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Mickey Rooney and the Hot Dog Quest
A meandering journey in search of a restaurant that may or may not exist
Hello, Snackers. He was in more than 300 films, but how many restaurants did he open?
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You know you’re well and truly down a rabbit hole when you’re doing the dishes one night and suddenly realize you need to rinse the suds off your hands and grab your phone as quickly as possible because you must, must look up Mickey Rooney’s Q Score from 1981.
It happened to me two nights ago. For the last week or so, I’ve become obsessed with Rooney because of a story I read about him, which seemed like it couldn’t possibly be true.
Here’s our question for the day: Did Mickey Rooney, the star of film, television, and Broadway who died in 2014, own a chain of hot dog restaurants called Weenie World in the early 1980s?
That’s it. As quests go, this is as low-stakes as they come. But sometimes it’s the inconsequential puzzlers that get stuck in your brain, refusing to budge until you have some answers.
Rooney’s life was, shall we say, eventful. He was born in 1920, made his vaudeville stage debut at 17 months and his screen debut at 6 years, and kept working with virtually no pause in his career until he died at 93. He appeared in more than 300 films, a filmography so long that it has its own separate Wikipedia page. You might know him from “The Muppets” (2011) or from his infamously racist role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) or perhaps, if your film preferences go way back, “Babes in Arms” (1939). Rooney was also married eight times, had nine kids (some sources say 10), served in the Army during World War II (his main role, fittingly, was entertaining other troops), and filed for bankruptcy more than once.
One reason for the financial problems was that, in addition to his nonstop acting career, Rooney was forever coming up with business ideas, many of which were, to use a technical economics term, absolutely fucking bananas.
To Mr. Rooney, every phrase suggests a book title, every person a character for a show, every mouthful a fast-food empire. “He’s so creative it verges on insanity,” says his dresser Tony Buonauro. Mr. Rooney has written six unpublished novels and at any given time, has eight or 10 film scripts ready for production. …
Mr. Rooney is also in business — five or six of them, and much of his morning is taken up with telephone wheeling and dealing. His “Talentown,” a cable-television show featuring young performers, will premiere this fall. “Eighteen months after opening, we hope to have two million kids enrolled. Can you imagine that?”Mr. Rooney marvels. Those youngsters he doesn't reach by television, he'll get via cassette with “Act-O-Lab,” a mail-order acting school. “I have over 250 salesmen employed to help people find the creative incentive, to fortify theater once more.” The school motto? “Success is how you act,” says Mr. Rooney proudly.
He also speculates in fast foods. On the West Coast, “Mickey Rooney's Star-B-Q” pushes “Rooney shortribs,” while “Weenie World’s” hotdogs made their debut in Jersey City last month. “Mickey Rooney Macaroni” is in the works, and Mr. Rooney bubbles over a new soft drink whose flavor he won't divulge. “It’s called ‘Thirst,’” he says. “I had the copy written 20 years ago.”
Here was a man who desperately wanted to be a legend both on and off the screen. Problem was, as his friend Jackie Cooper told Rooney’s biographers, Richard A. Lertzman, William J. Birnes, “Mickey had zero business sense. Even if they succeeded he had no organizational skills, never understood money management and surrounded himself with the cast of Guys and Dolls as advisors.”
Even for people who don’t know Rooney’s personal history or can’t name a single film in which he appeared, there’s something about his legacy that seems to have frozen him in the amber of collective memory as an offbeat dude, one who represented an old-school, cheeseball niche of show biz. He was that guy who had that bit part in that thing 20 or 30 years ago.
So it sort of made sense, to both Rooney fans and “Who’s that guy again??” types, when this graphic started making the rounds on social media a few years ago:
It looks plausible, right? Like, it’s weird, especially when your gaze drifts to the bottom right and you see what’s written down there, but it still tracks. It doesn't seem out of the ordinary in a world in which Eminem’s Mom's Spaghetti, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and Margaritaville (RIP, Jimmy Buffett) all exist. To add to the apparent legitimacy, there are other ads and newspaper articles about Mickey Rooney’s Potato Fantasy that sometimes popped up with the one shown above. All together, it was totally believable, apolitical, nostalgic internet content to read, chuckle at, and share with others.
I’d seen that ad on social media a few times over the years, and the other day I finally decided to give it a close look. It took all of thirty seconds to learn that it was all a joke, the creation of an illustrator named Cris Shapan, who specializes in this type of retro-looking parody.
But as I read a few different debunkings and the Rooney profiles that came up in my initial Googling (like the New York Times piece excerpted above), I kept seeing references to a restaurant that he apparently had opened, called Mickey’s Weenie World. This, the articles assured me, was a real restaurant chain that Rooney ran in the early 1980s.
But…I had my doubts, which included the following:
There's a ton of food history out there that's just wrong (a frequent topic here at Snack Stack!). My default mode for such stories is skepticism.
Every single account I saw in that initial research mentioned Mickey’s Weenie World only in passing, which is odd for what was supposedly a major business venture, even for a guy who was constantly trying something new.
These few details were wild. For example, in the (excellent) recent book Raw Dog, a hot dog history slash memoir, author Jamie Loftus calls Weenie World “a failed franchise of fifty-two hot dog joints with hamburger-shaped hot dogs and specialty dishes like Erich Von Weenie and relish called ‘McLish.’” That sure sounds like parody!
Not a single newspaper ad came up in my research. Here was an incessant self-promoter who apparently never promoted his own restaurant. Unlikely!
In short, the available details about Weenie World were sketchier than a hot dog ingredient list (easy joke!). There was too much weirdness here—this whole thing was even goofier than the fictitious Mickey’s Potato Fantasy.
But I was in too deep to give up. I had to know more. I opened more Chrome tabs and then even more, digging and digging and becoming obsessed.
Another hot dog story for your enjoyment
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It soon became clear that at least some element of the legend was true.
Newspapers.com informed me that a place called Mickey Rooney’s Weenie World opened in 1981. There were a couple of newspaper stories from that summer mentioning that the restaurant was coming soon to Jersey City, and a couple more marking its first anniversary. But that’s about it. No further details in Newspapers.com or ProQuest or the Internet Archive or Google Books or anywhere else. The most in-depth biography of Rooney, published in 2015, mentioned Weenie World but only in one sentence.
It was as though the restaurant appeared without fanfare and then vanished—a lost city of 1980s Americana, a forgotten kingdom of celebrity and grease.
The lack of details made even less sense when I learned that Rooney was having a major career comeback in the same period. He was starring on Broadway in a show called “Sugar Babies” (here’s a video) and had just earned both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his role in the show “Bill”; in 1981, he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for “The Black Stallion.”
So why wasn’t there more information about his restaurant chain, especially if there were dozens of locations? The question was slowly driving me crazy.
I circled back to the details I could find and tried to think of other angles for research. I emailed a reference librarian at the Jersey City Free Public Library. “I realize this is an especially offbeat request,” I wrote.
While I waited for a response, I started working on this post, thinking it might just sit in my drafts folder forever if no other information turned up. I searched Google Images for the Potato Fantasy graphic so I could paste it in at the top.
I found it—but another image in the results also caught my eye. It was from a Reddit post:
Look at the name of the business. From Raw Dog to the New York Times to Rooney's own biographers, nearly everyone had gotten it wrong. I wrote in my notes:
OH MY GOD IT’S WEENE WORLD WHY IS THAT THE NAME
I still don’t know why Rooney chose that spelling, but I had, at long last, found the key to this research project. “Weenie World” never existed. But Mickey Rooney’s Weene World was a very real thing.
Also, this ad was for a restaurant in Massapequa, on Long Island—not Jersey City. There was more than one Weene World.
The next morning, I got a response from Daniel Klein, genealogy librarian at the Jersey City Free Public Library, who sent an absolute treasure trove of information, including 15 PDFs. Here, at last, were some answers.
The original Mickey Rooney’s Weene World opened on July 30, 1981 on Route 440 in Jersey City, in a new development called Scibetta Plaza, which was just north of the Hudson Mall. (Here’s the Google Street View of the area today.) The opening appears to have been a genuinely big deal. The mayor and county sheriff attended the ribbon-cutting, along with Mickey Rooney himself and hundreds of his fans, who stood in line for 45 minutes to get inside.
“Every time he walked down an aisle, he was surrounded by fans, amateur photographers, and the press,” the Jersey Journal reported the next day. “Everyone he came in contact with, including the media, came away with a smile.”
Here’s the big announcement ad, which ran in the Jersey Journal two days earlier.
Let the record show this this ad is, in fact, even wilder than the one for Mickey’s Potato Fantasy. Mickey Rooney’s full name appears four separate times and the menu reflects his stated desire to showcase flavors from around the world, with names that are so first-draft that they could only have come from the man himself. The Surf Board Weene is arguably the most curious one, with a flavor combination (pineapple, raisins) that defies belief in even in the normalcy-defying context of the broader story here.
And remember the round hot dog, the one Loftus mentioned, designed to fit on a hamburger bun? Yeah, that was also real, and debuted on the restaurant’s first birthday. Here’s the one photo I could find:
The Long Island Weene World opened in 1982. The menu was a bit longer and included hamburgers and cheeseburgers, but hot dogs were still the main attraction. For some reason, Rooney or one of his associates (but I’m going to guess Rooney himself) added a new hot dog for this location, an all-in concoction called “Round the World,” which had pineapple, raisins, onions, cheese, sauerkraut, and relish. In the only review I could find for any location of Weene World, a group of kids writing for Newsday declared the Round the World “very good.”
Despite Rooney’s endless ambitions and the persistent rumors that Weene World became a sprawling empire, it appears that the Long Island location was the last one to open—neither Klein nor I could find evidence of any others. Weene World was real but it was a chain of two, not fifty-two.
Klein checked the Jersey City phone books and told me that Weene World seems to have closed in 1985, which fits the timeline of the classified ads, seeking cooks, that appeared in the Jersey Journal. Opening-day fanfare aside, it seems that the restaurant never really caught on. By 1985, Rooney had moved on to a new business venture, a soda called Mickey Melon. It also didn’t last very long, although you can still find bottles on eBay.
Rooney’s career continued reasonably well, but in his final days, his preferred causes shifted from business interests to speaking out against elder abuse—a topic he apparently knew well from firsthand experience. When he died in 2014, he left behind a contested will and assets valued at just $18,000. The headline in The Hollywood Reporter read, “A Star Is Burned: Mickey Rooney’s Final Days Marred by Bizarre Family Feud.”
As one of Rooney’s business partners discussed in an article Klein sent me, his team had done a thorough demographic analysis before selecting the Jersey City site. It wasn’t just a lark—this seems like a rare Mickey Rooney scheme with a decent business plan behind it. Even so, it failed after a few years. This commercial stretch in Jersey City appears to be going through some tough times now (the landmark mall next to the former Weene World site is currently being de-malled).
I wanted to end on a high note here, especially because this really is a low-stakes story—it’s just a hot dog stand! But it’s hard not to feel a bit down about it all, especially after the “Wow, this is so weird and fascinating!!” highs I’d felt so many times in my research.
As I’ve gone down this rabbit hole, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what, if anything, Weene World means in a broader sense—not to overanalyze but just to ground it in something larger. Where I’ve settled, I guess, is here: the rise and fall of Weene World is a quintessential but melancholy American story, a tale of high-flying entrepreneurship that just didn’t work out. There was no mention of Weene World in any of his obituaries, but then again, why would there be? It was one of the shortest chapters in a multi-volume life.
Thanks for reading. This was a wild ride that took a long, long time to research and write. Please support this work by sharing this story or signing up for paid subscription so I can keep going down food-history rabbit holes.
Thanks very much!
— Doug (firstname.lastname@example.org)