Classic Hollywood: Rose Marie, still tough and sassy after all these years
Legendary comedian Rose Marie remembers only one time she was sexually harassed during her 90 years in entertainment — “the longest career in show business,” as she proudly calls it.
It was 1954 and Rose Marie was reprising her role opposite Phil Silvers in the film version of their Broadway musical “Top Banana.” “It was a full stage of people,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I did a number called ‘I Fought Every Step of the Way,’ and I would do fighting positions.”
When it was over, she says a producer came over and said something sexually explicit to her, adding that if she agreed to what he’d said, “This could be your picture.”
Instead, she said, she told him off in front of the crew and costars. Everybody laughed, except the producer.
“Going home, my husband said to me, ‘You know all your songs will be cut. You’ll be lucky if you are in the picture.”’
She was still in the picture, but her husband, renowned trumpet player Bobby Guy, was right. All her musical numbers were left on the cutting room floor.
Let’s make one thing very clear: Nobody ever messed with Rose Marie. She wasn’t exactly married to the mob. But according to Jason Wise, director of “Wait for Your Laugh,” an entertaining documentary about her extraordinary life that opens Friday, she was “truly in with these people. She worked for them.”
She was about 10 when, as the singing sensation Baby Rose Marie, she met the notorious gangster Al Capone while performing with Milton Berle at the Palace Theatre in Chicago. He invited Rose Marie and her father, whose nickname was Happy Hank, to dinner at his house.
“He said, ‘The boys want to meet you. They love you.’ When I went to dinner there, there were 24 guys saying, ‘We love you.’ They hugged me and that’s when Al said to me, ‘I want you to call me Uncle Al.’”
And then there was Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, for whom she worked at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas when it opened in 1946. “Bugsy came over to me and said, ‘Here’s your check. You were wonderful. We love you. You did a good job. We will always have you here.’”
Rose Marie, still best known as the wisecracking Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and for her 14 seasons on “The Hollywood Squares,” is now 94. The three-time Emmy nominee is as sharp and feisty as ever, She’s active on Facebook and especially Twitter.
In a recent tweet, she told her followers: “Kids, I’m heading back to the big screen! Please share the news & plan to come see me. (I’d hate to be a flop at this stage in my career)!”
“I keep in touch because of the fans,” she said. “So many people keep writing and asking me questions and tell me how they like me and how they love me. I’m just flabbergasted. I really never thought it would get like that.”
She’s lived in the same ranch home in Van Nuys for 68 years. On this hot October afternoon, the house was decorated for Halloween, including her bedroom, where Rose Marie was entertaining her audience of one. Daughter Georgiana — “my pride and joy; God’s gift to me” — was on hand if her mother needed her.
She’s excited about the documentary, which features interviews with her daughter, Van Dyke, Carl Reiner, “Hollywood Squares” host Peter Marshall, who also narrates the film, and Tim Conway, and an incredible array of photos and home movies from “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Wise recalled that Rose Marie “just casually said to me, ‘You know what would help? I have a bunch of Super 8 footage on all the shows I have done.’ Of course, the back rooms at her house were just filled to the brim. She saved everything.”
The New York-born performer was 3 when she began singing as Baby Rose Marie. She sported a Louise Brooks bob and sounded more like popular singer Sophie Tucker than a little girl. At age 5, she was signed by NBC for her own radio show. Because few believed a little girl was singing like a grown-up, she appeared in vaudeville, did a few talkie shorts and sang in the 1933 W.C. Fields movie “International House.”
“I was never forced to perform,” Rose Marie said. “I swear, never forced. I loved what I was doing. I still love what I do.”
After dropping Baby from her name, she continued as a teenager to perform in nightclubs and between films at the top movie theaters in the country. Her father ruled her career with an iron fist — she was his meal ticket. After she met and fell in love with Guy, they had to elope in 1946 to escape her father’s clutches. They drove cross country on their honeymoon before landing in Los Angeles.
The same year Rose Marie married, she performed at the Flamingo with good friend Jimmy Durante, Xavier Cugat and a dancer named Tommy Wonder. “Xavier Cugat opened the show. Tommy Wonder came out and danced a bit. I came out and did my act. Then Jimmy would come out and did all this stuff. Then I would come out in the middle of his act, imitating him. Jimmy would say, ‘Wait a minute. Is somebody out here that’s an impostor?’ The two of us were doing Durante. Then for the finish, we walked off together. I don’t want to sound conceited, but it was phenomenal.”
When she was cast in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Rose Marie thought the classic CBS comedy series created by Carl Reiner would be strictly about the three writers — Sally, Buddy (Morey Amsterdam) and Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) — who worked on “The Alan Brady Show.”
So she was disappointed to discover that the series, which ran from 1961-66, would concentrate more on Rob’s private life in New Rochelle, N.Y., with his capri-pant clad wife, Laura (Mary Tyler Moore). Reiner even admits in the documentary that he told Rose Marie that if she wasn’t happy, she could leave the series.
Needless to say, she never did.
On set, she was closest to Amsterdam, whom she had known for a long time, plus Van Dyke and Reiner. She described Van Dyke as a “genius.”
Wise initially envisioned “Wait for Your Laugh” as a movie about the mob. “I really thought, ‘How amazing to make a story about a woman surrounded by mobsters.’”
But his wife, Christina, who co-wrote the script and is a producer, told him it wasn’t a mob story, but a love story. “So we started talking to Rose Marie about Bobby, and Christina was right. Christina found the soul of the movie, which is Bobby.”
Guy was only 48 when he died in 1964, while Rose Marie was appearing in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” She never remarried.
“He was adorable,” Rose Marie said softly of her late husband. “He had the greatest sense of humor.”
And they lived a pretty normal life in suburbia. “I used to say, ‘What went wrong with us?’” she recalled laughing. “Neither of us had a divorce. Neither of us are drunk. What are we doing wrong?’”
There will be several Q&A’s for “Wait for Your Laugh.”
Jason and Christina Wise and Carl Reiner will be doing a Q&A after Friday’s 7:30 p.m. screening at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd. www.laemmle.com
Wise will be in conversation with (schedules permitting) Van Dyke and “Community” creator Dan Harmon, who also appears in the documentary, at the 5 p.m. screening Saturday at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd. www.americancinematheque.com.
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