Monday, April 11, 2011

Most of all, I remember Mama...

On April 10, 1910 -- one hundred and one years ago yesterday -- my mother was born in the borough of Jenkintown in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Thirty-one years after that, she gave birth to me, and sixteen years after that, on October 4, 1957, she died.

One of the things our family did every week from 1949 until 1957 was gather around our little Philco television set (12-inch screen, three channels, black-and-white pictures only) on Friday nights and watch a program called Mama. Please do not confuse it with Mama’s Family starring Vicki Lawrence, which didn’t come along until decades later. (It would be difficult to confuse the two programs; they could not have been more different.)

Mama starred actress Peggy Wood, who probably is remembered chiefly nowadays for her role as the Mother Abbess who sang “Climb Every Mountain” in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. The television program Mama was based on a 1944 play by John Van Druten called I Remember Mama that ran for 713 performances in New York and included Marlon Brando in a supporting role in his Broadway debut. The play, which was made into a 1948 film starring Irene Dunne and a very young Barbara Bel Geddes, had been based on a book called Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes.

This particular Mama’s family lived in a Norwegian-immigrant community in San Francisco around 1910. There was “little sister Dagmar” and “big brother Nels” (played by the then very young Dick Van Patten who later played the father in the TV series Eight Is Enough) and, of course, “Papa” (played by Judson Laird). But most of all, most of all when Kathryn (the narrator) would think back to those days so long ago, most of all, she remembered Mama.

Mama was my one of my mother’s favorite television programs, and it became one of mine. Television was different in those days before Dancing With The Stars and American Idol and Desperate Housewives and Celebrity Apprentice, not to mention all the stuff available on cable and satellite. Mama seems quaint today, almost like local community theater, and nothing at all like what today’s audiences crave. In spite of the many inventions and improvements and medical advances that have taken place, I think that our society as a whole and the individual family in particular are not better off as a result of the changes in what passes for entertainment.

In 1957 the days were simpler, quieter. Mama didn’t have a laugh track or a studio audience or even very many commercials. In fact, in the entire half-hour programs there were only two commercials, one at the beginning and one at the end. The days depicted, those even-earlier days of 1910, were quieter still, simpler still. And they were something else, too. They were sweeter.

Below is an early episode of Mama from 1950. Although the children are all quite Americanized, the adults speak with Norwegian accents (“Make yourself at home, Yenny; I’ll be with you in a yiffy”). No one was more surprised than I to hear Peggy Wood speak without that accent in The Sound Of Music. It ranks right up there with my surprise at discovering that Jean Stapleton’s natural voice is a whole octave lower than the voice she used in her role as Edith Bunker on All in the Family.

I realize that there is no fool like an old fool, but cut me a little slack during my mother's birthday week and let us all now hearken back to the days of 1910 as seen through the eyes of 1950. Let us all say a prayer for what has happened to our society.

And even if she is nothing at all like your own mother or mine (although I’ll bet she may resemble her more than you suspect), let us all remember Mama (28:55).


  1. i will be 69 end of this month but according to the t.v. shows you used to watch i must not have been born yet

  2. Putz, I thought we had figured out that you were three years younger than me, and now all of a sudden you are only a year younger than me.

    Some of us age faster than others.

  3. A belated birthday remembrance for your mother. My brother's birthday also was April 10, but 1941. He would have been seventy years old yesterday. He died when he was 28 and it is almost impossible for me to think of him at any other age.

    I had never before seen an episode of "Mama." Our family did not get a television set until the '60's. It would have done us no good to have one in 1950, anyway, since TV reception did not extend to the small Arkansas community in which we lived at the time.

  4. Pat, I'm glad I was able to introduce you to "Mama" through this early episode. In doing my research I learned that CBS did not save the shows and very few of them remain in existence. I think the program grew warmer and richer as the seasons progressed and Dagmar, Kathryn, and Nels grew up before our eyes. Robin Morgan (Dagmar) changed the most. It's too bad we cannot see more episodes of this heartwarming program.

    I know what you mean about your brother. My mother will always be 47 in my memory.

  5. Your mother was only a couple of weeks older than my father.

    Putz, I don't remember the show either, but then we didn't even get a TV until around '57, and even then we only got NBC and CBS, so I'm wondering if maybe you too didn't get all three networks.

  6. I will be 69 in July, we were given a used TV when I was 13 (1955). I don't remember watching TV on a consistent basis until I was 15. "Moma" must have been something my parents didn't watch...though it seems vaguely familiar, I might have watched the show at my grandparents.

    I enjoyed watching the episode you linked to! The most "violent" thing I saw was "Moma" wacking "Dagmar" on the behind. I also like black and white, it allows you to watch the story more than the colors.

    I no longer watch TV, use the equipment to occasionally watch NetFlix movies, etc.

  7. Both Theanne and Baron (a dog!), thank you for visiting my blog. I visited your blog today too, and I actually know where Palm Bay is.

    Fort Worth, Texas, where I lived, got its first TV station in 1948, I think, and we had a set by 1950. We didn't have an indoor toilet or hot and cold running water, but we had a TV set. I'm so glad my dad had his priorities straight.

  8. I distinctly remember watching a great film called 'I remember Momma', but can't remember when! LOL And I still don't have a fully functional computer for watching video/sound, so can't click your link - sorry!