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Mama is a weekly Maxwell House and Post Cereal-sponsored CBS Television comedy-drama series that ran from July 1, 1949 until March 17, 1957. The series is based upon the memoir Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes, which was also adapted for the John Van Druten play (1944) and the subsequent film I Remember Mama (1948), and 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). Katrin would be 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 of Marta Hansen 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 Marta 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, and kinescope recordings were 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 reissue included 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; Maxwell House, the show's sponsor, complained that not enough viewers were buying their coffee. This complaint led to CBS' cancellation of the show in July 1956. Carol Irwin, the show's producer, urged viewers to write the network demanding a return of the show. As a result, 175,000 letters poured into CBS, and the network immediately renewed the show. Unfortunately, with the 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, Mama's ratings plummeted in the less-than-desirable slot to the point of ultimately terminating its run in March 1957, with several episodes left unaired.
Nevertheless, after eight years of playing Marta 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 her 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, the whole 1956-57 filmed season of Mama 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. The aforementioned 26 filmed episodes from the last season of the show have occasionally been screened on low-rating public access stations.
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. The Museum also discovered all 26 episodes of the filmed Mama (1956–57) in a CBS storage facility in New Jersey; not only did these episodes become part of the screening exhibition, but they 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 two Emmy nominations: one in 1951 and another (for Peggy Wood's performance) in 1957.
Mama was one of the first TV sitcoms to consistently finish in the newly developed Nielsen ratings top 30.