Rose Is A Rose

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I first heard about this documentary last summer, I think. My eyes are always open to stories that resonate with my memories, and Rose Marie is part of that. The Dick Van Dyke Show, although I was a little too young to watch it in its first run, became a favorite as I was growing up, and for some reason informed a fair bit of my future.

There's no mystery when it comes to television and its influence. When my friends who are, say, 9-10 years older, were born, television sets sat in the living rooms of a few percent of Americans. By the time I came around, that number was close to 90% and growing. I am of the original TV generation, then, as far as I'm concerned. It was never not there.

I watched as most kids my age did, not excessively but routinely, and I must have integrated a lot. I learned lessons from Lost in Space and The Twilight Zone as much as from The Waltons and Marcus Welby, M.D. All of these shows reside upstairs somewhere, scenes and moments popping up all the time to illustrate some point.

And as far as the Van Dyke show was concerned, I distinctly remember thinking that I was referencing various scenes between Rob and Laura Petrie to help me negotiate the early days of my own marriage. I'll take help wherever I can find it.

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Rose Marie had no clue about Laura, by the way, one of the tidbits you'll find in Wait For Your Laugh.

Dick Van Dyke wasn't unknown in 1961, when the show premiered, but he wasn't exactly a household name. He'd wandered around show business for years in the 1950s, and television networks were aware. He'd been on local TV and even landed a regular gig on the Today show on NBC. He'd just recently starred in Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway.

Rose Marie was nobody's idea of a newcomer, and when she was offered the role of Sally Rogers, she understood the show to be a comedy about a TV writers room. This Dick Van Dyke guy, whom she'd never heard of, would star and she'd star with him.

Carl Reiner had written the original pilot as a vehicle for himself, a sitcom about the home (and work) life of a TV comedy writer, essentially a version of himself and his family in New Rochelle, New York, while working with Sid Caesar. That version didn't work, but he altered the story and offered the part to Van Dyke.

But he always meant for the show to feature the main character's home life. Mary Tyler Moore was less than obscure; she was essentially unknown, other than auditioning for Danny Thomas once, when he noticed and remembered her (Thomas produced the show). America fell in love with the Petries, and more and more of the show focused on New Rochelle. Rose Marie wasn't happy about this, not at all.

Wait For Your Laugh pretty much explains why.

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It has nothing to do with Mary Tyler Moore, who was notoriously difficult to work with, as some actors are. She and Rose Marie apparently had a cordial, professional relationship, although Moore was in her early 20s and Rose Marie was pushing 40 when the show began. They were in two very different stages of their careers, and Rose Marie knew all about careers.

She was born in 1923, and at the age of 3 she began imitating the acts she saw with her mother on the New York stage. She had a remarkably adult voice, and her phrasing and quality weren't kid-like, or cute. She sounded like a fully grown woman, and in those days, when radio was the big game, voices were important. After upstaging Evelyn Nesbit in a nightclub, Nesbit (if you know the book or movie Ragtime, you know Nesbit) suggested that her parents call her Baby Rose Marie.

She toured the country. She had her own radio show. She was crazy famous in the 20s and 30s, and unlike others she smoothly transitioned out of child performer status. She married Buddy Guy, a trumpet player, in 1946 and moved with him to California. Eventually she ended up opening the Flamingo in Las Vegas for Bugsy Siegel (only one of the many mobsters who helped her career, as she was a favorite of Al Capone's from her Baby Rose days), before moving into television with episodic appearances and then the Van Dyke show.

And then? Then, she just kept doing what she always did. She worked, a couple of decades on Hollywood Squares (where her friendship with Peter Marshall developed; Marshall narrates the documentary, and is surprisingly youthful and energetic in his 90s), a couple of seasons on The Doris Day Show, multiple episodic television appearances, and a long-running tour with three other ladies of a certain age in 4 Girls 4 in the 1980s and 90s. Her last official gig, other than this film, was in 2012.

That's nearly 90 years in show business, then, and that's nearly show business, at least what we think of when we use the term. And that's why I was drawn to the story.

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This isn't a wide recommendation. Our interests vary and our time is limited. Sure, if you remember Rose Marie, or the show, or have some interest in the early days, in history. It's a quick, easy watch, although the DVD comes with extras that add to the enjoyment. We understand why director Jason Wise made the decision to incorporate recreated scenes into the narrative (to maintain the flow, since Rose Marie had thousands of items of saved memorabilia), perhaps the film's flaw (hardly a flaw, though, and an understandable choice, if a little jarring and amateurish), and we get a clearer picture of her stash of memories.

Still your call. You know better than I of your interest here. And it's certainly possible to stream this, rent it from Amazon or iTunes or, sooner than later I suspect, find it for free. Whether it's worth your time is up to you. I'm just telling you what appealed to me.

It wasn't Sally Rogers. I enjoyed the Van Dyke show and her performance was a big part of that. She carried the burden of three dimensions in a sitcom world, less by design than by nature, I think. She just brought multitudes to this lady, an anomaly in a man's world, a witty and sarcastic woman whose heart was as big as her voice, and whose inner sadness we actually grasped on the small, black-and-white screen. It was a remarkable portrayal, looking back, completely unexpected and unique for its time and place.

But it was her timing that intrigued me. The mobbed-up child star story perfectly mirrors the early days of motion pictures and nightclub entertainment, from vaudeville to Vegas. She transitioned from radio and clubs to television when America did. She was present at the creation and the collapse, the changes and the old becoming new again, and over and over. She never lost relevance because she never stopped seeking it, apparently needing to keep moving and singing and entertaining. She was a witness, and she eventually was the last one.

And part of the pleasure with this film is understanding that. When Jerry Lewis passed away last year (he was a couple of years younger than Rose Marie), there was a lot of talk about him being the last, the final connection to the early days of modern entertainment. It was our good fortune that the director, Jason Wise, realized, in Yoda fashion, that there was another. There certainly was.

 

Chuck SigarsComment