Obituary: Rose Marie
Star of the ‘Dick Van Dyke Show’ whose career spanned almost a century and who called mobster Al Capone ‘uncle’
Rose Marie, who has died aged 94, claimed to have enjoyed “the longest career in show business”, having begun as a bob-haired child star in vaudeville before working into her 90s as a stage and screen actress.
She became best known in the 1960s as the gum-chewing, wisecracking comedy writer Sally Rogers of The Dick Van Dyke Show, the sitcom featuring Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, winning three Emmy nominations for best supporting actress in a comedy series for the role.
She was born Rose Marie Mazzetta in New York on August 15, 1923, and was only three years old when neighbours heard her singing and suggested to her parents that she should be entered in a talent show at the city’s Mecca Theatre. After singing What Can I Say, Dear, After I Say I’m Sorry and dancing the Charleston, she won first prize.
Known as Baby Rose Marie, and pushed by her domineering father, Frank, a one-time vaudeville performer with criminal connections, she starred in her own NBC radio show, where her mature sounding-voice led some to doubt she was really as young as claimed: “Unlike other child singers, I sang adult songs with adult phrasing and mannerisms. People would write to the station in disbelief saying that no child could sing like that and I must have been a midget. So NBC sent me out to play theatres to prove I was a child.”
She toured vaudeville, made records and appeared in a 1929 film short, Baby Rose Marie, the Child Wonder, earning an invitation to the White House from President Roosevelt: “After I sang for him, we played tiddlywinks with some poker chips I found in his office.”
In 1933, she appeared in the film, International House, starring WC Fields.
In the early 1930s, she caught the attention of Al Capone while performing at the Palace Theatre in Chicago. He invited her and her father 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 Al said to me, ‘I want you to call me Uncle Al’.” Capone, she said later, was “like the daddy I’d dreamt of”.
After dropping Baby from her name, she continued to perform as a teenager in nightclubs and between films at cinemas. Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart created a role especially for her in their musical comedy Babes in Arms, which opened on Broadway in 1937, but she had to turn the part down because of restrictions on children working in the theatre.
In 1946, against her father’s wishes, she eloped to marry the trumpet player Bobby Guy, with whom she moved to California. The same year she headlined with Jimmy Durante, Xavier Cugat and others on the opening night of the mobster “Bugsy” Siegel’s Flamingo hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
In her autobiography, Hold the Roses (2002), she recalled agreeing with Durante to “do a little thing together” at the end of his act: “While Jimmy was doing his act, I would come out and say in a Durante voice imitation, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Stop the music!’ Jimmy would say, ‘There’s an impostor here and I don’t know which one it is.’ Jimmy would then play the piano and he and I would sing Who Will Be With You When I’m Far Away?… and we would all walk off using the ‘Durante walk-off’. It would be a smash.”
“This Rose Marie,” wrote a critic in the Las Vegas Review, “is a glamorous blonde doll, all dressed up in a pink evening gown, and gives forth with warbles which seldom are heard in these desert parts… She’s tops and the audience likes her immensely… She almost out-Durantes Durante with her impression of ‘The Schnoz’.”
Siegel was killed in a gangland shooting in July 1947, but Rose Marie retained fond memories of Las Vegas of the 1940s and 1950s: “When the mob ran it, it was perfect. They treated you like a person. They were wonderful… They’d come over to you and say, ‘Why don’t you go play some blackjack?’ And they’d give you some money. They just don’t do that any more. It was the best time of all. They not only treated me with respect, but everybody who’d walk into the joint.”
After starring on Broadway in Top Banana with Phil Silvers in 1951 (she also appeared in the eponymous film of 1954), Rose Marie began appearing on television while continuing to perform in nightclubs. In 1961, the producer Sheldon Leonard invited her to join The Dick Van Dyke Show. “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?” she asked him. Cast as comedy writer Sally Rogers, she appeared throughout its run from 1961 to 1966, though she admitted feeling somewhat put out as Mary Tyler Moore (playing the wife of Rob Petrie,Dick Van Dyke’s character) emerged as the show’s leading lady.
“If you can’t stand the fact that the audiences care more about Mary and Dick,” the show’s creator Carl Reiner told her unsympathetically, “don’t come back.” She swallowed her pride.
Later, Rose Marie starred on The Hollywood Squares (1966-82), and other game shows. She continued to appear on Broadway and in films such as Cheaper to Keep Her (1981). From 1969 to 1971 she co-starred on The Doris Day Show.
Later she popped up playing bad-tempered mother-in-law types in sitcoms and doing voice-over work for cartoons. In 2004 she participated in The Dick Van Dyke Show
Rose Marie received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2001. A documentary about her career, Wait for Your Laugh, directed by Jason Wise, was released in November last year. Her husband died in 1964. Rose Marie, who died on December 28, is survived by her daughter.