She’s the most famous person you’ve probably never heard of.
Another awards season has come and gone without any mention of her contributions to any of the media she dominated – vaudeville, radio, TV, movies, theater. Is it because she persistently and successfully bucked the system? Or is it because she was a woman?
Gertrude Berg (1899-1966) was a feminist in an industry where women were little more than commodities. She could be considered one of the earliest pioneers in dramedy and situation comedy. Here are just a few of her career highlights:
· She created, wrote, and produced a radio and television series called “The Goldbergs” intermittently during the years 1929-1956. Most of those shows were done live.
· She won the first Best Actress Emmy ever awarded, beating out Betty White.
· She wrote over 1000 scripts for radio, television as well as a film based on the same characters. She even wrote the commercials and delivered them herself.
· She won a Tony for Best Actress in her first starring role on Broadway
· She developed the innovative field of ancillary products to promote “The Goldbergs,” including a Goldbergs jigsaw puzzle and a cookbook (even though she did not cook!).
Why don’t we hear more about her? Why have her notable contributions to television and radio been minimized or ignored?
Perhaps it was the nature of her most obvious achievement. “The Goldbergs” was a quiet, unpretentious, ethnic, family-oriented dramedy set in the Bronx. Its first radio broadcast came one week after the stock market crash in 1929. Family relationships formed the nexus of the thin plots, not snappy dialogue, or one-liners. It began as a daily, 15-minute program; later extended to a weekly half hour. The Goldberg family was proudly Jewish; Berg created and played the main character, the matriarch Molly Goldberg, with an “old world” accent, employing the occasional malaprop that arose from learning English as a second language. Her stories depicted a family of immigrants struggling to gain a hold in their new environment while maintaining their religious and cultural traditions. She would open each show standing at the open window of her apartment, speaking directly to the audience. Her Molly lacked both artifice and affectation. Plot developments would sometimes be outlined in a chat with the neighbor across the airshaft, when Molly beckoned her with a warm, “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloom.” Local, specific, but universal in its family values. It charmed millions of Americans during the turmoil of the Depression and a world war, defying the zeitgeist at a time when anti-Semitism was rife.
The lack of appreciation for her work also could be because one of the long-time actors on the show appeared in the bilious but influential Red Channels magazine as a likely Communist during the early 1950s. She went to bat for Philip Loeb for over a year, resisting the demands of the network and the sponsors to fire him, and suffering the temporary cancelation of her show. Ultimately, she reluctantly let him go to protect the livelihood of others employed on the program. Disconsolate, ill, and unable to find stable work, Loeb committed suicide four years later. When the show returned to the air a year or so after it had been canceled, it was homogenized. The Goldbergs had moved to the suburbs, but audiences had moved on, too.
Her relative anonymity could be due to the fact she wouldn’t play the seductive, socially expected female games behind the scenes. She fought tyrannical network heads David Sarnoff and William Paley, going toe-to-toe for more money and creative control, seldom backing down. She was a formidable and imposing presence, and as she said, “Not exactly a size 16.” When she entered a room, she commanded attention, charisma oozing out of every pore. Gertrude Berg’s sophisticated and assertive persona was in stark contrast to the kind and gentle Molly Goldberg.
We know what she accomplished, but who was the real Gertrude Berg?
Her life outside of work looked “normal” for the times. She married her childhood sweetheart at 18, and they were together until her death. They had two children, a boy and a girl. She had a “best friend,” Fannie Merrill, a trusted female major domo, who attended to every detail of her life and spent most so much time with her that some speculated about the nature of their closeness. Reports are that Berg hated to be alone, though her writing chores required it. Husband Lewis Berg had enjoyed a successful career in sugar production and manufacturing when they met and married but, after her success, he was the one who typed out her unreadable handwritten scripts. Son Cherney found a way to connect with her by helping her write an autobiography as her fame ebbed. Her daughter, Harriet, admitted to one interviewer after her mother’s death that there wasn’t much family life due to her mother’s frenetic pace and demanding schedule. Life revolved around her show and the family circled around the breadwinner.
There are other keys to her persona in her childhood. Her family of origin was disrupted after an older brother died of diphtheria when Berg was six. Her mother, with whom she had been close, fell into a depressive decline that necessitated frequent stays in the local asylum. The father was an erratic dreamer who expected her to take over the precarious family hotel business in the Catskills and discouraged her writing dreams. When it rained, her father asked the young girl to entertain the guests, the beginning of a lifelong career in performing. She escaped the family demands when she married, but when they moved to Louisiana for his job, she was left with nothing to do but housewifery. Out of boredom and a drive to create, she started to write.
The ambition fueled by a need to have a life of her own likely propelled her to write the early versions of “The Goldbergs” that would eventually bring her financial independence. But missing normal developmental stages, coupled with an unstable early family life, could help explain her compulsive drive to work toward achieving the insularity promised by power and fame. Even at the peak of her career, she remained insecure, often claiming a college degree from Columbia when it’s likely she took only a few extension classes in script writing. She wrote in her memoir. “And when I’m by myself sometimes I wonder – did I really become the woman I wanted to be – or am I still trying?”
It’s ironic and perhaps even therapeutic that the fictional family Goldberg was close, warm, and communicative. Her character of Molly was supportive, involved and committed to the wellbeing of every member of her family. She created the family she had wished for and the mother she needed. Her fans loved her but mostly they treasured the character she created. Few would differentiate Molly from Gertrude, the same phenomenon that led fans unable to separate Lucy Ricardo from Lucille Ball. It’s likely that few knew the real Gertrude Berg, though most everyone knew Molly Goldberg.
As the ratings went up, so did her confidence. During the Depression, she was the second most admired woman in America, behind Eleanor Roosevelt. Her increasing financial demands at the network were met, at least until the ratings began to sink as America ran up against the ennui of the 1950s. By then, sitcoms had proliferated, with “I Love Lucy” taking over “The Goldbergs” time slot on Monday nights.
Due to her continuing popularity, she was offered the starring role in “A Majority of One” on Broadway, playing a Molly Goldberg-like character. As usual, she charmed the critics and even won a Tony. Only in a career of this magnitude would a Tony be almost a footnote. She had expected to play the role in the film, but it went to the younger, bankable Rosalind Russell. Hollywood had moved on, too. Never thwarted for long, she would spend the rest of her life performing in plays around the country, sometimes in summer stock in small towns.
Though only in her 50s, Berg began to experience wear and tear from chronic overwork, obesity, and a lifetime as a heavy smoker. As with any Type A, she couldn’t stay inactive for long. When she was offered another Broadway role, she began rehearsals, despite her chronic fatigue. She was hospitalized for a checkup before the opening and unexpectedly died the next day of cardiac arrest.
Obituaries emphasized her enduring Jewish mother character so beloved by millions. It wasn’t until decades after her death that a few historians began to explore her legacy.
When there are retrospectives about the Golden Age of Radio and TV, we read about Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, and so many others. Though she was a dominating woman in a man’s world, giving no quarter to anyone, it’s hard to find more than a casual mention of Gertrude Berg. It has always been challenging to be a woman in a world dominated by men.
For those interested in seeing and reading more of Gertrude Berg, here are a few sources:
Berg, Gertrude, Molly and Me, McGraw-Hill, 1961 (written with her son, Cherney)
Smith, Glenn D., Jr. Something on My Own, a biography of Gertrude Berg, Syracuse University Press, 2007
“The Ultimate Goldbergs,” a DVD containing 71 episodes of the television show and 12 episodes of the radio broadcast
“Yoo, Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” a DVD documentary produced by Aviva Kempner (many episodes of the TV series are available on YouTube)
Pam Munter has authored five books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram, Almost Famous, and As Alone As I Want To Be. She’s a former clinical psychologist, performer and film historian. Her essays, plays, book reviews and short stories have appeared in more than 200 publications. Her play, “Life Without” was nominated for Outstanding Original Writing by the Desert Theatre League and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the winner of the Sara Patton Prize for nonfiction. Pam has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts, her sixth college degree. Her latest book, Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood, was published in 2021. Pam is a member of the Authors Guild and is a frequent guest on podcasts. Her work can be found at www.pammunter.com.