As he nears his 100th birthday, Bud Mercer has perfected his personal philosophy.
“Live in the now,” said Mercer, who lives in Paso Robles with his daughter, Lin. “That’s my motto for life.”
Mercer, who celebrates a century on Sept. 5, found fame as one half of the dancing Mercer Brothers. He and his younger brother, Jim, entertained audiences for more than 70 years.
As the hoofer explains in his 2007 autobiography “Tripping the Light Fantastic Through the Evolution of Show Business From Vaudeville to MTV,” Russell Otto Mercer – who has gone by the nickname “Bud” since childhood – discovered dance at age 14.
Concerned about her children’s health, his mother insisted that Bud, Jim and sister Rose Marie study tap, ballet and ballroom dancing at a Los Angeles school.
“We never expected to be in show business,” Bud Mercer recalled, but the Great Depression changed that.
In 1932, the siblings started performing at vaudeville theaters and nightclubs to help support their family. Rose Marie Mercer left the act in 1937, prompting the Mercer Brothers to try their luck in the movie business.
Their film credits included “Footlight Serenade,” “Sweater Girl,” “Tin Pan Alley” and “Youth on Parade.” Bud Mercer appeared in “Holiday Inn” with Fred Astaire and “Buck Privates” with Abbott and Costello, while his brother appeared with James Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Mercer said the brothers were known as “the limber-leg dancers” because of their lithe movements. They also excelled at dancing in unison.
If he noticed his brother was faltering, “I’d just open my mind and do everything he did. Nobody knew we made a mistake,” Mercer said. “There was a psychic connection between us that very few people have.”
World War II put a temporary hold on the Mercer Brothers’ career. Both dancers served in the U.S. Army Air Corps — Bud as radio operator and Jim as flight engineer.
Upon their return to civilian life, the Mercer Brothers split their time between the stage and the fledgling television industry, appearing on such shows as “Bandstand Revue” and Ed Sullivan’s “The Toast of the Town.”
Mercer remembers one stage manager, John Polich, as a practical joker who once put gravel in Jim Mercer’s shoes. Another time, he drenched the brothers in a skit about sailors falling overboard.
“We said, ‘Just remember, get us all wet.’ (Polich) said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be all wet,’” Mercer said. True to his word, Polich knocked the brothers off their feet with a full blast from a fire hose.
Bud Mercer also shared some stories from the brothers’ stage career.
Once, the duo performed their “Spanish dance” — with Bud Mercer as Cesar Romero and his brother as Carmen Miranda — in front of their favorite comic, Red Skelton.
At one point, Jim Mercer pretended to pick a fight, saying “Oh, you don’t think I’m tough, huh?” He then stepped up to the microphone and tapped the plastic funnels masquerading as his breasts.
“As the audience laughed, he looked out at the room, surprised, and said, ‘That’s why they call them knockers!’” Mercer recalled with a laugh. “I thought Red Skelton would fall off the stage.”
At another show, a drunken woman took offense to the Mercer Brother’s slapstick version of the highly dramatic dance known as the apache. Enraged by Bud Mercer’s treatment of his brother, once again dressed in drag, she “threw a whole roll of nickels, and then pennies, trying to hit us,” Mercer recalled.
Following their act, “I heard a voice down at the bottom of the steps (saying) ‘Oh there you are,’” recalled Mercer, who spotted the woman preparing to chase him. He hid in the hat check room as a waiter opened the front door and told the woman, “He went that-a-way.”
“She chased him all around the kitchen,” Mercer said. “(Afterward) I came out and really breathed a sigh of relief for not having to fight with a woman.”
Bud Mercer then worked at engineering company Rocketdyne for eight-plus years before his brother persuaded him to return to show business. After two years with the “Sugar Daddies” revue in Reno, the Mercer Brothers spent 11 seasons as part of “The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies.”
“We … (got) so popular that people would ask if the Mercer Brothers were still in the show,” Mercer said. “If the answer was ‘yes,’ they said, ‘OK, I’ll be there.’ If the answer was ‘no,’ they … wouldn’t come.”
When his brother Jim died in 2003, Bud Mercer officially retired from show business.
“I didn’t want to be a soloist after 70-some odd years as a duo,” he explained. Then his son, Russell Mercer Jr., invited him to team up as the banjo act Bud and Buddy.
“A happy mind makes a healthy body,” he said. “Never get angry, never be hateful, never get anxieties. They’re all negative emotions. Just keep the happiness. ... It’s helped me so far.”