MAMA

U.S. Domestic Comedy/Drama

Mama, which aired from 1949 to 1957 on CBS, proves that television was capable of complex characterizations in the series format even early in its history. A weekly family comedy-drama based on Kathryn Forbes's Mama's Bank Account, as well as its play and film adaptations I Remember Mama, Mama, would best be described today as "dramedy." Unfortunately, except for its last half-season, when it was filmed, the program aired live, with kinescope recordings prepared for west coast broadcasts. Consequently it is unavailable in the repetitive re-runs that have made other domestic situation comedies from the 1950s--many, like Father Knows Best, that it influenced--familiar to several generations of viewers. But for those who do remember Mama or have seen the few of its episodes available on video, it is deservedly admired.

Each episode dramatizes, with warmth and humor, the Hansen family's adventures and everyday travails in turn of the century San Francisco. The working-class Norwegian family included Mama, Papa (a carpenter), and children Katrin, Nels, and Dagmar. Mama's sisters and an uncle were semi-regular characters. Although earlier incarnations of the Forbes material had focused the relationship between Mama and Katrin, the television series centered episodes on all of the characters, a technique made available and almost demanded by the production of a continuing series.

The stories might revolve around Dagmar's braces, Nels starting a business, or the children buying presents for Mama's birthday. The entire family would contribute to the drama's resolution, however, and images of them sitting down to a cup of Maxwell House Coffee--the show's long-time sponsor--would frame each episode of the show. As George Lipsitz points out, it was common for the dramatic solutions to involve some kind of commodity purchase, not surprising given the commercial basis of American network television and the consumer culture of post-war America. What is surprising--but also what makes Mama so special--is how often the show foregrounded both the contradictions of this consumer culture in which everyone does not have access to the desired goods. Dramatic tension often results from the realization that Mama's endeavors provide the foundation for the achievements of individual family members. It was not uncommon for Papa and the Hansen children to have to come to terms with the value of Mama's work.

The program's complex treatment of cultural tensions resulted not only from Forbes's original material, but also from head writer Frank Gabrielson, director-producer Ralph Nelson (a Hollywood liberal of Norwegian descent who went on to direct the film Lilies of the Field), and a distinguished cast. Peggy Wood, who incarnated Mama, was a versatile stage and film actress who had starred in operetta and Shakespeare, and is probably best known to today's audiences for her Oscar-nominated role as Mother Superior in The Sound of Music. (Mady Christians, who starred in the role of Mama on Broadway, was not considered for the television role because she was blacklisted.) Dick Van Patten played Nels, and would later star in television's Eight is Enough in the 1970s. Robin Morgan, who played Dagmar, is now a well-known feminist activist and writer. Not surprisingly, she attributes to Mama many of her early lessons in feminine power.

-Mary Desjardins

 


Mama

CAST

"Mama" Marta Hansen............................... Peggy Wood "Papa" Lars Hansen ...................................Judson Laire Nels.................................................... Dick Van Patten Katrin ....................................................Rosemary Rich Dagmar (1949)................................................ Iris Mann Dagmar (1950-1956)................................. Robin Morgan Dagmar (1957)......................................... Toni Campbell Aunt Jenny .................................................Ruth Gates T.R. Ryan (1952-1956)............................. Kevin Coughlin Uncle Chris (1949-1951)........................... Malcolm Keen Uncle Chris (1951-1952)......................... Roland Winters Uncle Gunnar Gunnerson ...............................Carl Frank Aunt Trina Gunnerson ...................................Alice Frost Ingeborg (1953-1956)......................... Patty McCormack

PRODUCERS Carol Irwin, Ralph Nelson, Donald Richardson

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS
July 1949-July 1956                               Friday 8:00-8:30 December 1956-March 1957                   Friday 8:00-8:30

FURTHER READING

Lipsitz, George. "Why Remember Mama? The Changing Face of a Woman's Narrative?" In Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1990.

 

See also Comedy, Domestic Settings; Family on Television