Wait For Your Laugh and the Enduring Talent of Rose Marie
A couple years ago I caught myself thinking about Dick Van Dyke, as you do, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the entirety of The Dick Van Dyke Show was on Netflix streaming. As somebody who was born in the eighties, I didn't come into watching the show with any sort of nostalgia – it was merely a curiosity of pop culture and a desire to look at a tall lanky sixties dad fall over a lot. Yet, (and this won't be a surprise to anybody over sixty but) what really drew me in was how progressive the show was – specifically, the character of Sally Rogers.
I mean whoa, here you have a single woman in a television writers room, not only writing comedy but keeping the rest of them on their toes. And she's intelligent, and she wears great dresses, and she can dance, and she can sing, and – most important of all – she has depth! I mean, there she was representing the largely untold story of capable, strong women who constantly get overlooked as "unsexy" and undesirable simply because they're capable and strong. She didn't need to be a sex symbol, she had personality instead. Sally Rogers as a character spoke to me on every level; you barely see this type of believable and familiar female character in 2017, let alone in the early sixties. Move over Dick Van Dyke, from then on I had a crush on Rose Marie.
Enter Wait For Your Laugh (2017), a documentary film by Jason Wise and Christina Tucker, which I've been stalking the progress of through Facebook for the last couple of years. With a limited release in New York this week, and San Francisco and Los Angeles later this month, Wait For Your Laugh is a fascinating look at the life and enduring career of Rose Marie. Told through several interviews, an amazing photo and video archive (largely supplied by Rose Marie herself), and a handful of short reenactments, Wise weaves a colorful portrait of his subject. Rose Marie got her start in showbiz the tender age of five as "Baby Rose Marie," a child singing sensation on radio who eventually took to touring the country. Her father acted as her manager, a small-time mob tough who Rose Marie describes as "a mean man" that secretly had an entire second family on the side (with a whole other set of children who had been given the same names as the first family!). Yet her father's connections managed to get her in good with the likes of Al Capone, which helped to foster a long line of mob protectors and show bookers – she hopped from city to city, including opening for the Flamingo in Las Vegas back when it was still just a desert strip.
After a successful transition to stage shows, she ended up on Broadway, which eventually led way to television, and of course The Dick Van Dyke Show. Rose Marie almost comes across as important as Carl Reiner in the development of the show; she's not only recommended longtime friend Morey Amsterdam for the part of Buddy Sorrell, but the whole Sally Rogers character was largely developed through her own input. Including interviews with Van Dyke, Reiner and Rose Marie herself – not to mention some great behind the scenes color(!) footage of the show – you really get the sense that the show was a labor of love, as fun to work on as it was to watch.
From there, Rose Marie's desire to work faltered slightly after her husband, Bobby Guy, died of a mysterious blood disease. Bobby Guy's life and work is really the second focus of the documentary, as Rose Marie waxes romantically about her marriage to him. He was the love of her life and a star in his own right, with a successful career playing the trumpet for The Bing Crosby Show band. His presence is felt throughout the film as well, as a majority of the home movie footage shown throughout the film was shot by him. His death, a topic still emotional to Rose Marie fifty years after the fact, weighed on her emotionally but she still managed to soldier on – wearing a black bow in her hair from there on out in his memory.
From there, Hollywood Squares became her new bread and butter, with steady pay and minimal preparation required, it was the best bet for a newfound single mother. One thing Rose Marie's story proves is that talent is only part of the formula that truly gets you to the top. While she had the skills, the confidence, and the personal connections, at the end of the day it takes a tireless publicist and non-stop self-promotion in order to truly break through into the type of television stardom achieved by, say, Mary Tyler Moore or Betty White. In the documentary Van Dyke laments that Rose Marie never got her own television show, ala Carol Burnett or Lucille Ball, but you get the sense it's more because she didn't push for it. Which isn't to say she ever gave up, she appeared in numerous television cameos and in her late fifties toured in 4 Girls 4 with the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Helen O'Connell, and Margaret Whiting. Even today in her nineties, despite the physical limitations that come with age, she speaks about her desires to still want to "show them how it's done" with an air of confidence and conviction.
Wait For Your Laugh, like Rose Marie herself, is a real charmer. It's both an amazing time capsule of the last century of showbiz (what a gift that we have so much archival footage of the entire life of somebody born in the 1920s) and a sweet, empathetic portrait of a now overlooked talent. That said, it certainly doesn't paint Rose Marie as demure or passive, she's definitely a tough broad – the likes of whom referred to Dick Van Dyke as “a six foot tower of Jelly” when he wouldn't stand up for the cast, and struck back at a predatory Weinstein-like film producer by yelling, in front of everybody, “You couldn’t get it up if a flag went by.” Yet, despite some tyrannical inclinations, you never get the sense that she was anything but driven and professional. As somebody who grew up with no formal schooling, all Rose Marie knew was show business, and her stamina and work ethic are enviable. She was clearly in it for the love of the work and the audience, never does she come across as somebody who took her life and fame for granted.
At the end of the screening I was at, director Jason Wise stuck around to answer some questions even after we all got kicked out of the theater to let the next screening in. When another fellow moviegoer remarked on the vitality of Rose Marie, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke and other contemporaries interviewed, Wise said he genuinely thought the secret to their longevity was their work ethic; they don't have the time to die because their schedules are too booked up. Recalling a conversation he had with Rose Marie during a brief health scare of hers, he told her she needed to give him bare minimum three more years for the film to come out, to which she countered: "How about two more years." "Two and a half." "Okay fine." Well, here's to hoping she sticks around for another two and half (and another, and another).
Photo © Rose Marie's personal collection.