By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — I remember the best of times, my family as we were then, my brother, my little sisters and of course Dad. “But most of all when I look back to those days so long ago, most of all, I remember ... Mama.”
The opening lines from one of the first and most successful television sitcoms, “I Remember Mama” which ran from 1949-57 still echo.
Curled up on blankets and tiny chairs next to the couch where my mother sat braiding my sleepy pajama clad sisters hair, we probably saw every episode; we knew the characters as if they were our neighbors.
Sponsored by Maxwell House, the only coffee my Mom permitted in her percolator, the popular Friday evening CBS television comedy-drama series was often the last thing we children saw before we were whisked off to bed before one of Dad’s favorites, the Pabst Blue Ribbon sponsored Friday Night Fights came on.
Mama lulled us to safe and restful sleep, sleep, sleep ...
Kathryn Anderson McLean, better known by her pen name, Kathryn Forbes’ memoir, “Mama’s Bank Account” served well as the basis for the 1944 John Van Druten play and the 1948 film, “I Remember Mama.”
Loosely based, in part on her Norwegian-American family roots, Forbes’ story, published in 1943 was set in 1910, and told through the eyes of her character, Katrin, the oldest daughter, an aspiring author.
It chronicled the sometimes hilarious, always intriguing and entertaining saga of the Hansens, television’s version of a fairly typical, if not a tad eccentric immigrant family living in fast growing, multicultural San Francisco, kept in line by the sweet, loving, sometimes stern main character, Mama Hansen played by veteran actress Peggy Wood.
Each episode began with Katrin looking through the pages of the family album saying in a soft emotional tone, “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”
By the time the series was nearing the end of its relatively long television run, my sisters and I knew most of the opening narration by heart, especially the last part, “But most of all, I remember Mama …”
As Dagmar, played by Robin Morgan, the youngest girl in the TV family began to seep into my sister’s psyche, their behavior, especially some of their antics and attitudes began to shift; the Hansens were becoming models of behavior for my sisters and millions of other families across the country; fortunately, that was not a bad thing, but somewhere along the way, the influence of the characters of Mama, Dagmar and her little family seemed to fade into oblivion for a while as other forces began to dominate popular culture, not all necessarily for the better.
But every Mother’s Day, I remember that precious time with my Mom, my little sisters and the show.
Of course, by the time Forbes memoir was published in 1943, things were a far cry from the 1910 world she recreated from the memories that inspired her work, nothing like what my family knew and lived.
Born in 1908, only two years before the period she chose to write about, Forbes had lived in a world so full of turmoil and trouble, it’s no wonder she wrote about a more comforting time when most mothers seemed to be the real rock of civilization while some fathers seemed to be constantly at war desperately trying to destroy it.
World War One, which, sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 when she was only six years old, and raged until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, no doubt impacted her European grandparents and her whole immigrant family.
Then, like everyone else, she had to endure the Great Depression, and to top it all off, Norway, her grandparent’s homeland, was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War between 1940 and 1945.
Her apparently tumultuous early days, which may have been touched if not damaged by her own nuclear family life, if her 1947 novel, Transfer Point, about the daughter of divorced parents is any reflection of her experiences, probably added to her quest for comfort and stability.
Who, in the midst of life’s compound troubles could offer that more than Mama?
Everyone, it seems needed a Mama then; in fact, based on the same story, the Broadway Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II production opened on October 19, 1944 at the Music Box Theatre and ran for 713 performances with a cast that included Marlon Brando, making his Broadway debut as Nels.
So popular was the maternal longing as depicted and satisfied by the story, the play was adapted for a 1948 feature film written by DeWitt Bodeen and directed by George Stevens starring Irene Dunne as Mama.
But it was the television show that put Forbes’ version of Mama into America’s living rooms and hearts.
Originally broadcast live from a television studio located above the Oyster Bar in Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, Mama offered guidance to the burgeoning post-war families as well as much needed aid and comfort to many a weary, war torn soul.
With Peggy Wood in the title role and Rosemary Rice as Katrin, the cast also boasted fatherly Judson Laire as Papa, Dick Van Patten as brother Nels, and my personal favorite, Robin Morgan as Dagmar.
Robin Morgan, originally from Lake Worth, Florida, now in her early seventies is, not surprisingly, a very successful writer, poet, feminist advocate co-founder of the Women’s Media Center and author of no fewer than twenty published books including the classic anthologies, “Sisterhood Is Powerful”.
The series received an Emmy nomination in 1951 and Wood scored an Emmy nomination in 1957 for her eight year portrayal of Mama, the same year that all of the 26 surviving filmed episodes of Mama were aired on New York’s WPIX-TV Channel 11. Unfortunately, most of the live “kinescoped” episodes are lost.
But, for me, whether its gospel singer Shirley Caesar belting out her version of “I Remember Mama” or crooner, Al Jolson, painted in blackface, shouting his version of “Mammy” or “Mother of Mine”, every day of the year, the mere thought of my Mama always brings a song to my heart and a smile to my face.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Contact Bill Bradberry at firstname.lastname@example.orgContact Bill at email@example.com