Rose Marie is quick to tell you that she was a star before Madonna was even born. The 94-year-old was the very first celebrity to lop off her last name — and don’t you forget it. When a Hollywood agent asked her what she went by after she moved to California in the 1950s, she told him that she had always been simply Rose Marie, and she didn’t see any reason to change things up just because she was going to be on television.
Born Rose Marie Mazetta in New York City in 1923, Rose Marie was already famous on the East Coast when she went out to Hollywood, a star from the time she was a toddler with her own syndicated coast-to-coast NBC radio show on Sunday mornings. “Baby Rose Marie” was a jazz-singing prodigy; even though she sported frilly dresses, patent-leather mary janes, and a demure black bob, she had the plaintive voice of a much older woman. Because listeners did not believe that she was a child, NBC sent Rose Marie on a national vaudeville tour of proof when she was just 7 years old, and she was an immediate sensation. She continued to perform as a comedian and singer on the nightclub circuit until her husband, the trumpeter Bobby Guy, decided that they should move to Hollywood for a fresh start.
In Los Angeles, Rose Marie began a second act as a television personality, first as Sally Rogers, the brassy television writer who jostles with the boys on The Dick Van Dyke Show, then for almost two decades on Hollywood Squares. She had guest roles on Wings, Murphy Brown, and Caroline in the City, and continues to work to this day. Because she has quite possibly had the longest show-business career of anyone alive, she’s now the subject of a charming new documentary, Wait for Your Laugh, from director Jason Wise (Somm). The film covers nine decades of entertainment history, with Rose Marie serving as a droll tour guide through tales of child stardom, meeting Al Capone, playing the Vegas Strip in its earliest days, getting lectured by Carl Reiner, learning how to tell one-liners, and more. She also made headlines last month, as she was one of the first — and most storied — celebrities to respond publicly to the Harvey Weinstein abuse allegations. On October 10, she tweeted (or rather, had her secretary tweet, but more on that below): “I’ve worked since I was 3, Im 94. W/ Weinstein, finally women are speaking up to power. I have suffered my whole life for that. Dont stop”
Rose Marie’s film premiered in New York last night and begins openings around the country before Christmas. She’ll also be honored on Friday with a caricature at Sardi’s, a lifelong dream for the nonagenarian. Vulture caught up with her by phone to talk about women’s lib, working with the mob, and what she thinks of young talent working today.
The film covers so much ground — 91 years in the business. How did you remember everything?
Oh, I’ve kept everything since I was 3 years old! Scrapbooks, pictures, postcards, Christmas cards, everything. And when Jason [Wise] wanted to do this thing, I let him go through it all to find out all about me. Thank God I have a good memory, by the way. Jason was amazed with what I could remember. Anyways, the scrapbooks filled up my house with all I saved to make this movie, which to me is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. Isn’t it fabulous? You know Carl Reiner, after he saw it, said it was the greatest thing he’s ever seen.
It is indeed fabulous. Did anything surprise you when you were going through all the scrapbooks?
Well, I was surprised at myself, frankly. I didn’t realize I had done so much! I never stopped. I just kept going. I don’t know why or how. I loved what I did and I still love what I do. You know, I started out as Baby Rose Marie, with a voice like Sophie Tucker. And everybody said, “That’s not a child.” They thought I was a 45-year-old midget! I got started because my mother loved show business. You see, 14th Street in those days was the 42nd Street of today, and my mother took me to see all the shows there, and I would come home and react and sing them all. We lived in a railroad flat, and I went upstairs one day and sang everything I had seen to the neighbors. They were so thrilled that they entered me in an amateur contest. My mother said, “I don’t know that she would do anything like that,” but they said, “Oh, she will, she loves to sing.”
Well, I was 3-and-a-half years old and I won the contest, of course. I remember that I ran into the wings after winning, and somebody threw a bouquet of roses in one arm, and I said, “Hold the roses! I can’t take my bow!” because the audience was screaming, “Bring the kid back! Bring the kid back!” And that’s why I called my book Hold the Roses.
Oh yes, I know you published a memoir with the University of Kentucky Press in 2002.
You know, I wrote that all myself. I just decided one day to sit down and write every word longhand, and then I gave it to my secretary to put in all the periods and commas. Nothing was edited, nothing was turned down. I designed everything, the cover, the inside, everything! And they went along with it. Peter Marshall, who was the host of Hollywood Squares, said it was one of the best books he’s ever read.
So back to performing. You had a national radio show when you were only 5 years old.
Yes, I sang at the Elks Club and places like that and the word got around. And NBC heard about this child wonder, and they signed me to a contract. My radio show was on Sunday mornings. Fifteen minutes. Just me, a piano player and an announcer. It was coast-to-coast. People wrote in and said, “That’s not a child, no child sings like that!” And NBC was affiliated with RKO, who had theaters all over the country, and so they sent me on a tour to prove that I was a child. So I did vaudeville when I was 6 and 7. It was a wonderful education. The vaudeville people used to show me all the little things they did in their act. I learned how to juggle, I learned how to play with a yo-yo.
Was it during a vaudeville tour that you met Al Capone?
Oh yes, I remember it vividly. I was working in Chicago at the Palace Theater with Milton Berle, and the doorman came in told my father that a man wanted to see me. And we went outside, and there was this big limo. And this man, who it turns out was Al Capone, said to my father, “Hello, Happy.” I looked at my father funny because I didn’t know that name, but I guess his nickname was Happy Hank when he was very close to the mob. Before I was born he used to go into factories and say “Join the union or we will blow you up,” you know, those kind of things. So I guess he knew the boys and the boys knew him. So Al Capone says, “We love the kid. We want to have her over for dinner. The boys want to meet her.” My father said, “She does four or five shows a day, I don’t know that she has the time!” And Capone said, “Oh, you will make the time.” When we went back into the theater and I asked my father who that was, and he said, “Never mind.” But the doorman said to me, “You know who that was! That was Capone!” And I thought, “Oh my god, they are going to pick me up with a shovel.”
Were you scared to go meet Capone’s “boys?”
I don’t think I knew to be scared. It was just someone who wanted to have me over for dinner. The next day the limo was there, and we drove out to Cicero, outside of Chicago. And we went into a house with a big stoop, and there was this long table, with about 24 guys sitting around it, and Al Capone came over to me and picked me up and said, “Honey, we think you’re wonderful.” And I sang, and all the boys came over and hugged me and said, “We love you baby, you’re our baby!” And Al Capone held me in his arms and said, “From now on, you call me Uncle Al.” And I thought, okay, sure, why not. Al said to my father, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. We’re looking after her. If anyone says anything or does anything, you call us. We will protect her and she will be all right. Don’t worry about it.” And then I went back to the theater and did the rest of my engagement.
After your child stardom, you played the club circuit on the East Coast and married the very talented trumpet player Bobby Guy, who proposed to you after one week.
My husband, Guy, was a trumpet player, the best in the town. Just a genius and the sweetest man that ever lived. After playing in vaudeville, I was doing my singing and comedy act in the clubs, and then I got married and we came out to California. I was an eastern girl from New York. Everyone knew me then in the East, but nobody knew me in the West. Back then the coasts were altogether different things.
Did you keep playing the clubs in Los Angeles in the 1940s, or did you work onscreen right away?
I was singing at Slapsy Maxie’s. It was there that a man from the Hollywood Reporter came over and asked me to play Las Vegas. And I said, “What is Vegas?” I opened the Flamingo in a show Jimmy Durante — it was the greatest show you’ve ever seen. Every star in Hollywood was there on opening night. It was absolutely fabulous. Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Robert Taylor. Because the Flamingo was a fabulous thing. There were only two hotels on the Strip then — the Last Frontier and the El Rancho, which was more of a cowboy-type hotel. The Flamingo was like Monaco, with neon and flashes. The people in Vegas were afraid of it! They didn’t know what happened to the desert.
In the film you talk about how you got your big break in film when you were asked to make the movie version of the Broadway show Top Banana, but it didn’t go as you had hoped because a producer harassed you.
Yes, they decided to make Top Banana, the movie. And we were on the stage, and I did my number called “I Fought Every Step of the Way.” I wore boxing gloves, and I made a few boxing positions, you know, rubbing my nose like a fighter does and making believe I was punching. And when I got through, a man came over to me and said, “That was very good, and this can be your movie. I’m a producer on the picture.” And I looked at him and said, “That’s very nice, thank you.” And then he said, “If you are really interested in a few positions, I really could show you a few.” I laughed, and told him that was very funny. But he was serious. He said, “I could make you a star out of this picture, I’ll show you a few positions I know.” And so in front of everyone, Rachel, talk about guts! In front of everyone, I said, “You son of a bitch, you couldn’t get it up if the flag went by!” My husband told me later that all my songs would be cut. And sure enough, every song I had in the film was cut, every scene I had was cut to a minute, it was like I wasn’t in the picture.
That’s terrible! But good for you for standing up to him. Did that experience inspire you to say something on Twitter?
As far as technology is concerned, I don’t have a computer. But I talk to my secretary, and tell her what to say on there. And she calls and tells me what everyone else is saying, and I tell her what to say back.
And you told her to tell women to keep going.
Yes. You know, I think women have slowly but surely gained a lot of power lately. I think little by little, they are getting to where they are supposed to be — equals — and are talking uprightly. Before, I think they were afraid. But someone had to do it, and I don’t want to take all the credit. But I was one of the first. I never even thought about it, I just did it! And I always spoke up, and everyone was wonderful to me, except that one producer who embarrassed me. And I after walked out, he ruined my picture. But it’s true what’s going on with this disgusting stuff in the paper.
In the documentary, you say that you had a much better time once you went into television.
I had no problems with television, everyone was wonderful to me. Working five days with that group of people on The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the greatest things in my career. It’s a cliché that everyone says, we were like a family, but it’s true. We loved each other, we helped each other. Every time we went to a place, everyone went together and stuck together. We were really very close.
Do you remember how you landed the part of Sally Rogers on the show?
Yes, let me explain that. Danny Thomas — I knew Danny when I opened for him in New York at the La Martinique. They called him the new hot comic back then. We became very good friends. His wife’s name was Rose Marie also. When I worked Vegas, he and Sheldon Leonard used to come and see me, and I would sit at their table after the show. And Danny would say, “Don’t you ever bomb?” And I said, “Not if I can help it! When can I be on Make Room for Daddy?” And he kept saying that my time would come. So when I got the call to go down to Desilu productions, I thought, oh, I finally got the guest spot. But the casting lady said, “No, this is for a new show called The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and I said, “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?”
That’s when I met Carl Reiner, and Sheldon Leonard said, “If you want the best, get Rose Marie.” There was no audition. I didn’t have to read anything, I just had the part automatically. I asked them, “Who have you got for the third writer?” And said, “How about Morey Amsterdam? He knows every joke in the world! Everyone loves him and knows him and I have known him since I was 10 years old. He used to write all the material for my act.” So I called him up in New York and said, “They are coming out from the coast, and they are going to ask you about a new show called The Dick Van Dyke Show.” And Morey says, “What’s a Dick Van Dyke?”
In the documentary, it seems like you had some tension with Mary Tyler Moore over who would be the star of the show.
As far as Mary was concerned, she was the last one added. Mary and I never hit it off quite well. We worked together, but we were never quite close enough. I understood I was supposed to co-star, which I did. Carl said to me later that they planned to focus more on the thing with Mary and Dick and the family. And I said, “But if I am the co-star, how can that be?” But Carl helped me understand everything.
And your character became iconic, this woman writing jokes in a room with two men, holding her own.
And I was proud of that. Because actually, I became the first women’s libber. I had a job with men on an equal basis making the same money. And I had so many girls come up to me and say, “Thanks to you I became a writer, and thanks to you I was into women’s liberty! You did a good job of showing off being a woman and still being able to work with men.” And I feel like that is wonderful. I had an awful lot of people thank me for that. Saying I opened the door to a lot of things. I gave a lot of girls courage to talk up. You know, on that set, were all equal! Me and Dick and Carl and Sheldon and Morey. I was one of the boys, you know. Without being sarcastic, I was just with them all the time. I was on an equal basis with them.
What do you think about young people working in the business today?
The business has certainly changed. These days, I don’t see any real talent around. Because everyone uses four-letter words. In my day, we never used four-letter words. I never used a dirty word in my act. If you have to use those words, you’re not funny, you are using shock. That was a big, broad statement, wasn’t it? Do you know the difference between a comic and a comedian? A comic is someone who says something funny. And a comedian says funny things. In other words, Jack Lemmon was brilliant! A very funny man. But he was not a comic, he was a comedian. He could play funny, but he didn’t tell jokes. I consider myself a funny lady. I say things and I never realize they are funny. It just comes out that way.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing voice-overs! I just did one for a Garfield cartoon. It’s so easy, you don’t have to worry about makeup or wardrobe, you just go in and sit down and do it.
You really seem to have done it all.
Three years old to 94 years old. That’s pretty good. I love my business. I love everything I have done. If that’s being selfish and conceited, I guess I am! I wouldn’t be in it this long if I didn’t love it. It was a beautiful life. In fact, I always say, if I had known how beautiful it was, I would have paid more attention to it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.