1899 – 1966
For a generation of Americans, Gertrude Berg embodied Jewish motherhood in a series of radio, television, stage, and film performances. She is best remembered as the creative force behind the Goldbergs, a fictitious Jewish family who lived in an apartment at 1038 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. In addition to her matriarchal public persona, Berg was also a one of the first American women to work as a writer and producer of radio and television situation comedy.
The only child of Diana and Jacob Edelstein, Gertrude (Edelstein) Berg was born October 3, 1899, in New York City. Her childhood was divided between New York and Fleischmanns, a town in the Catskills, where her family ran a resort hotel. Here she made her first forays into producing and writing shows by creating entertainments for the hotel’s guests. (Her hotel experience no doubt also inspired The House of Glass, a short-lived radio series about a Catskills resort that Berg produced for NBC in 1935.) While working in the Catskills, she met Lewis Berg. They were married in 1919 and were eventually parents to a son and a daughter.
After graduating from Wadleigh High School, Berg took extension courses in playwrighting at Columbia University. She tried her hand at the new genre of radio drama and eventually convinced NBC to broadcast her series by reading a sample script to network executives. From the late 1920s through the mid-1950s, the Goldbergs made appearances on radio, stage, television, and film. In addition to playing Molly, the family matriarch, Berg produced and scripted the Goldbergs’ various outings. On radio, The Rise of the Goldbergs aired on NBC Blue from 1929 to 1934, and then on CBS from 1938 to 1945, making it one of the longest-running series in the medium. Berg presented the Goldbergs live on tour in 1934, and in a Broadway play, Me and Molly, in 1948. Following a half-hour television play based on the radio series broadcast on NBC’s Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in October 1948, The Goldbergs became one of the first situation comedies on American television in 1949 on CBS, and continued to appear on different networks until 1954 (CBS, 1949 to 1951; NBC, 1952 to 1953; DuMont, 1954). Unlike several other series, The Goldbergs made a successful transition from radio to television. Rating reports compiled by the A.C. Nielsen Company counted it among the ten most popular programs in the 1949–1950 television season. Berg received an Emmy for her portrayal of Molly in 1950. Molly, a film version of the Goldberg family, appeared in 1951. During its final season (1954–1955), the formerly live series was filmed and syndicated to local stations.
In these various manifestations, the Goldbergs offered a genial portrait of domestic life, centered, like most situation comedies, around a series of minor disruptions that were handily resolved by the end of each installment. At the same time, the Goldbergs offered millions of Americans an image of a second-generation American family whose Jewishness was, for the most part, a matter of comical speech—singsong rhythms, inverted syntax, malapropisms, with only the occasional Yiddish interjection (“nu?” and “oy!”). On The Goldbergs, integration into the American “mainstream” prevailed over immigrant Jewish particularism. Thus, while a portrait of George Washington hung prominently in the Goldbergs’ living room on the television series, a samovar sat discreetly on a sideboard at the back of the dining room. Explicitly Jewish figures and issues appeared in occasional episodes: For example, Jan Peerce sang “Kol Nidre” on a radio broadcast for the High Holidays; Molly prepared gefilte fish in a 1955 telecast. But during their final season, the Goldbergs symbolically completed their Americanization (and “rise” into the middle class) by moving from their Bronx apartment to the fictitious suburb of Haverville.
The televised version of The Goldbergs is perhaps best remembered for an off-screen incident—the blacklisting of actor Philip Loeb (who played Molly’s husband, Jake) by anticommunist activists in 1951. Although Berg defended Loeb, she eventually yielded to pressure from CBS and the program’s sponsor, who threatened to cancel The Goldbergs if she did not replace Loeb with another performer. Unable to find work as an actor, Loeb committed suicide in 1955.
Berg’s inviting, matronly persona of Molly Goldberg extended beyond the narrative confines of the various Goldberg family comedies. At the beginning and end of the television series, Berg often appeared leaning out a window of the family’s Bronx apartment and spoke directly to the camera, telling viewers about the virtues of her sponsor’s product, whether it was Sanka decaffeinated coffee or electrical appliances manufactured by RCA. (During the episodes Molly often leaned out the same window to talk to one of her neighbors. Molly calling out, “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloom!” became something of a national catch phrase.) This device not only enabled Berg to establish an intimacy with the television audience, transforming the viewer’s television set into a neighbor’s window, but also conflated Berg and Goldberg in the public consciousness. This fusion of performer and character appeared as well in The Molly Goldberg Cookbook, written by Berg and Myra Waldo in 1955, in which Molly offered Jewish recipes and homey advice.
Following the cancellation of the series, Berg continued to perform her Jewish matriarch in other venues. On The Gertrude Berg Show (originally titled Mrs. G. Goes to College; CBS, 1961–1962) she portrayed Sarah Green, a widow who becomes a college student. Berg also received the Tony Award in 1959 for her portrayal of Mrs. Jacoby in A Majority of One, a Broadway comedy by Leonard Spigelgass about the relationship between a Jewish widow and a Japanese widower, both of whom had children who died during World War II.
The character of Molly Goldberg—an endearing but somewhat scatterbrained homemaker whose good intentions often led to comic mishaps—was not unlike her contemporary, Lucille Ball’s Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy. The Goldberg persona that Berg created masked her own talents, professionalism, and intelligence. Behind this image of a simple housewife and mother stood one of the few women (along with Ball) who maintained creative control over her work in American broadcasting for decades.
In her memoirs, Molly and Me, written in 1961 with her son, Charney, Berg attributed her success in show business to her family’s background in the hotel business, which taught her to be accommodating toward guests and to avoid offending them. Thus, during a period in American history when Jews were the object of considerable suspicion and discrimination, she managed to introduce a Jewish family as charming, if comical, guests into millions of American homes.
Gertrude Berg died in New York City on September 14, 1966.
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