If Archie Bunker, Lucy Ricardo, and the Cosbys shared a common ancestor, it would be Molly Goldberg. The lead character of The Goldbergs, Molly, was a short, buxom woman with a high-pitched voice and an insatiable wit;a Jewish working-class homemaker and an unlikely hero for America. Millions tuned in to follow the adventures of Molly and her husband and children on The Goldbergs–six nights a week for the better part of 20 years on radio, from 1929-1946, and on television from 1949-1956. Gertrude Berg, the show’s writer, producer, and star actress, was awarded the first-ever Emmy for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, making her one of the first recognizable TV personalities.
And Gertrude Created Molly
Molly Goldberg was the stereotypical immigrant, a stay-at-home mom with a simple world-view. But the woman who created and played her role was anything but stereotypical. Berg (born Gertrude Edelstein), the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, grew up on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side of New York City. From an early age, she dreamt of stardom, telling her family members that one day her name would appear on the marquee of the Ziegfeld Follies.
Gertrude’s father was the manager of a Catskills summer resort. There, Berg started writing and producing plays, and casting them from the pool of children at the resort.
Taking It To the Top
Gertrude married Lewis Berg in 1918. Unlike Gertrude’s father, who believed that a married woman’s affairs should be limited to her family, Lewis supported his wife’s career. Initially, they moved to Louisiana and lived on the Berg family’s sugar plantation. But after a fire burnt down the plantation, they migrated to Connecticut. There, for the first time since her marriage, Berg was close enough to New York to pursue her career in theatre.
In the 1920s, Berg got her big break recording commercial jobs for radio. Then, in 1929, she proposed a 15-minute long weekly radio serial to the NBC Radio Network, a comedy-drama that followed the life of a Jewish family in New York City. At first, Berg was paid $75 a week, including all writing, recording, and wages for the whole cast. Two years later, she received $2,000 per week, and her show was aired daily.
Everybody Loves the Goldbergs
“Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” was Molly Goldberg’s signature cry, opening up every episode. It sounds strange today, but back in the ’20s, people commonly understood it to mean Is anybody around? It was followed by an announcer’s chipper commentary: “That’s Molly Goldberg, folks–a woman with a place in every heart, and a finger in every pie.”
Berg’s vision of The Goldbergs, from which the show never deviated, was that of an everyday family with simple interactions, believable plots, and guided by a gentle humor. The episodes followed a predictable pattern–family members encounter problems, land in tight spots, and then turn to their familial matriarch to bail them out. Sometimes, the results were humorous and unexpected. Inoffensive scenarios couple with Molly Goldberg’s good-natured forthrightness–she’ll challenge the neighborhood policeman, but then invite him over immediately afterward for a cup of tea.
Although the episodes have the feel of a show of its time–replete with stiff dialogue and scripted, gee-whiz, Mother-knows-best endings–Berg paid acute attention to each nuance of flair, dialogue, and characterization. She drew on her experience growing up in a neighborhood rife with Eastern European immigrants, creating and delivering lines with unmistakable Yiddish tincture, from mundane requests (“Give me a swallow, the glass”) to the sly wordplay that characterized Yiddish novels and poetry (“If it’s nobody, I’ll call back”).
A Shaina Maidel…Onscreen and Off
Off-camera, Berg was a society woman. Her Yiddish accent all but fell away when she was not in character, and unlike her simple protagonist, Berg lived large, in a spacious Manhattan apartment.
But she prized her ethics above her fame. While Berg tried not to use the show to address “anything that will bother people,” such as politics, Zionism, and unions, she never compromised on the Jewish content. For example, opera star Jan Peerce appeared each holiday season to sing Passover and High Holiday songs.
Berg was also known for treating her actors with respect . When James R. Waters, the actor who played Jake, Molly Goldberg’s husband, died, instead of recasting another actor in his role, she simply wrote the scripts around him always being unheard or offstage. On the television show, Jake Goldberg was portrayed by Philip Loeb, who was blacklisted during Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist censures. At first, Berg refused to fire him. Even when she was forced to replace Loeb, she quietly kept the out-of-work actor on a regular salary.
The Goldbergs from a Distance
In 1949, CBS enlisted Berg to create a half-hour television adaptation of the show. Network flip-flops in time schedules, as well as constant rotations in cast plagued the show from the start. Many episodes of The Goldbergs were recorded live, and others were only shown once and then destroyed. Today, only a handful of episodes survive.
In its heyday, however, The Goldbergs was a popular sensation. The actors each received thousands of fan letters each week, as did the fictional characters they portrayed. For the better part of the 1930s, it was the second most popular radio serial in America, behind Amos & Andy. When the Emmy Awards announced the new category of Best Actress, Gertrude Berg was its first winner.
Today, The Goldbergs has all but vanished from the public memory–partly due to the lack of extant episodes, and partly because its pacing was much slower than the generations of sitcoms that followed.
Known or not, Gertrude Berg and her fictional family introduced a new genre that irrevocably influenced American television. From the faintly Jewish tone of anti-Semite Archie Bunker’s kvetching in All in the Family, to the wacky plot twists of Full House and Arrested Development, countless television shows bear in some way the genetics of their Jewish ancestor The Goldbergs–the first ever family sitcom.