Rose Marie played Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, made audiences laugh on Hollywood Squares, and was a child star with a national radio show before Shirley Temple was even born. She’s been working for more than 90 years. And she’s still working.
I had the distinct pleasure recently of enjoying an hour-long phone conversation with Rose Marie. A delightful new documentary, Wait for Your Laugh, celebrates her nine decades in show business and reminds us that, though she’s best remembered by many for her TV roles, those successes are just the tip of the iceberg of a career that has spanned vaudeville, radio, records, television, Broadway and motion pictures.
“I’m very proud of [the documentary],” said Rose Marie. “I love it. I’m so proud of Jason [Wise, the director], I can’t stand it. I think he’s a genius.”
At 94, Rose Marie maintains a positive outlook on life, but she acknowledges that living so long is not without its challenges. “It’s hard being older and losing all your friends little by little… I keep very busy and I keep in touch with my friends. I still send birthday cards, anniversary cards and things like that. I keep up my life as best I can.”
She’s doing more than keeping up.
Rose Marie, who lives in Southern California with her dog, Bailey, is active on social media, with large followings on Facebook and Twitter. “I love [social media]. I love what people say. I get so taken away by what people say about me. It’s wonderful.”
She started working when she was just four years old, had a widely popular national radio show soon after, and toured nationally when she was 7. She’s worked with Hollywood royalty like Lucille Ball, Danny Thomas, George Burns, and Jimmy Durante.
“Life is one day after the other. You take one after the other as it comes, and you make the best of what it is.”
Rose Marie’s been making the best of it since 1927, when she began her historic career.
“My family has always been very close… My mother used to take me to see all the shows, the vaudeville, the movies, this and that. I used to come back to the apartment and I would entertain my grandmother and grandfather, and [the neighbors] who lived up on the third floor.
“One day, they came to my mother and they said, ‘We’ve entered her in an amateur contest.’ … They bought the dress that I wore. They bought the Mary Jane shoes… They’re in the Smithsonian, those shoes.
“Now you’ve got to imagine a four-year-old kid with this voice that I have, singing What Can I Say, Dear, After I Say I’m Sorry? like Sophie Tucker. Naturally, I won.”
Soon, Baby Rose Marie, as she was now known, was performing at various spots around New York City. NBC Radio Network soon heard about Rose, and she was given a national radio program.
Radio was a new medium just hitting its stride—60% of American homes now had a radio—but NBC was then the only network broadcasting to the entire nation. Rose Marie became hugely popular; she was known as the Darling of the Airwaves.
Many listeners were skeptical, given her brassy singing style, that Rose Marie was actually a child, so NBC booked her for a vaudeville tour at RKO theatres, so that her fans could see her for themselves.
“I learned so much in vaudeville,” Rose Marie said. “All the people in the shows that I was in…they taught me everything that they did in their act… To the day he died, George Burns used to call me ‘Baby,’ and Lucille Ball did the same thing. She said, ‘I can’t call you Rose Marie, you’re a baby.'”
Her father, who was something of a questionable character (“He was not a nice man,” she said), saw the chance to make a buck off Rose Marie, and, as she tells it, “He took charge. He was my manager, my agent, everything.” Unfortunately, at a time when Rose Marie was making very good money, as much as $1,000 a performance, it all went into (and quickly out of) her father’s pocket. Rose Marie never saw a penny.
Still, she doesn’t feel she missed out on the more typical joys of childhood. “No, not a bit,” she insists. “I traveled all over the country. I went to places that I learned about in school… I did everything that anybody would give their right arm for, and I met some wonderful people along the way.
“I was never pushed. I always loved what I did. I was very happy to do it. Nobody pushed me, not even my father.”
So much a show-biz kid was Rose Marie that when asked what she might have done with her life if she’d never entered show business, she was stumped. “I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully in response to my question. “I really don’t know. I can’t answer that, I’m sorry… [Show business] was all I knew. I didn’t even think about anything else… To this day, I love it.”
In 1946, Rose Marie married trumpeter Bobby Guy. He died in 1964 of a blood disorder at age 48.
“He was my soulmate,” Rose Marie said. “He really was. Three days after I met him, I said, ‘That’s the man I’m going to marry.’ They said, ‘But you don’t know anything about him.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. That’s the man I’m going to marry.’
“My girlfriend Geri, who’s in the documentary, said to me, ‘You’re going to marry that fat sergeant?’ I said, ‘He’s not a fat sergeant. He’s stuffy, but he’s good.’ She says, ‘I can’t believe that you, who doesn’t want to go on blind dates, you meet somebody and three days later, you’re going to marry him?’ I said, ‘That’s right.’ She helped me elope.
Did she ever consider remarrying? “No. I always felt that was my marriage. To this day, I still think I’m married to him.”
Family is very important to Rose Marie, and she remains very close to her daughter, who watches over her mother’s life and career.
Her first TV appearance in California was a 1957 guest spot on Gunsmoke (she played a rough-hewn 60-year-old pioneer woman), which was followed by recurring roles on The Bob Cummings Show and My Sister Eileen and assorted guest spots on other programs. She was even the first female game-show host, on a program called Scoop the Writers that saw a short run in the late 1950s.
Then came The Dick Van Dyke Show.
“When I went up for the [Van Dyke show], that happened where I’d been working in Vegas. Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas…used to come and visit me when I played Vegas. Sheldon used to say to me, ‘Don’t you ever bomb?’ I said, ‘Not if I can help it!’
“One day I get a call from a casting office [for a new show called the Dick Van Dyke show]. I said, ‘What’s a Dick Van Dyke?'”
Next, Rose Marie spent 14 years as a regular on the game show Hollywood Squares, and she remains close friends with host Peter Marshall today; he even appears, along with Van Dyke and Reiner, in her new documentary.
“Peter’s the most wonderful man in the world… We did Squares for 14 years. Everybody thinks we were told the questions and the answers—no, we weren’t. The $64,000 Question show was just found out to be a fraud, and so everybody was worried. We couldn’t even talk to the contestants when we were in the hall. We weren’t allowed to talk to anybody.”
While Rose Marie was appearing on Hollywood Squares, she also had a recurring role on The Doris Day Show. “[Doris Day is] the sweetest woman in the world,” she said. “The way you see her and know her is the way she is, really. She’s the sweetest thing in the world… She calls me and I call her about once a month.”
Jimmy Durante is another legendary figure with whom Rose Marie enjoyed an association. “To work with him [in Las Vegas] was the biggest thrill of my life… Towards the end of his act, I used to run out on stage and do my Durante [impression]. He’d say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. There’s an imposter here and I don’t know who it is.’ Then the two of use did Durante and we did the walk-off together. It was unbelievable. It would be sensational today.”
While her mobility is not what it once was, Rose Marie still does occasional voice work. “I do voiceovers. I just did a couple of Garfields… It was so much fun—and so easy! You don’t have to worry about makeup. You don’t have to worry about getting dressed. You can go in and sit down, and there you go.”
It’s hard to think of anyone who has been so successful in so many different areas, and who was still working after 90 years.
“I’m very happy that I wound up like this in my old age,” Rose Marie said. “I don’t think it could be any better.”
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