Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Goldbergs Brought Bronx Jewish Family Life into Kansas Living Rooms

On the evening of January 17, 1948 The Goldbergs premiered on CBS Television.  Most historians of the medium credit it with being the first true situation comedy on TV.  It continued to run in different forms and under different titles until 1958 on three networks and in new episode syndication.  

It was also a spectacular professional achievement for its creator, Gertrude Berg.   In its dawning years TV was almost totally dominated by men.  But Berg produced, directed, wrote, and starred in every episode and had almost complete control of the program.  She dwarfed the power Lucille Ball had over her landmark program I Love Lucy.

You would think with bona fides like that The Goldbergs would get lots of attention from the burgeoning ranks of television histories and broadcast documentaries.  But it merits hardly a footnote.  

You don’t think that it might be because the series was about the home life of, you know, Jews do you?  And not the urbane hipster young Jews that show up on modern sitcoms, but second—maybe first—generation off the boat Eastern European Jews with funny ways of talking and odd customs presided over by a meddlesome but well meaning Jewish mother to end all Jewish mothers living in near poverty in a Bronx tenement.

The Goldbergs was Gertrude Berg’s life’s work.  

She was born Tilly Edelstein in Harlem—then an immigrant neighborhood—in 1898.  He father was an immigrant who made modestly good and invested in a Catskills resort hotel.  Young Tilly attended public school and properly married to Lewis Berg at the age of 20.  Together they had two children.

But Tilly had been bitten by the show biz bug.  She participated in the lively amateur Yiddish theater scene.  But she found her niche not only as a performer but as a writer when she began to create comedy sketches for her father’s hotel based on her childhood.  She created a matriarch, Molly Goldberg based on her own mother.

In 1928, now using the professional name Gertrude Berg, she wrangled a spot on radio with NBC.  After appearing as local programming, The Rise of the Goldbergs premiered in November 1929 just days after the Stock Market Crash that sent the nation into the Great Depression.  Originally a 15 minute weekly serial, it gave a Yiddish spin to the popular domestic comedy genre that included such radio favorites as Fibber McGee and Molly, Vic and Sade, and Easy Aces.   Perhaps the struggles of the Goldbergs seemed more universal as the Depression settled in.  At any rate, the show—and Molly Goldberg—was a hit.  In 1931, CBS moved it to five days a week.

Each program began with Molly calling out of the tenement window, “Yoo-hoo! Is anybody...?”  Stories centered on the family—Molly’s immigrant father with stars in his eyes about American opportunity, her hard working if sometimes set upon husband, her two growing children and the neighbors.  Molly always was in everybody’s business as they struggled to adapt to a new way of life and support themselves.  Whatever foibles she had were overcome with her good heart.

The program moved to CBS in 1936 and was renamed simply The Goldbergs.  Still a 15 minute program, it was a cross between a comedy and soap opera.  Serious issues and struggles were dealt with as humorously as possible.  As tensions rose in Europe, story lines included the fate of relatives still in the old country, anti-Semitism here, and harsh economic reality.  After America entered the war, so did the Goldberg family.
The show introduced middle America to Jewish culture.  The High Holy Days were observed and for many year Metropolitan Opera star Jan Peerce any sang the prayers of a Cantor.  One Jewish historian observed, “This series has done more to set us Jews right with the goyim than all the sermons ever preached by the Rabbis.”

The program was nearly as popular as CBS’s number 1 hit Amos and Andy which featured another minority group.  But Amos and Andy was written and performed by white men who, although fond of their characters, relied on the conventions of old minstrel shows to portray them.  Although Berg was sometimes later charged with promoting an ethnic stereotype, the characterizations were infused with reality.  

In 1948 Goldberg took material from the show and created and stared in a successful Broadway version, Me and Molly. The success of that show enticed CBS to bring it to television in a 30 minute weekly format.

The TV show reset the clock on the family saga.  The Goldberg children had grown up and married in the long running radio series.  On TV they were once again adolescents.  But the heart of the program remained the same.  And despite the fears of the Network and sponsor General Foods’ Sanka coffee that American would not watch Jews who looked Jewish, the show was a hit.  Berg won the very first Emmy Award for Best Actress in 1950.

But the same year it faced a crisis.  Philip Loeb, who had played the part of Molly’s husband Jake in the Broadway show, stayed in the role for the television series.  In 1950 he was charged with being a Communist, which he denied.  The charges were never proven, but General Foods wanted him off the show to avoid “controversy.”  Berg, who owned the show, flatly refused.  CBS dropped it from their 1951 line up.
NBC agreed to bring it back, but only without Loeb.  In the end Berg reluctantly agreed but continued to secretly personally pay Loeb his salary.  Loeb, distraught by a virtual blacklisting, committed suicide in 1955.
NBC aired The Goldbergs in the 1953-54 season as two 15 minute shows in the early evening alternating with other programming.  It dropped the show after the end of the season.

The DuMont TV Network then picked the show up and hoped to re-build its sagging schedule around the hit, which reverted to a 30 minute format. The DuMont shows, unlike the filmed segments on the other networks, were aired live. But the network collapsed before the full scheduled 1955 run could be completed.
In 1955-56 Berg produced new episodes for syndication.  In these show these shows the Goldbergs reflected the upward mobility of post war Jews and followed many of their models by moving from the old Bronx tenement to a Connecticut suburb.  The shows focused on the struggle to adapt to the new environment without all of the familiar support systems of the old neighborhood.

After the show finally went off the air, Berg appeared in character for sketches on variety shows like Washington Square with Ray Bolger, and a Kate Smith special.

In 1959 her career revived when she won a Tony Award for best actress for her staring turn in A Majority of One in which she played a Jewish Widow who falls in love with a Japanese businessman despite having lost a son in World War II.  She was deeply disappointed when the decidedly non-Jewish Rosalind Russell was cast as Mrs. Jacoby opposite the equally non-Japanese Alec Guiness in the Warner Bros. film.

Despite the disappointment, 1961 was a good year for Berg.  Her memoirs Molly and Me became a best seller.  And she returned to series television one more time as a Jewish widow in Mrs. G. Goes to College with Sir Cedric Hardwick as her stuffy, perplexed professor. After being re-named the Gertrude Berg Show in mid season, it was canceled in the spring of 1962.

Berg died of heart failure in New York in 1966 at the age of 67 survived by her long time husband and two children.

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