Thursday, February 9, 2012

My Mentor, Rose Marie

You know her face and signature hair accessory from TV's classic sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show and from TV's classic game show, The Hollywood Squares:  Rose Marie.
I was a '60s kid and The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of my favorite shows on prime time television.  I loved Rose Marie as wise-cracking, eager-to-wed comedy writer, Sally Rogers.  The only gal in the comedy writing boys club in which Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) worked.  That raspy voice, that New York City vibe and warmth, that feminine yet "one o' the boys" presence of hers -- loved 'em!  No one could've played that part better than Broadway veteran, former child star, singer/comic actress Rose Marie.
A totally cool character named Joe Santoro gave me my first professional on-air break in broadcasting.  This was at radio station WQFM, 93QFM Sunshine Radio in Milwaukee.  It was a rock station.  I was hungry to get my first on-air gig.  After graduating from Marquette University, instead of going back home to Los Angeles, I stayed in Milwaukee to get my start in broadcasting.  It seemed like you had to be blond even to be on radio back home in L.A.  My plan was to get experience in a small market and work my way up.  I'd go in person every week to fill out a job application at WQFM.  Joe, the station's program director, noticed my moxie and hired me as a weekend newsreader.  To break me in to the world of news-gathering, the just-as-cool-as-Joe news director, Mary Curran, gave me a tape recorder and a few light assignments to get soundbites for her weekday newscasts.  When I started the job, I was a serious cut-and-dry reader.  News, sports, weather...that was it. Not much chit-chat with the DJs.  One day, Mary told me that "4 Girls 4" was coming to Milwaukee's big Performing Arts Center for a week.  When top Broadway shows or headliners like A Chorus Line, Bette Midler, Lena Horne and Liza Minnelli toured, they played our excellent 2500 seat theatre in that center.  Since QFM's rock audience was into retro television and TV trivia, Mary assigned me to attend the opening night press conference and get a few comments from Rose Marie, whom our listeners would know.  They'd want to hear something about The Dick Van Dyke Show...
...and they'd want to know about the "4 Girls 4" show.  It was a popular music & comedy revue starring Rose Marie, Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Helen O'Connell.
I saw the show.  Big fun.  Then attended the press conference.  After we got our Q & A stuff, there was a buffet with beverages.  I'd gotten good soundbites from Rose Marie.  I sat with some of the guys in the band and we're just talking.  I'm telling stories about my first TV appearance (on a game show in Hollywood) and what it was like to be from racially mixed L.A. and now often the only black person in the room many times in Milwaukee. Drummer:  "What's that like?"  Me:  "Like Blazing Saddles.  With Schlitz."  We're just dudes laughing and talking.  Rose Marie is at the table next to ours.  She says, "Hey, kid, come here."  I did.  She continued, "The way you were talking with the guys, is that what you do on the radio?"  I told "No."  I just read the news.  She said, "You need to let that personality out somehow on the air.  You're funny.  Don't stay in news."  Truth be told, I was not a hardcore journalism student.  I'd have preferred to play a hard news reporter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show rather than be one in real life.  But  this was my first big job.  Then Rose Marie gave me her home address.  "Write me some jokes for when we continue the tour.  I'll let you know how they are and I'll pay you for them."  I practically shrieked this news to my mother like the eternally optimistic Sue Heck on ABC's sitcom, The Middle.  I admit it, I am no Mel Brooks, Woody Allen or Elaine May.  But I seized the opportunity, wrote and sent jokes to Rose Marie.  And she did pay me for them.  I opened the first envelope from her and a check for $100 fell out.  Back then, in the mid 1970s and being in my 20s, that was major money.  Her criticisms were always kind, honest and constructive.  My favorite one was:  "This joke bombed in Gary, Indiana.  But they loved in New York."  That's when I knew I had a chance to get somewhere in this business.  My goal, ever since I was  an adolescent in L.A., was to work in New York.

I did let my personality out on the air and my career changed.  WQFM offered me full time employment to be half of its morning radio show team and, eventually, I was relieved of having to gather news.  I could entertain and do celebrity interviews.  "4 Girls 4" played Milwaukee again the following year. Rose Marie wrote me that she wasn't doing it that time.  Martha Raye replaced her.  She wrote, "...call Clooney when they get to town and have dinner.  I'll tell her you'll be in touch."  She wanted me to meet Martha.  Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and Martha Raye did indeed invite me along for dinner.
Martha Raye invited me out for a "nightcap" after dinner.  I'm still hungover from that cocktail lounge detour with her.  Martha could put 'em away.  She was fine at last call.  But when I got up from bar chair, I was walking like someone had stolen my knees.  I loved spending time with Martha during that show's return engagement.  In the summer on '79, I started my television career.  Also in Milwaukee.  I got discovered by New York's WPIX in 1985 and relocated to do celebrity interviews on that Manhattan station.  One of my first guests -- Rosemary Clooney.  What a blast to catch up.  She was a lovely, down-to-earth, sweet person and a fantastic singer.  Cut to 1997.  I'm working on "Good Day New York," the local weekday morning show on WNYW.  We have a contest.  The prize -- you and a guest come with me, Bobby Rivers, to Hollywood for a screening of The Peacemaker.  And you get to meet its star, actor  George Clooney.
A fabulous woman named Donna Fentress won the contest.  She was everything you hoped a winner would be when I called her live on the air after pulling her postcard from a giant hopper.  Donna would be meeting George Clooney and I would be interviewing him for "Good Day New York."  Early the morning of the interview session, part of a promotional film junket weekend for The Peacemaker at the Century Plaza Hotel, my segment producer/talent booker called me to come downstairs to a conference room and meet George Clooney.  She and I wanted to confirm that DreamWorks, the studio, had offered us the opportunity to do this contest.  I was a bit nervous about meeting the TV/film star.  My nervousness instantly evaporated.  Clooney is the gentlemen you hear him to be.  As we shook hands after being introduced, I asked "How's your Aunt Rosemary and Dante?"  His eyes got sunny.  "How do you know Dante?," he smiled.  Dante was her very longtime boyfriend.  I told George how I'd met Rosemary Clooney. He leaned back, gave me a sideways glance, folded his arms and said "Are you the guy in Milwaukee that Aunt Rose would talk about sometime?"  Whoa.  I was stunned, flattered, amazed. "Yes!," I answered.  George came back with, "What did you do for the '4 Girls 4' show?"  I told him that I really didn't do a lot for the show.  "I wrote some jokes for Rose Marie and when the show came back to Milwaukee, I'd carry Martha Raye's cooler out of the theatre and into the van."

Clooney said, "When I was young, Aunt Rose made me their driver for their dates in the L.A. area.  I'd carry Martha Raye out of the van and into the theatre."  We all giggled.  George told me that Aunt Rose and Dante were finally getting married.  I asked if I could give the news item to my co-worker buddy, syndicated columnist Liz Smith, when I got back to New York.  He said, "Sure."  I got a nice mention in Liz's column thanks to George Clooney, he gave me a great interview, he made the contest winner feel like a star and one of the people I had to thank for all that -- Rose Marie.  I'm still grateful to her.  If you want to see a photo of Gorgeous George, the contest winner and me, go to BobbyRivers.com and click on the Gallery section.

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