Rose Marie (1923-2017) was one of the few genuine vaudeville stars I got to interview for my book No Applause. This was around 2002. She was extremely generous and down-to-earth, just as she comes across in the documentary about her Wait for Your Laugh, which came out just before she passed away at age 94.
A lot of kid acts fade away long about puberty and are never heard from again. Some, like the great Jackie Coogan, benefit from the obscurity wrought by intervening years and are able to start afresh with a new identity. Such was also the case with Rose Marie, whom millions no doubt still remember as the character “Sally” on the Dick Van Dyke Show and as the sassy top-middle square on the original Hollywood Squares. But forty years earlier that smart-mouth husky-voiced woman with the little hairbow had been a major star on stage, screen and radio, though barely out of diapers.
Unlike That Girl’s Ann Marie, Rose Marie’s last name is not Marie. Rose Marie has no last name, and that’s because (according to her autobiography) her father was a no good, two timing schnook. Mafia hood Frank Mazetta had two families, and Rose’s was the second one, the afterthought. The little girl spent her first few years living with her mother and maternal grandparents in New York. But “oops” turned to “oops-a-daisy!” when, at the age of three, she won a talent contest at the Mecca Theatre, then was spotted by a talent scout from radio station WPG. Then suddenly, dad got very much involved, becoming her manager throughout the early years of her career. When she was six, he changed his last name to Curley, probably to avoid any confusion with (and, probably, mail from) the other family.
At first, they called her “Dainty Rose Marie”; it was Evelyn Nesbitt who came up with “Baby”. For a year and half she had her own radio program on WPG out of Atlantic City, then she moved to WMCA, then New York’s WJZ, and finally NBC National. She was a sensation. By 1927 she was so big that she starred in the Vitaphone short that opened Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. Her specialty was singing and dancing, with that voice which had been husky since she was a toddler. She had all the moves of a grown up singer, and sang with all the nuance, personality and – somehow – wit, of an adult. People wrote the network, complaining that the show was a gyp – for Baby Rose Marie was plainly a midget.
To prove that she wasn’t, in the early 30s, NBC sent her on a tour of its theatrical affiliate, the RKO (formerly Keith) circuit – this is her real link to vaudeville. In Rochester she encountered a hyperactive Gerry agent, and so she lip-synced her act to a phonograph record, which apparently wasn’t against the rules. She can be seen at the age of ten, in the 1933 Paramount film International House when already not such a baby, but still every bit of her youthful charm. You can also hear her voice as Sally Swing in the old Betty Boop cartoons.
When she was twelve she went off the air, and had a lean few years playing the Borscht Belt and New England roadhouses. At 15, she stopped being “Baby” Rose Marie. Gradually the club dates began to improve until she was playing the top night spots, and along the way she continued to benefit from relationships with old friends like Milton Berle, Phil Silvers, and Morey Amsterdam.
Rose Marie became interesting to casting directors again in middle age. Her new persona was that of a sort of updated Sophie Tucker without the extra weight:a gal who’s getting older, not so pretty, and is starved for affection. She did variations on this character for the remainder of her career, wringing both pathos and campy hilarity out of the bit. She was in the 1954 musical Top Banana (stage and screen versions) with Silvers, and for fifty years did massive amounts of television: The Bob Cummings Show, My Sister Eileen, The Doris Day Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hollywood Squares, and Caroline in the City are only a few. In 1998, she did the voice of the mother in the remake of Psycho! Ultimately Rose Marie’s career in show business lasted over 90 years, which has to be close to the record. When we finally get to someone who performs for an entire century, that will truly be Back to Methuselah.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including child stars like Rose Marie, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous