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Based on the Kathryn Forbes memoir Mama's Bank Account, which was also adapted for the 1944 John Van Druten play and subsequent 1948 film I Remember Mama, it told the ongoing story of a loving Norwegian family living in San Francisco in the 1910s through the eyes of the elder daughter, Katrin Hansen (Rosemary Rice), who was seen looking through the pages of the family album at the start of each episode with the opening narration:
"This old album makes me remember so many things in the past. San Francisco and the house on Steiner Street where I was born. It brings back memories of my cousins, aunts, and uncles; all the boys and girls I grew up with. And I remember my family as we were then. My brother Nels, my little sister Dagmar, and of course, Papa. But most of all when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember ... Mama."
In addition to veteran stage actress Peggy Wood in the title role and Rosemary Rice as Katrin, the cast included Judson Laire as Papa and Dick Van Patten as brother Nels. The youngest child, Dagmar, was portrayed by Robin Morgan (who later became a radical feminist activist and poet) and then by Toni Campbell after Morgan left the show. Also featured were Ruth Gates, Carl Frank, Alice Frost, Malcolm Keen, Roland Winters, Kevin Coughlin and Patty McCormack.
Although earlier incarnations of the material had focused primarily on the relationship between Mama and Katrin, the television series typically dealt with a specific family member's problem and eventually drew all of them into helping with its resolution. The program aired live, with kinescope recordings prepared for West Coast broadcasts. The popularity and high ratings of Mama prompted a national re-release of I Remember Mama in 1956. In some theaters, this was accompanied by a stage presentation of "Dish Night," a recreation of the dinnerware giveaways theaters held during the 1930s to attract ticket-buyers.
From its premiere in 1949 to 1955, Mama proved to be not only a ratings winner for CBS, it also became a Friday night tradition when millions of families across America (including children already dressed for bed) gathered around the television set to tune into another episode concerning the Hansen family.
However, by the end of the 1955-56 season, even though the ratings for Mama were still respectable, viewership had decreased and Maxwell House, the show's sponsor, complained that not enough viewers were buying their coffee. As a result, in July, 1956, CBS canceled the program. Carol Irwin, the show's producer, urged viewers to write the network demanding a return of the program. As a result, 175,000 letters poured into CBS and the network immediately renewed the show. Unfortunately, with its prime-time schedule already filled, CBS scheduled Mama at 5:00pm on Sunday afternoons beginning December 16, 1956. This time, 26 episodes were filmed. However, the less-than-desirable time slot resulted in Mama's ratings being very low. Mama was ultimately canceled in March, 1957 with several episodes left unaired.
Nevertheless, after eight years of playing Mama Hansen, Peggy Wood was finally honored with an Emmy nomination as best actress in a drama series. Even though she didn't win, on the night of the 1956-57 Emmy Awards, in admiration for the long-running success of Mama and the great affection the public felt for Wood, the Television Academy asked the actress to present the last award of the evening, Best Single Program of the Year, which went to Playhouse 90's Requiem for a Heavyweight.
In the fall of 1957, all of the 26 filmed episodes of Mama were aired on New York's WPIX-TV Channel 11. However, as the live (kinescoped) episodes are largely lost, Mama is unfamiliar to later generations of viewers.
In 1985, the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City presented a retrospective of Mama by arranging screenings of several of the live television broadcasts (1949–56) which had been donated by various sources, as well as a seminar featuring the actors who played the Hansen children—Rosemary Rice (Katrin) and Dick Van Patten (Nels) and longtime director, Ralph Nelson. In addition, the Museum discovered all 26 episodes of the filmed Mama (1956–57) in a CBS storage facility in New Jersey, and these episodes were not only part of the screening exhibition but were also added to the Museum's collection. Rice donated several kinescopes she kept from the show for the exhibition.
The opening and closing musical pieces were the "Holberg Suite" and "The Last Spring," by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Director-producer Ralph Nelson, himself of Norwegian descent, went on to direct the film Lilies of the Field.
The series received an Emmy nomination in 1951. Peggy Wood was nominated for an Emmy in 1957.
Mama was one of the first TV sitcoms to consistently finish in the newly developed Nielsen ratings top 30.