There seems to be a debate as to when The Goldbergs made its television debut on the NBC network. The split is between January 10th and January 17th of 1949. Whatever date the show actually debuted that was not the beginning of the story of The Goldbergs. The Story of the Goldbergs starts at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century and is both joyful, exciting, and tragic.
Gertrude Berg was born on October 3, 1898, in NYC. New York was a city of immigrants at the time, the Italians, the Irish, and The Jewish people all looking for a place in the United States, fighting for a better life for themselves and their families.
Neighborhoods were often segregated into different ethnic communities, not so much because they felt they were different but because of similar backgrounds and languages. It was easier to understand people that came from the same place.
The neighborhoods were tight. Everyone looking after everyone else. Hanging out your window to share gossip with a neighbor who was hanging out his or her window was not uncommon. It was into this world that Gertrude Berg was born.
Gertrude’s father did not stay long in New York City. When Gertrude was still fairly young her father bought a hotel with several acres of land in the Catskills. The hotel did well and Gertrude soon found herself helping her father run the hotel. Many Jewish people spent the whole summer in the Catskills away from the New York City heat. On days that were sunny and bright, this caused little trouble but on the cold rainy days, the guests were cooped up in their rooms and had little to do.
Gertrude tackled this problem by having the children put on shows and plays. This idea soon spread throughout the resorts and continued well into the 1950s. We see this played out in movies like Dirty Dancing and television shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
It is here that Gertrude wrote her first script for what would become The Goldbergs.
When Gertrude was 15 she met an English Engineer. He was sophisticated and soon exposed Gertrude to art and other cultural events. His name was Lewis Berg. When Gertrude Turned 18 they married and would eventually have two children together.
Gertrude Berg was not content with being a housewife. She wanted to work, she wanted to be an actress and her husband encouraged her. Her first job was on the radio. She advertised Christmas Cookies in Yiddish. Her delivery was so good on this first outing that she was soon in demand as a spokesperson for many products.
Berg took extension courses in play-writing at Columbia University as well as her acting gigs. Eventually, she developed a script for a show she titled The Rise of The Goldbergs. The script revolved around the mother Mrs. Molly Goldberg. It was her wisdom and strength that got the family through tough times. And times were about to get tough. Gertrude read her script to the executives at NBC radio they liked it and the show went into production.
The show debuted on November 11, 1929, one month after the great Stock Market Crash. It was just what the country needed at the time. A family struggling through tough times with the ability to love and support one another with a warm and wise mother who knew the right things to say. Even if at times she could be a bit of a busybody. It was a dramedy both funny and warm with real problems.
Gertrude Berg did not plan on playing the mother, Molly, she figured she would do the first few shows and then continue to write but pass the role of the mother on to another actress. Gertrude got sick early on in production and was out of the show it was during this time that NBC received over 100, 000 letters wanting Molly Goldberg back. Gertrude came back and played the role continually until the show went off the air.
Gertrude was the producer, writer, and star of the program. This was no easy position to be in. The show aired 5 days a week for 15 minutes. That was five scripts and five episodes to be acting in. It was a full-time job and it was hard for Gertrude to separate herself from the character of Molly.
Berg was a stickler for detail. If she was frying an egg in a scene she wanted the sound of an egg frying in a pan and so brought a hot plate and pan into the studio. She also took chances. In 1933 she brought a Rabbi in to conduct The Seder, the Jewish Passover feast live on the air. It is said that President Roosevelt stated that “It wasn’t him (Roosevelt) that got America through the Depression, it was the Goldbergs.”
William Paley the top brass at CBS knew a good thing when he heard it and eventually took The Goldbergs away from NBC. The Goldbergs would stay with CBS radio until it went off the air in 1946.
Gertrude Berg reinvented the Goldbergs in 1948 as a stage play, again playing the role of Molly. The Play was titled Me and Molly and it was with this under her belt that she approached CBS television with the idea of making The Goldbergs into a TV series.
Paley was against it but after again reading her first script, this time to the brass at CBS, the show was given the Greenlight and in January made its television debut.
The show had a unique opening. After looking out her window and doing an advertisement for Sanka Coffee the show’s sponsor, a voice would be heard, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.” and the ladies of the apartment building would gather at their windows and share the days gossip.
The show was just as good on television as it was on radio. It was the first situation comedy made for television. It kept the warmth and the charm of the radio show and many Americans found a way to view themselves in the Goldberg family. This was post-second world war America and patriotism was running high. There was a portrait of George Washington hanging in The Goldbergs’ living room and the flag was displayed in many episodes.
The Goldbergs were not immigrants trying to keep to all the old ways, they were a family fighting to fit in and proud to be Americans.
Molly Goldberg was the first in a long line of TV moms. In her, you see the beginnings of what mothers would be on TV. June Cleaver, Kate Bradley, Carol Brady, and Olivia Walton all had their beginnings in Molly Goldberg. Gertrude Berg was so good at playing Molly that she would walk away with the first best actress award when the Emmy’s made its debut.
Phillip Loeb played Molly’s husband, Jake on the show. Loeb was a great actor and extremely active in the Actors Equity union. Loeb got actors paid while they were rehearsing and also got actors paid if they were fired from a job. Before his work, actors did not get paid for rehearsal time and if you were fired within the first five days of production, you also saw no money Loeb changed all of that.
Unfortunately, this came to the attention of the men that would begin the blacklisting of actors in the 1950s. Loeb was labeled a communist and Gertrude was told to get rid of him or The Goldberg’s would be pulled from the air.
Gertrude fought for Loeb, she knew he wasn’t a communist. She even went to Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop on New York and asked if he could help, as she had heard that he had aided others in similar situations. Spellman agreed to help but only on the condition that Gertrude would convert to Catholicism. This She could not do.
Ultimately Gertrude Berg had to let Loeb go from the show. She would go through two other actors playing her husband until the show went off the air in 1956. Phillip Loeb, unable to find work, committed Suicide in 1955.
The Goldberg’s final season saw them moving from New York City to a suburban community. This is what many feel caused the ultimate demise of the program. The original title of the radio program was The Rise of the Goldbergs, for many, living at that time, living in the suburbs was the epitome of having made it. The ultimate goal of the Goldberg family had been attained and so there were no more stories to tell.
Berg became persona non grata in Hollywood and in New York. Because she fought so hard for Loeb she was labeled a communist sympathizer and her star fell. She took jobs in touring companies of such shows as Arsenic and Old Lace and The Matchmaker, later to become Hello Dolly. She wrote one other show for television a sit-com that was about an older woman going to college after her husband dies. It didn’t do very well.
Gertrude Berg would have one last triumph. She was asked to do a play called A Majority Of One. She starred opposite Cyril Richard, who played Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan. The play centers on the relationship between a Jewish woman and a Japanese man. They form a relationship, even though both are scarred by The 2nd World War. The play is about prejudice and seeing past skin color and eye shape and it did quite well. When it was about to become a film Berg thought that she would be tagged for the lead, but she was snubbed and the part went to Rosalind Russel. Richard would be snubbed as well and his part given to Alec Guinness.
The Goldbergs was a landmark radio and television series. Its themes can be seen in current shows like The Marvelous Mrs., Maisel, and movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We are, either immigrants ourselves or descended from immigrants, and in that lies the common values and themes in our lives. It was the commonality of the ethnicities that drew people to The Goldbergs.
Gertrude Berg was a female producer, writer, and actress. By the time her career ended she had written 12,000 scripts. She was a stickler for detail, and she worked hard. It is doubtful she would call herself a feminist, but she was a major force in an industry during a time that the broadcast companies were run by men.
This leaves a question. Why did a show that that stayed on the air from 1929 to 1956 become forgotten? The show actually made it across almost all visual media, It was on the radio, television, the stage, it was made into a film called Molly in 1950 and would become a musical in the 60s and yet now this show that pioneered so much is virtually forgotten? There are no answers just questions. Gertrude Berg died in 1966. Maybe as she made her way to heaven an Angel shouted out a window, “You Hoo Mrs. Goldberg!”