Updated: Feb 3
By John C. Alsedek:
In an era when social media bestows instant celebrity status and takes it away every bit as quickly, it can be a little difficult to fathom how someone can maintain a high level of recognition for decades at a time. So it’s even more impressive when someone manages to do it for longer than most peoples’ lifetime! Yet that’s what actress, comedian, singer, and writer Rose Marie did. As a kid, I knew her from reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show and then-current episodes of The Hollywood Squares game show, where she seemed to be on all the time. But it wasn’t until later that I would learn just what a rich and interesting career she had.
First of all, Rose Marie wasn’t a stage name—she was actually born Rose Marie Mazzetta in Manhattan, New York, on August 15th, 1923, and went with her given names throughout her nine-decade career. Italian-American on her father’s side, Polish-American on her mother’s, she grew up in a vaudeville household (her father, Frank, was an actor) and was singing for the family and neighbors even before she could walk. At just three years old, she was performing as "Baby Rose Marie," and at five . . . well . . . at five she’d already hit heights that most performers can only dream of.
This was the first stage of Rose Marie’s career: the child prodigy. As a five-year-old, she was a radio star on NBC and would soon have her own show. She’d also done her first film—the Vitaphone sound short Baby Rose Marie, the Child Wonder. She would go on to do dozens of shorts, plus the feature film International House with W. C. Fields, Cab Calloway, and Bela Lugosi (!) in 1933. Rose Marie also recorded music for RCA Victor, with fifteen releases before she’d turned 15; the first of those found her accompanied by the orchestra of famed African American musician Fletcher Henderson. They would later support her on the single "Say That You Were Teasing Me," which was a national hit in 1932.
As she grew from a child first into a young woman and then into full-fledged adulthood, Rose Marie entered the second stage of her career: nightclub star. Sure, she still did radio, most notably The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show (the cast of which included Sheldon Leonard, who would later be the executive producer of The Dick Van Dyke Show, among many others). But increasingly, Rose Marie turned to live entertainment in big nightclubs and hotels, including a long stint at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. This was helped along by her friendships with some of organized crime’s biggest names, including Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel (Rose Marie had become a favorite of Capone’s when she was a little girl). She also did a number of big musicals/Broadway productions in the late forties/early fifties, including Top Banana with Phil Silvers and Ziegfeld Follies with Milton Berle (who, as luck would have it, was an old friend from back in her childhood). In fact, Berle wrote some of the material for her nightclub act, as did comedian Morey Amsterdam, with whom she would work on The Dick Van Dyke Show and whom she’d known since she was nine.
With Silvers, Berle, and Amsterdam already big names in the brand-new medium of television, Rose Marie followed them into TV in the second half of the 1950s. She started out with guest spots on programs such as Gunsmoke and M Squad, then followed that up with a recurring role on The Bob Cummings Show in 1959. In 1960, Rose Marie was cast as a regular on the CBS series My Sister Eileen, which ran just one season before falling victim to the very popular Hawaiian Eye.
But that was the beginning of the third stage of her career: the TV star. From the early 1960s till well into the 1990s, Rose Marie was on television pretty regularly. There was The Dick Van Dyke Show (the subject of my previous column), followed by two seasons as a regular on The Doris Day Show and a fourteen-year run on that most seventies of game shows, The Hollywood Squares. She was a regular on the Bruce Greenwood baseball series Hardball; a recurring character on the ABC police series S.W.A.T; a four-timer on The Love Boat; and did at least one guest spot on such shows as The Monkees, Remington Steele, Cagney and Lacey, Murphy Brown, Wings . . . and was reunited with her old pal Morey Amsterdam on both Herman’s Head and Caroline in the City, the latter of which was done just months before Amsterdam’s passing. Not surprisingly given her instantly recognizable voice, she also did quite a bit of voiceover work, including The Garfield Show, on which she appeared as late as 2013—at age 90!
In her final years, Rose Marie still did as many appearances as her declining health would allow and became active on social media, most notably on Twitter. In 2017, a documentary about her life and career entitled Wait for Your Laugh was released; it included plenty of interview footage with the lady herself as well as dear friends such as Tim Conway, Dick Van Dyke, and longtime Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall. She passed away of natural causes on December 28, 2017, and was remembered by many, including her former Dick Van Dyke Show mate Carl Reiner, who tweeted:
“There’s never been a more engaging & multi-talented performer. In a span of 90 years, since she was four, dear Rosie performed on radio, in vaudeville, night clubs, films, TV, & Vegas & always had audiences clamoring for 'more!!'”
And really, what greater praise could there be for any entertainer?
While he didn’t quite match Rose Marie’s mark of 629 episodes of The Hollywood Squares, fellow Square Roy Clark did host 316 episodes of the beloved country-music comedy show Hee Haw and played a major role in bringing the genre into the mainstream of popular culture. We’ll be discussing the career of comedian and guitarist extraordinaire Roy Clark next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.