Portrait of young Mickey Rooney, 1938.
Rex Hardy Jr. —The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
By Ben Cosgrove
Updated: April 3, 2015 1:33 PM ET | Originally published: April 7, 2014

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:

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.

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