By Nick Thomas
Rose Marie may be best known as wisecracking Sally Rogers in the 60’s CBS sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but she began performing nine decades ago at an age when most children would still be potty training. With a phenomenal singing voice as a child, she rocketed to fame overnight.
“I have no idea where that voice came from, I think God just gave me a wonderful gift,” said Rose Marie, who turned 91 in August.
“When I was three, I won an amateur contest, and my family took me to Atlantic City,” she recalled. “We saw a showgirl named Evelyn Nesbit perform and I started singing along. She invited me up on stage to sing with her, then people began throwing money.”
Backstage, Nesbit suggested changing her name to Baby Rose Marie and her career took off. “I had my own radio show coast to coast on NBC when I was five.”
But there were also doubters. “Unlike other child singers, I sang adult songs with adult phrasing and mannerisms. People would write to the station in disbelief saying that no child could sing like that and I must have been a midget. So NBC sent me out to play theaters to prove I was a child.”
As her fame grew, the famous wanted to meet her. President Franklin Roosevelt invited her to the White House when she was just six. “After I sang for him, we played tiddlywinks with some poker chips I found in his office.”
She caught the attention of the infamous, too. While working with Milton Berle in Chicago, a visitor came backstage.
“It was Al Capone and he wanted to invite me to dinner!” she said. “He picked me up the next day and we went out to eat with all the mob. I just didn’t think of those guys as gangsters.”
Rose Marie was just 10 when she first met Morey Amsterdam, who would become an important influence in her career and later her co-star on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
“He was a popular writer for comedians like Fanny Brice and Fred Allen and become a comic himself,” she recalled. “We met when I guest starred on a radio program. He also wrote most of my nightclub material and become a life-long friend. I actually got him ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ job.”
Dick Van Dyke is currently one of several celebrities campaigning for Rose Marie’s induction into the TV Hall of Fame in 2015. Speaking from his Malibu home, he recalled meeting her for the first time.
“I knew she had been in show business since she was three, but never met her until the first reading of the script,” he said. “She just knocked me over. She probably had the most razor sharp sense of timing of anybody I ever worked with. She was a delight and still is.”
“We were a close group and genuinely liked working together,” said Rose Marie of the cast. “Everyone came to work happy, and oh did we laugh!”
Still active, her recent projects (see www.missrosemarie.com) include voiceover work for “The Garfield Show” on the Cartoon Network.
“I love it,” she says. “You don’t have to dress up or put on makeup. All you have to do is show up! Although I can do many different voices, the producer wanted my voice so people would know ‘that’s Rose Marie!’”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., with features, columns, and interviews in over 400 magazines and newspapers.