The star witness l Chuck's World
Last updated 5/23/2018 at Noon
If you’re a fan of the E. L. Doctorow novel “Ragtime” (or the subsequent film, or the musical), you’re familiar with Evelyn Nesbit.
You’d be familiar at any rate, I think. It’s an old story, set over a century ago but with elements that feel all too modern. A young woman’s beauty and style captivate a nation, while her personal life is manipulated and exploited by powerful men. It’s a #MeToo story from my great-grandmother’s era, and there’s nothing dusty about the details.
Nesbit’s show-business career imploded from scandal, fictionalized in “Ragtime,” and by the 1920s she was barely remembered, a fading beauty now supporting herself by singing in nightclubs.
One night during her act, she found herself upstaged by a little girl, barely past the toddler stage, who ended up sharing the spotlight with an amazing, very adult-sounding singing voice. Nesbit was a good sport about this, and when she found out the child’s name she had some advice for the parents.
“She’s just a baby!” she said. “You should call her Baby Rose Marie.” So they did. Doctorow could have written a novel about this, too.
But at least someone made a movie.
I first heard about the documentary last summer. My eyes are always open to stories that resonate with my memories, and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” although I was a little too young to watch it in its first run, became a favorite as I was growing up.
Rose Marie was a big part of that show.
I wrote about “Wait For Your Laugh” last fall, when the film was being shown at various venues around the country, trying to gin up interest. Documentary filmmaking is usually an anonymous art form (unless your name is Ken Burns), much loved and appreciated but flying under the radar for the most part.
I was hopeful the film would show up in our area, so I could see it on the big screen, but I knew eventually I’d watch it one way or another.
Other than the TV show, I wasn’t particularly a fan. I knew something of Rose Marie, trivia I’d picked up somewhere, but by the time I became conscious of her show-business career, she’d had one for nearly half a century.
That big voice just popped out one day when she was around 3 years old, imitating the popular singer Sophie Tucker to entertain her mother. Neighbors heard and entered her in a talent show, and within a year Baby Rose Marie was singing to millions around the country. She was a child star before Shirley Temple was born.
One day in Chicago, Al Capone showed up, and the little girl became a favorite of the mob in the days when organized crime controlled a fair bit of the entertainment business. She was eventually hired to open the Flamingo Hotel for Bugsy Siegel in 1946, transforming the desert town of Las Vegas into showbiz paradise.
This is what attracted me in the first place. There are other performers from the 20th-century vaults I admire and appreciate more than I do Rose Marie, although she was enormously talented.
But when she passed away last Christmas at 94, Rose Marie left a big chunk of American history in her wake. There are surely far fewer than six degrees of separation between her and most of the significant personalities of the 20th century; she brushed up against everyone, it seems, and she had stories.
She also had memorabilia, boxes and reels and rooms bursting with artifacts in her home of more than half a century in California. She kept everything, it appears, which is what drew the attention of documentary filmmaker Jason Wise.
It wasn't Sally Rogers. I enjoyed the Van Dyke show, and her performance was a big part of that. She carried the burden of three dimensions in a sitcom world, less by design than by nature, I think.
She just brought multitudes to this lady, an anomaly in a man's world, a witty and sarcastic woman whose heart was as big as her voice, and whose inner sadness we actually grasped on the small, black-and-white screen.
It was a remarkable portrayal, looking back, completely unexpected and unique for its time and place.
But it was her timing that intrigued me. The mobbed-up child star story perfectly mirrors the early days of motion pictures and nightclub entertainment, from vaudeville to Vegas. She transitioned from radio and clubs to television when America did.
She was present at the creation and the collapse, the changes and the old becoming new again, and over and over. She never lost relevance because she never stopped seeking it, apparently needing to keep moving and singing and entertaining.
This isn’t a general recommendation. I recently watched the film (available now on DVD and streaming platforms) and thoroughly enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary. If you enjoy history, though, and particularly our cultural history, I think you’ll enjoy “Wait For Your Laugh.”
Rose Marie was a witness to most of it, and she eventually was the last one.
And part of the pleasure with this film is understanding that. When Jerry Lewis passed away last year (he was a couple of years younger than Rose Marie), there was a lot of talk about him being the last, the final connection to the early days of modern entertainment. It was our good fortune that Jason Wise realized, in Yoda fashion, that there was another.
There certainly was.