As tart-tongued Sally Rogers on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the late Rose Marie made an indelible impression on generations of TV viewers. But that’s just one stop on an amazing show-business journey that gets explored in an affectionate documentary, “Wait for Your Laugh.”
Of course, Rose Marie worked before and after that classic TV sitcom. But the breadth of her career is pretty mind-blowing. At age 5, she became a national radio star. She then was a nightclub headliner and a favorite of the mob. Later came Broadway success in the show “Top Banana.”
And while all this is going on, the world had yet to hear of Dick Van Dyke.
Director Jason Wise takes a pretty straightforward approach to the material. Rose Marie’s longtime pal Peter Marshall (“The Hollywood Squares”) narrates, but basically, it feels as if you’re sitting down with Rose Marie for 90 minutes while she talks about her life. That proves to be challenging to Wise, who often resorts to distracting dramatizations, in which Rose Marie speaks while actors mouth her words.
Still, what a life it’s been. In interviews for the film she’s in her 90s and uses a wheelchair and an oxygen tank, but she boasts crack comic timing and a razor-sharp memory. She leads us through her career as Baby Rose Marie, essentially the Shirley Temple of the vaudeville stage. Unlike Temple, however, Rose Marie sang with the voice of a mature woman, a novelty that is still oddly endearing today.
As Rose Marie matures, she graduates into nightclubs, where she shows off a killer Jimmy Durante impression. She becomes a favorite of gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone, who she calls “Uncle Al.” She marries trumpeter Bobby Guy. He’s the love of her life; he dies of a mysterious disease in 1964, and she never remarries. A mature Rose Marie still weeps when she discusses his death.
His death occurs during the heady days of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs behind the scenes. (Fans will love the great backstage color footage from the show, shot by Guy.) Though she adored the program, she was displeased when it emphasized the home life of its star, thus leading to Mary Tyler Moore’s emergence as the show’s leading lady. Creator Carl Reiner tells her: “If you can’t stand the fact that the audiences care more about Mary and Dick, don’t come back.”
Needless to say, she came back. “Community” creator Dan Harmon makes a strong case for the significance of Sally Rogers as a woman working in a comedy writers’ room; he’s less persuasive when he says the reason for Moore’s fame was simply her beauty, not her talent. (The film, perhaps not surprisingly, stays firmly in Rose Marie’s corner.)
Once the show wrapped, Rose Marie continued to work. She landed on “The Doris Day Show” — a hit, but no “Van Dyke” — and developed an enduring friendship with the star. She became a regular on “The Hollywood Squares,” her snappy wisecracks resonating with viewers.
In the ’70s, she made an unlikely comeback as part of 4 Girls 4, a successful concert touring act that featured four female performers of a certain vintage (“old broads,” they’re called in the film). Margaret Whiting, Rosemary Clooney and Helen O’Connell rounded out the troupe. The latter was a pain to work with; “I just want to pull all of Helen’s nails out and hold her hands over fire,” Whiting said of the vocalist.
Rose Marie later made a career out of playing grouchy mother-in-law types on sitcoms and doing voiceover work for cartoons. Still, the demand for her talent gradually waned, which is tough for someone who essentially lives to perform. Daughter (and executive producer) Georgiana “Noopy” Rodrigues reports that her mother would lie in bed at night, running through her act in her mind. “It’s horrible when your mind is working and your body refuses,” someone notes.
It’s a poignant theme to end on. Then again, right up until her death on Dec. 28, Rose Marie was making the rounds promoting the film and communicating on a Twitter account that still has almost 125,000 followers. She’ll have the last laugh yet.
Randy Cordova, USA TODAY Network
Vitagraph Films presents a documentary directed by Jason Wise. No MPAA rating. Running time: 85 minutes. Opens Friday at Facets Cinematheque.