RIP Rose Marie (1923 - 2017)
If I had to point to one seminal influence in my creative career, it would be The Dick Van Dyke Show.
I used to watch it by sneaking out of bed.
The show ran from 1961 to 1966, but after an initial run at 8pm on Tuesdays, it moved to 9:30pm on Wednesdays.
Let me tell you about Wednesdays and Southern Baptists.
Southern Baptists -- at least when I was growing up -- were the church goingest folks around.
You had Sunday school early on Sunday morning, followed by the actual church service at 10am or so, then you’d come back in the evening for Training Union, which was essentially Sunday school lite since you didn’t have to wear a tie, then to help you get through the week on Wednesdays there would be a prayer meeting (except one week a month when it was a business meeting).
Being good Southern Baptists -- well, let’s change that to loyal Southern Baptists -- my family would go to prayer meetings on Wednesdays.
This meant I couldn’t see Top Cat which aired early Wednesday evenings. I admit as an 8 year old I struggled mightily with the theological reasons why I couldn’t watch a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.
It also means I probably didn’t see my first Dick Van Dyke Show episode until sometime in 1962.
Watching the show was no easy task for little 8 year old Buzzy boy.
See, as soon as we came home from prayer meeting, teeth were brushed, jammies put on, prayers said (even though we’d just spent an hour or more praying at church), and I and my brothers were put to bed.
This meant in bed by 9pm.
Then as now I was a night owl (or considering my age, a night owlet).
Putting me in bed did no damn good; I typically stayed awake for another hour or so, creating stories in my head or listening to my parents and the TV in the living room.
And I heard them -- or rather, my mom -- laughing at The Dick Van Dyke Show.
So I started sneaking out of bed to watch along with them.
Now, my scheme had its risk, because if I got caught I could be punished. And to maintain a level of plausible deniability, I couldn’t wear my glasses; I needed an alibi why I was out of bed and wearing glasses would betray my true intent (i.e., to watch TV).
So I would creep out of bed, sneak to the living room door, and peek over my dad’s armchair while he snored away and mom watched The Dick Van Dyke Show.
(Dad never was much of a fictional TV watcher, preferring news, sports, and documentaries. The only two shows I remember him watching with any regularity were The Untouchables and The Twilight Zone. The Untouchables I could understand; it was a highly fictionalized account of Elliot Ness pretty much single-handedly bringing down every gangster, outlaw, and sex-crazed killer in Depression era America, and as such recounted the sensational news stories my father read and heard as a child. But The Twilight Zone was a head scratcher; for a guy as grounded in reality as he was, why watch a show with such an overt fantasy content? “I figure if I’m going to watch something made up, I might as well go all the way,” Dad explained.)
So Dad would be conked out in his chair, and mom would either be ironing or mending socks or something while watching TV.
And, being partially deaf, she had the set’s volume up good and loud.
So I’d sneak up behind Dad’s chair, peer over it at the TV (which gave me only a blurry view of the proceedings) and listened intently to what I heard.
And what I heard truly changed my life.
I heard a story about a guy who had a really wonderful life:
He was married to a smart, beautiful woman whom he loved and who loved him back; he had a really great job writing for a hit TV show, and the job was never really work but more like loosely organized play; and the reason his job never felt like work was because he had two great co-writers who were also dear and loyal friends.
Dick Van Dyke
Mary Tyler Moore
I cannot stress how much of an impact The Dick Van Dyke Show had on my psyche. As I grew older and caught the show on summer re-runs (local CBS stations often ran earlier season repeats of hit prime time shows in the middle of the day), the full range and scope of the series sank in on me.
Created by Carl Reiner (who occasionally appeared as the mercurial TV star Van Dyke & co were writing for), the series was based on Reiner’s earlier career writing for such programs as Caesar's Hour and Your Show of Shows. As such, it carried an air of authenticity usually missing in shows and films about creative people, and so provided my point of entry into the lore of show biz.
And I was not alone. Ask any fair sampling of my generation of American TV writers to name key influences in their lives and careers, and you’ll find The Dick Van Dyke Show listed nine times out of ten.
And while Dick Van Dyke was the star of the show, all his co-stars were playing fully developed characters, each with their own strengths, foibles, and quirks.
Rose Marie’s Sally Rogers was a career gal at a time and in a field where Southern Baptists frowned on women going.
Hollywood was always the great Satan’s playground to Southern Baptists, and except for spinster school teachers or church secretaries, women were not supposed to have a career outside of their family (or the family business, since a lot of Southern Baptists women were also farm wives or helping run their husband’s store or garage).
Sally Rogers was clearly none of that but rather a strong, tough minded, and razor sharp lady who could stand up to anything the male dominated system could throw at her.
She reminded me of my Aunt Bidney in many ways (though Bidney never cared about snagging a man the way Sally did -- and that was the genius of Sally’s character and Rose Marie’s performance: She clearly didn’t need a man to be a fully realized person and her perennial manhunt was viewed by the other characters as a personality quirk, not a tragic flaw).
If The Dick Van Dyke Show informed me what my career ambitions should be, Sally and the other characters informed me on how to treat my co-workers (with respect and as friends).
The lessons little Buzzy boy gleaned over the top of his snoozing Dad’s chair have stuck with me all my life and to good effect.
I’m married to a wonderful woman who loves me.
I’m a writer, and I got to work on some of the most iconic shows in TV’s history.
I got to work with, and count as dear friends, some of the greatest creative talents in any media.
And I never fell into the trap of thinking my female co-workers (or my Jewish co-workers, or by extension those of other faiths and cultures and ethnicities and races) as anything less that individuals to be judged by their own behavior, not what I’d been told to think about them.
So thank you, Rose Marie, for what you helped do to shape my life for the good.
I only hope I’ve been able to pay the favor forward.
© Buzz Dixon