Mickey Rooney taught 'South Park,' Bradys, Muppets how to put on a show

When news of Mickey Rooney's death spread late Sunday and into Monday, there was one phrase that made it into almost every tribute to the legendary actor: "Let's put on a show!"

Mickey Rooney, 1920-2014

Image: Mickey Rooney

The actor-singer-dancer may have been short of height, but he loomed tall with his enduring talent.

Rooney and acting partner Judy Garland organized and put on shows in multiple musicals, raising money for everything from a high-school band contest ("Strike Up the Band") to saving their college ("Girl Crazy"). 

And if what they say about imitation and flattery is true, Rooney and Garland were the most flattered duo in Hollywood, because the "let's put on a show and save our town/some orphans/the senior center/a circus" concept became a reliable small- and big-screen plot line that's still used today. Not everyone handles it with the sheer charm and naiveté of Rooney — sometimes the concept is used as parody — but even those generations far too young to have watched a Rooney movie have surely seen it onscreen. Here are some favorites.

The Muppets need to save their theater! Twice!
Why are people always trying to tear down the Muppets' theater? What did Kermit and Fozzie ever do to them? The "put on a show" concept worked swimmingly to bring Jim Henson's furry friends back to the big screen in 2011's "The Muppets," where new friends Walter (is he a man? or is he a Muppet?), Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) help the main Muppets sing and dance to raise $10 million and save their beloved theater from mean oilman and subtly named villain Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), who wants the oil beneath it.

If the plot sounded familiar, it's because the Muppets did it all a decade earlier on TV, in 2002's "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie." That time around, Joan Cusack plays Rachel Bitterman (again with the subtle villain-naming) whose threat to foreclose on the Muppets' theater sends Kermit spinning through an "It's a Wonderful Life" homage.

The Bradys put on many totally groovy shows
The delightfully square "Brady Bunch" sure seemed to have a lot of money, what with that giant house and all (though the single bathroom was puzzling). But when they needed to raise funds fast, they turned to the Mickey Rooney model. To raise money for teacher Mrs. Whitfield's retirement, they put on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" in the back yard, with Carol and Mike as Snow White and the Prince, the kids and Sam the Butcher as the dwarfs, and maid Alice hamming it up as the evil queen. 

And the Bunch switched the show to a musical act when dim Jan messes up the engraving of a silver platter for Mike and Carol's anniversary. Never fear, the Bradys simply form the Silver Platters musical group and compete on a talent show — although they come in third, with first place going to Patty's Prancing Poodles.

The Bradys made this plot so iconic that it was revisited in the classic 1995 "The Brady Bunch Movie," when they entered a "Search for the Stars" contest to pay their property taxes. (Their dated act impressed the judges — The Monkees — and they claimed an undeserved win.)

Blues Brothers save the orphanage
Saving a building or earning a gift for a teacher or parent is one thing, but saving a batch of forlorn orphans is the ultimate reason to put on a show. And that's just what "The Blues Brothers" did in the 1980 classic comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Of course, Rooney and Garland were never chased through the streets of Chicago by hundreds of police, but times had changed.

Chef Aid
Even those raunchy little "South Park" kids got in on the Rooney-inspired show-giving. In the 1998 episode "Chef Aid," the boys' pal Chef needed $2 million to stay out of jail, so the kids quickly organized a Farm Aid-style show called Chef Aid. It doesn't go that well: Famed bat-biter Ozzy Osbourne chomps off Kenny's head.

Image: "South Park" Comedy Central via AP
Stan, Chef and Kyle on "South Park."

Follow Gael Fashingbauer Cooper on Google+.


Join the TODAY Food Club NOW for a chance to win the Ultimate Cookware Giveaway.