By what I think is complete coincidence, Facets Cinémathèque is opening the documentary Wait for Your Laugh just two weeks after the passing of its subject, the legendary comic talent Rose Marie, whose career began when she was four years old and continued until her death at age 94. The film is a straight-forward telling of her life and career, but it’s also an often breathtaking glimpse into the history of Vaudeville, Hollywood and Vegas, when entertainers rubbed elbows with mobsters (who owned most of the venues where the performers played) and a child singing sensation was given the opportunity to grow up in public and evolve into a well-rounded actor, comedian and writer.
Assuming you know Rose Marie, what you know her from is likely determined by how old you are. The oldest amongst us might remember her as Little Rose Marie, the singer whose voice was so mature, many believed she was an adult little person pretending to a child. Many more know her from her starring role as Sally Rogers in “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which she thought would be a show about what goes on in a television show’s writers room, but in fact turned into one about Van Dyke and his home life (his character was married to a quite young Mary Tyler Moore). Although Rose Marie was a bit disappointed in creator Carl Reiner’s vision, Wait for Your Laugh makes it clear that the process of putting this landmark show together (especially working alongside her friend Morey Amsterdam) was an exercise in taking funny material and making it even funnier.
Other fans might know her from “The Doris Day Show,” and an entirely different generation of fans know her as a regular (in the top-center square) for 15 years on “The Hollywood Squares,” with her longtime friend Peter Marshall as host. But as Wait for Your Laugh (the title comes from advice she used to give her television co-stars to pause after each joke) makes clear, most of us know her from dozens different things because she was omnipresent, particularly on stage and television. As her daughter says in an interview, she was always running through her act, even when she was just at home, so that she could revive it at a moment’s notice.
Directed by Jason Wise (who made the great 2012 sommelier doc Somm), Wait for Your Laugh is packed with an impressive amount of archival footage (much of which came from his subject’s personal collection) of Rose Marie performing, behind-the-scenes film of her working on countless shows, and a small number of re-enactments that illustrate her encounters with the likes of Al Capone (who insisted she call him “Uncle Al”) and Bugsy Seigel (who booked her as one of the first acts to play his Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas). But the heart and soul of the film belongs to Rose Marie, who is interviewed extensively for the film and has a seemingly endless supply of stories about all of her old pals and peers—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Bing Crosby, Milton Berle, Jimmy Durante, Johnny Carson, Rosemary Clooney, and dozens more.
Someone in the film makes the case that Rose Marie was both protected and encouraged by mobsters and other performers, and never overtly sexualized or otherwise treated inappropriately (except by her thuggish father, who effectively stole all of the money she earned as a child). Some of the most insightful commentary about Rose Marie’s place in a male-dominated industry comes from “Community” and “Rick and Morty” creator Dan Harmon, who marvels at the fact that she’s essentially seen as sexless on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was unheard of at the time.
In addition to her professional life, the film also moves through her nearly 20-year marriage to well-respected trumpet player Bobby Guy, and she seems just as much in love with him today as she did then (she never remarried). The stories she tells of their partnership are an inspiration, and push the film into some beautifully emotional places. In her last few decades alive, Rose Marie was always looking for the next gig, and quite often she found one. She makes it clear that, even after nine decades in show business, it was never as much about the money or fame as it was just being able to perform. She was a marvel, and Wait for Your Laugh reminds us why her recent passing marks the end of an era.