson had asked me to get signed. John was passing pictures to Jan, who signed them and then passed them on to Mickey for his signature.

Mickey seemed to be in a much better frame of mind following the performance than he was when we first approached him, unannounced, outside the building. Maybe the next time he returns for another Judy Garland festival, we can make better plans and successfully recreate the 1941 promotional photo.

Roger's perception of the Mickey Rooney affair:

"It was a cool, car and cloudy June morning. Marian and All were up and out of the house early and heading from Duluth to Grand Rapids. Our mission was to meet with Carl Wegner and then proceed to the place where Mickey Rooney and his wife were to perform in a road show. Our idea was to try to recreate the 1941 photo celebrating the four-millionth Plymouth automobile.

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The weather was not cooperating at all. Dark skies darkened until it was almost like night. Then the rains came. Before the afternoon was over, more than five inches had fallen.
We were in the parking lot with our '41 convertible waiting for Mr. Rooney to arrive. We had been told that he was not a happy camper and that he had not been informed of our desire to get his picture with the Plymouth convertible.

When Mr. Rooney finally arrived, the rain had let up a bit. He emerged from his car along with his wife and son. We approached him, asking if he would pose for a picture with the '41 Plymouth convertible. His first words were: "I'm not taking any pictures with an old car!"

We tried to explain what we were trying to do, but we were not connecting. His son came on the scene and explained to his dad what we were trying to accomplish. Thanks to him, Mickey did agree to a fast photo. His wife Jan then said that she would like to be in a photo also and we were able to have a little more time with Mickey. We got a few shots and now have them for all to see.

With all the rain, putting the top down for the picture was out of the question. "What fun in the four-millionth Plymouth!"
- Roger McLean

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?
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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.

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