Thursday, 28 December 2017

Rose Marie

Almost anyone can do an impression of Jimmy Durante. But the person who may have done the most fun impersonation is someone you probably wouldn’t think of.

It was Rose Marie.

She died today at age 94.

Long before The Dick Van Dyke Show, and long before answering “finding-a-man” questions on Hollywood Squares, Rose Marie graced the air a few times on the Jimmy Durante radio show with back-and-forth schtick, both of them sounding just like Durante. She even sang in Durante’s voice.

TV fans who watched her in the 1960s and ’70s may not realise just how far back her career went. She was already a seasoned trouper when she first appeared on the radio in 1927 as a child. And not on some kind of “aw, let’s bring on the cute kids” type show. Rose Marie was a star. By 1929, she was headlining for Lehn and Fink (makers of Lysol) on Thursday nights in a half-hour on the NBC Blue network. She was six years old.

We posted here about the ambitions of six-year-old Rose. Let’s move things up a few years when she was starting to appear in nightclubs, a “20-year-old hag,” as she put it. This is from the New York Sun of September 20, 1943.

Baby Rose Marie Grows Up
One-time Child Radio Singer Is Currently Featured at Versailles.

Fifteen years or so ago, when that magic thing known as distance was more important than the program which came through the earphones of early radio sets, Baby Rose Marie was plaintively singing the question: "What Can I Say Dear After I Say I'm Sorry?"
These nights at the Versailles, the quietly splendid night spot on East 50th street, Rose Marie, "an old hag of twenty" by her own admission, chants boisterously of "Pig Foot Pete From Kansas City" and in pleasantly husky tones sings a ballad or so from "Oklahoma!", surrounded the while by no little glamour and teauty as supplied by the stately lovelies known as the "Versighs." Rose Marie is one of the few entertainers who can be grateful for the years, for her early photographs, complete with bangs and ruffled pinafore, give the undeniable impression that Baby Rose Marie might have been slightly on the brattishly precocious side. At the age of 20, however, she is an extremely personable young woman with the poise that comes from years of appearing in public and a voice which, miraculously enough, she didn't ruin with her early efforts.
Back in 1936 Rose Marie made a determined effort to get rid of the Baby in her name by going to a hairdresser and having her straight hair done into ringlets and curls. Nothing much came of this, though. People still insisted upon referring to her as Baby Rose Marie. Even today her friends still address her as Baby, but the term is more one of affection than anything else.
Her Early Career.
Rose Marie comes as close to being the "trunk" baby of theatrical legend as any one else. Her father, Frank Curley, was a well-known Broadway performer for another generation, playing in "Forty-five Minutes From Broadway" and other successes of the period. By the time Rose Marie was 5 years old she had finished a six-month vaudeville tour, worked through an engagement of thirteen weeks at the Winter Garden and had made an early "talkie" for the movies. Her father, who may be suspected of prejudice, insists that she was walking at 9 months and talking at 13 months.
According to the story, Rose Marie got her first chance on the air by accident. In 1927 she was on the beach at Atlantic City entertaining a group of adults when an official of Station WPG happened by. He listened to the youngster and that night she sang the sad song of repentence, "What Can I say, Dear, &c," over the air.
In her own way Rose Marie made a little entertainment history despite the fact that she wasn't exactly the Shirley Temple of her day. She did very well, however, and was on her way to the top brackets when, as is usual, she began to grow up and the leggy stage when she no longer little and cute nor tall and beautiful. Booking agents began to look askance at the Baby in Baby Rose Marie. Rose Marie might have been shuffled off into oblivion, as so many child stars before her, but she was determined to be a singer and, knowing what she wanted, worked at the job of getting it.
Emerging from the jungle of adolescence, she started to work again. In 1938 she had a radio program, twice weekly, on Station WJZ, and since that time has been working steadily in clubs and hotels outside of New York.
That phrase, "just outside of New York," brings little comfort to theatrical folk. "Just outside New York" may just as well be Zanzibar and sometimes is. In any event, she kept busy, always with one eye on New York.
Never Wanted Opera.
"I never wanted to be an operatic star," Rose Marie says. She is no frustrated diva and she knows better than any one else what she can do and how well she can do it. "I like to do simple songs and comedy numbers. I'm really all right with comedy stuff."
Unmarried, but with a boy friend in Chicago, Rose Marie lives with her father, who has been traveling with her since she first began appearing in public. In her early days Papa Curley had frequent brushes with the law upon complaints from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and once had to pay a fifty-dollar fine for allowing the 5-year-old child to appear in a floor show at the Hotel New Yorker. In Special Sessions Baby Rose Marie offered to sing for Judges Healy, Direnzo and Vorhees to prove what an asset she was to Manhattan's night life, but the judges ruled otherwise but said she might broadcast.
The engagement at the Versailles, where she appears twice nightly, is the first big break of her adult career and Rose Marie is making the most of it Judging from her reception, the Versailles's patrons think this more than good enough.

I didn’t know Rose Marie, but I gained an additional respect for her as a person in reading Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski’s biography of Paul Lynde. Everyone thinks of him as a quick wit and a cut-up, but he was also an extremely nasty and self-destructive drunk. The book reveals that one person tried to help him and act a bit as his conscience while he was a mess was his Hollywood Squares stablemate Rose Marie. (Lynde finally did get his act together shortly before he died).

Rose Marie had mobility and a few other health issues in recent years. But her sense of humour, kindness and loyalty continued to shine through.


  1. From an animation angle, the Fleischers hired Rose to do the voice of "Sally Swing" in a 1938 Betty Boop short of the same name. Willard Bowsky, the studio's best director of musical cartoons, handled it, and it was one of the better late efforts in the Boop series.

  2. Marie also made a few cameos in the bizarre CG "reunion-of-sorts" The Alan Brady Show way back when in 2003 (a year later, the last of the gang got together for a proper reunion)..

    I'm kind of surprised you didn't mentioned her one-time Betty Boop appearance.

  3. I heard about her passing late last night. Sad. My youngest son and I had been watching a few of our favorite Dick Van Dyke episodes earlier in the evening. A few years back, I decided to find as many pre Dick Van Dyke Rose Marie performances as I could to see her out of that particular ensemble, including " Top Banana " She was a total pro, and a real trouper.