I Remember Rosemary Rice
It is with deep sadness that we report the news of Rosemary Rice (as known to radio fans, but in private life as Rosemary Merrill, the proud wife of Jack Merrill), who passed away last week. Frequent attendees of the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention will remember Rosemary as a guest at the fourth annual event (2009) and how the actress spoke freely about her days working at CBS Radio and on Mama, a long-running television program.
Rosemary Rice signed autographs for free for fans all weekend until the photos were gone. Convention staff went out to have photocopies made so Rosemary could keep the fans happy. An episode of Mama from the days of “live” television was screened in the movie room. Derek Tague interviews Rosemary Rice, Bob Hastings and Diana Sowle on stage during a Q&A session and Rosemary and Bob exchanged witty remarks back and forth about their days of “live” broadcasting.
Rosemary Rice was born on May 3, 1925. She was a busy radio actress during the 1940s and 1950s and was heard on such radio programs as Studio One, Suspense, X-Minus One, The Cavalcade of America, When a Girl Marries, Johnny Dollar and Archie Andrews (as Betty). During the 1970s, she was a regular performer on Himan Brown’s CBS Radio Mystery Theater and had numerous successful children’s recordings to her credit.
At the Nostalgia Convention in 2009, author Martin Grams approached her with a bit of trivia. “I remember telling Rosemary that I saw her in an episode of television’s Studio One and Rosemary corrected me saying she never did an episode. ‘Of course you did. I would have sworn that was you during a brief scene in a funeral home. The family was all seated in the background while the passages were read. You were sitting among the other silent actors, head bowed down.’ Rosemary told me she couldn’t have because her contract at CBS stated her weekly role as Katrin on Mama kept her from appearing on any other television series. So I mailed her a copy of the DVD to watch. She called me up a few weeks later and confirmed it was her and she then recalled a funny story of how that happened. ‘I was talking with a friend on the set of Mama,’ she recalled. ‘I bragged that I could be on any TV show she named and she bet me money. She said Studio One. So I appeared on the show for those three or four seconds as the camera panned across the screen so I could win a bet.’ This just goes to show you what celebrities like Rosemary were capable of remembering when even fans bring up trivia they didn’t remember sixty plus years later.”
When asked what her favorite episode of Mama was, she remarked “The Night the Animals Talked.” In this episode, Mama tells Dagmar the story of how, on Christmas Eve, farm animals are given the gift of speech for having protected the Christ child in Bethlehem. Dagmar wants to sleep in the stable to await the miracle.
I Remember Mama
Mama was a weekly Maxwell House-sponsored CBS television comedy-drama series which ran from July 1, 1949 until March 17, 1957. 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.
A big misconception that continues to get reprinted many times is the exact name of the television program, Mama. Reference guides continue to inaccurately state the name of the program as I Remember Mama, the 1948 motion-picture. Anyone who has seen an episode of the television series knows the series was abbreviated to simply Mama.
Most of the episodes of Mama were televised “live” on sound stages. This was the equivalent to a stage play except that the audience consisted of millions, not hundreds. The last season of the series was filmed via kinescope and are available exclusively for viewing at The Paley Center in New York (formerly known as The Museum of TV and Radio). “We were live,” Rosemary Rice explained. “CBS would record them on tape or kinescope so it could be played later for the West Coast. But CBS often recorded over the tape week after week to save money. Once in a while a producer or sponsor would borrow or take a kinescope and thankfully we have those to enjoy today. When the Museum of TV and Radio found those handful of filmed episodes, the last ones we did, they phoned me and asked me to participate in a retrospective which I narrated. All in all we probably have about 30 episodes from the nine years.”
“In those days we were ‘live’ and we were taught how to perform on stage and for the camera,” Rosemary recalled at MANC. “I look back at it today and wonder just how we managed to pull it off. It’s not something we could do today. If a mistake happened, we had to pray we could cover our tracks. We had an incident once when Papa — and I can’t believe he did this — he thought he was through so he went to his dressing room and started to take his clothes off. But the show was not yet over. So we were waiting for Papa to come through the door and suddenly there was no Papa. So we stated to improvise with dialog to carry the scene. We had rehearsed the show so the director pushed down the button which temporarily cut the sound off so only his voice went over the air. He voiced Papa from behind the door but without a Norwegian accent and we played the scene as if Papa was calling from the other room.”
“There was another incident when we had Jack Lemmon as guest and I was playing the role of being very nervous. He was starting his acting career on the New York stage. All during the rehearsal we practiced the scene and all I had to do was answer the door bell and ask, ‘How do you do? Won’t you come in? I haven’t a solitary thing to do.” But I couldn’t get my line. The director said, ‘I’ll change the line,’ and I said, ‘Don’t be silly. I will get my line correct if it’s the last thing I do.’ So we are televising live and the doorbell rings and I open the door and say, ‘How do you do? Won’t you come in? I haven’t a single thing to do in solitary.’ Well, I started to crack up laughing. They put the camera on Dick Van Patten and he started laughing. It ruined the scene so we played it for what it was worth. After the broadcast the director called me into the room and asked me if I enjoyed the show. I said I did. He said, ‘Good, because it’ll probably be your last.’ [laughs] Of course, it wasn’t my last but that is the kind of thing you have to face on live television.”
”I literally grew up with the show, and those years were some of the happiest of my life,” Rosemary recalled for the New York Times. ”During its first five years, we worked at Grand Central Station. Rehearsals were Mondays through Thursdays in a big hall right over Track 23. The actual broadcasts took place in a studio on the other side of the building over the Oyster Bar. Since we spent five days a week together, we really were like a family. To the day he died I always called papa ‘Papa.’ The experience profoundly changed my life, and I came out of it feeling I had been part of something that was valuable and lasting.”
Rosemary’s Recent Visitations
Rosemary Rice attended many old-time radio conventions. In June of 2005, she attended REPS in Seattle and participated in a Q&A session on stage. This was the same year that 15 un-circulated Archie Andrews radio shows were discovered and made available for the first time with initial sales at the same convention. She attended many Cincinnati Old-Time Radio Conventions and made numerous appearances at the Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention in Newark, New Jersey.
She never bragged about her accomplishments, but Rosemary Rice starred in twelve Broadway plays, including Mr. Roberts and Junior Miss. She also played the role of Katrin not just on Mama, but for Broadway as well. Mama was nominated as “Best Dramatic Show” for the 1950 Emmy Awards but failed to win. Rosemary was never nominated for her role on that television series but she was the recipient of a Grammy Award (for one of her many children’s albums).
Rosemary Rice died from a heart attack on Tuesday, August 14, 2012. She was 87.
NYOTR.com, SPERDVAC, MWOTR Club
Special thanks to Shaun Clancy, Terry Salomonson, Walden Hughes and Frank Rosin.