Today is the birthday of the angelic Gertrude Berg (Tillie Edelstein, 1898-1966). Berg was a kind of show business superhero — it’s crazy to me that her name isn’t a household word, and that — at the very least — her name isn’t on those usual lists of Great American Women. It’s not just that she was a pioneer on several fronts, but the scope of her achievement is downright mind-boggling.
She got her start writing and performing skits in her father’s Catskills resort hotel. When her husband Lewis Berg lost his job in 1929, she brought a spec script to NBC radio and read it aloud at the pitch meeting. The semi-autobiographical script was about a family of New York Jews living in a tenement. The Goldbergs (originally called The Rise of the Goldbergs) went onto the schedule on the spot, with Berg cast as the lead. Not only would she star in the show as the gently funny, maternal Molly Goldberg, but she would write nearly every episode, an estimated 5,000 radio scripts. Furthermore, if you note the time scale…1929 is very early in network radio history. Thus The Goldbergs was one of the very first situation comedies, and it was written, directed, and produced by a woman. ON TOP of that, it was one of the first portrayals in popular culture of a Jewish family that was composed of recognizable human beings and not stereotypical caricatures. This was still the era of Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Lou Holtz and Benny Rubin — Gertrude Berg precedes even Clifford Odets in creating realistic portraits of Jews for mass consumption.
If you’d like to listen, they have scores and scores of episodes available on My Old Radio:
In 1949, she made the transition to television, with the show on the air (with some interruptions) through 1956. The television version was faithful to the radio one, with some nice visual additions, like the recurring trope of Molly going to the window to yell to her neighbors. (Somehow, though she did stuff like this, Berg always managed to seem sweet and adorable, never obnoxious). Her character was always helping people, and though she sometimes confused things, everything always worked out in the end. Berg was so charming and persuasive that even her COMMERCIALS were not obnoxious, but felt fully integrated into the experience (“Come on over, you’ll have a cup of Sanka. It won’t make you so jittery.”) Initially the part of husband Jake was played by Philip Loeb. Read his sad story here.
Over time, the fictional family evolved, moving out of the slums, and eventually out to the Connecticut suburbs, mirroring the very historical trends that were occurring in immigrant families all across America at the very same time. It’s amazing to me that a story this ethnic somehow happened on nationwide radio and television so early in broadcast history, and yet at the same time, I think (sadly) the fact of its ethnicity may be what has damned the show to its obscure cul de sac in the years since it went off. I never heard about the show until well until my adulthood — I’d never seen it syndicated nor read about it that I can remember before then.
At any rate, despite the fact that Goldberg is Adam F. Goldberg’s real name, calling his new sit com starring Jeff Garlin The Goldbergs seems almost a sacrilege to me, however excellent the new show may be. The original show by that name is so deserving of remembrance, and now comes yet one more reason why people won’t remember it. “The Goldbergs? That’s that show with Jeff Garlin, right?”
Here’s an episode, plucked at random, from June 1954.