WKRP’s Mama Carlson – Carol Bruce

There were many great rock radio stations in my area in the 70s. I would listen all night to the radio, leaving it on as I slept. It played music that was the soundtrack of my youth. I heard so many great bands during that time.

Then in 1978 we were able to hear new music not just on the radio but on TV as well in a new show called WKRP in Cincinnati. The show was one of the earliest to use extensively contemporary music by big groups and artists of the time such as Foreigner, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Queen, The Eagles, Styx, Supertramp, Elvis Presley, The Kinks, Jerry Lee Lewis, Deep Purple, Blondie, KISS, Joe Walsh, Earth, Wind & Fire, The Doors and Talking Heads to name a few. The situation comedy was about a new programming director, Andy Travis, trying to turn around struggling easy listening radio station called WKRP. The other ( mostly-incompetent) staff included the bumbling station manager Arthur Carlson, oily sales manager Herb Tarlek, clueless news director Les Nessman, sexy receptionist Jennifer Marlowe, enthusiastic junior employee Bailey Quarters, and spaced-out veteran disc jockey “Dr. Johnny Fever.” To help bolster ratings, Travis hires a new disc jockey, “Venus Flytrap”. Lurking in the background and making an occasional appearance is the station’s owner (and Carlson’s mother), ruthless business tycoon Mrs. Carlson.

Mrs. Carlson was played by Carol Bruce. Bruce at the age of 87 has taken her Final Taxi.

Bruce first earned public attention and critical acclaim in 1940 on Broadway in Louisiana Purchase, a satirical Irving Berlin musical set in New Orleans that parodies Governor Huey Long and his control over Louisiana politics. During the run of the play, she was working simultaneously on The Ben Bernie’s radio show and making her nightclub debut in New York. She left the play early when she signed a contract with Universal Studios.

In 1941 and 1942 she made three movies for Universal: This Woman Is Mine, Keep ’em Flying and Behind the Eight Ball — before returning to nightclubs and the stage. Keep ’em Flying, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, gave Bruce the chance to introduce the pop standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.”

In January 1942, she sang at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Birthday Ball at the White House.

In 1946, she portrayed Julie in a revival of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Showboat, appearing alongside Jan Clayton and Kenneth Spencer. Bruce was the first actress to play Julie in a Broadway production of the musical after the legendary Helen Morgan, who had “owned” the role since the original 1927 production.

Bruce focused on stage roles for the next few decades. She appeared in revivals of One Touch of Venus, Bloomer Girl, Annie Get Your Gun, Lady in the Dark and Pal Joey.

Ms. Bruce made guest appearances on more than 25 television shows, including The Golden Girls, Doogie Howser, M.D.,” Diff’rent Strokes, Knots Landing, Perfect Strangers, The Twilight Zone and Diagnosis Murder.

In her recurring role on WKRP in Cincinnati, Bruce was the tough, business-minded owner of a radio station managed by her indecisive and weak-willed son, Arthur, who is afraid of her. She played the role of Mama Carlson, originated by Sylvia Sidney in the pilot episode, from 1979 until the show ended its run in 1982. In the final episode of the series, it is revealed that she had always intended WKRP to lose money (for the tax writeoff), which explains why she allows the incompetent employees to continue working at the station.

Later in her career Carol Bruce appeared in the movies American Gigolo with Richard Gere (1980) and Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) along side John Candy and Steve Martin.

In one of her last roles Bruce supplied the voice of “Old One” in the 1996 direct-to-video Universal Cartoon Studios movie The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through The Mists


One Response

  1. […] finaltaxi added an interesting post on WKRPâs Mama Carlson – Carol BruceHere’s a small excerptThe show was one of the earliest to use extensively contemporary music by big groups and artists of the time such as Foreigner, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Queen, The Eagles, Styx, Supertramp, Elvis Presley, The Kinks, … […]

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