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The Goldbergs : Gertrude Berg

by Billy Ingram

Gertrude BergThe Goldbergs was one of the most successful entertainment ventures ever, a radio and television show that reached across every medium.

It all hinged on one woman - Gertrude Berg, a true multi-media pioneer. Beginning on network radio in 1930, The Goldbergs had a phenomenal seventeen year run, second only to Amos and Andy as the longest-running program of radio's golden years. A Broadway play and daily comic strip were also spun off from the show.

The Goldbergs followed the adventures of Molly Goldberg, her husband Jake, and their family as they meandered through life's everyday challenges. Producer Gertrude Berg both wrote the scripts and portrayed Molly in the radio sitcom.

The Goldbergs starring Gertrude BergWhat a remarkable woman Gertrude Berg must have been, one of the few of her gender with any power in an industry growing more competitive each year.

From 1930 until 1955, The Goldbergs was broadcast live. It's hard to imagine anyone writing and performing a live, top-rated network series for over twenty years, especially when you consider there were very few changes made in all that time.

Life magazine said: "For millions of Americans, listening to The Goldbergs, a warm-hearted radio serial about a Jewish family, has been a happy ritual akin to slipping on a pair of comfortable old shoes that never seem to wear out."

Uncle DavidThe series was so resistant to change that when the actor who, for 15 years, played Molly's husband Jake died in 1945 he wasn't replaced for another two years. Molly simply referred to her spouse and spoke to him without giving the character any lines.

The Goldbergs ended on radio in 1947, after earning Gertrude Berg national acclaim and millions of dollars. Berg took a stage version of her show called The Goldbergs, Molly and Me to Broadway in 1948 before deciding to tackle the latest technology.

The move to television in 1949 was (at first) an easy one for The Goldbergs. This was the original "show about nothing," just the ordinary daily frustrations of life as seen through the eyes of patient, wise, resourceful Molly.

For the first TV season on CBS, the show was the third most popular program on the air. The production was very successful in illuminating what the radio show presented so well for the mind's eye. That was no easy task, only a small number of radio sitcoms successfully transitioned to the small screen - and they all tried.

Not even a woman with as much determination as Gertrude Berg could stop what was going on in Washington, DC in 1950. The Senate investigation into communists infiltrating our daily lives was in full swing, reaching deep into Hollywood. Writers and actors with left-leaning tendencies were labelled "controversial" and blacklisted—refused work by the networks and studios and even fired from existing contracts.

Jake GoldbergSuch was the fate of Phillip Loeb, the actor who played Molly's husband Jake on television. Labelled a communist by the Senate committee (Loeb insisted he wasn't), The Goldbergs sponsor General Foods demanded the actor be fired. Gertrude Berg refused to do so and the series ceased production in 1951 with ratings in a free-fall over the adverse publicity.

When it became apparent that neither network nor sponsor would budge, Berg reluctantly replaced Phillip Loeb (but kept him on the payroll at full salary) with actor Harold J. Stone when The Goldbergs returned to the air in February, 1952 on another network, NBC.

The part changed hands again when Robert H. Harris took over the role in the 1953 syndicated version. Phillip Loeb, the struggling performer who finally achieved the success he worked so hard for, then lost it all so harshly, committed suicide in 1955.

Gertrude Berg as Molly GoldbergWhen The Goldbergs moved to NBC, the format was changed from a weekly half-hour nighttime show to a three times weekly, fifteen-minute series (7:15–7:30 p.m.). This unusual soap opera / sitcom format lasted six months.

The Goldbergs was brought back for a few weeks in the summer of 1953, this time as a half-hour on NBC. The struggling Dumont network picked up the show in April of 1954 but this run only lasted a few months. In 1955, Gertrude Berg shook things up a bit, syndicating the show to individual stations in a new format called Molly.

This time the Goldberg family had "moved on up" to the suburbs (Haverville, NY), but the situations remained basically the same. Still written by Gertrude Berg (with her son Cherney), the production refreshingly updated the characters without disturbing the careful chemistry of the easy-going scripts. Possibly out of step with the times, Molly was cancelled after only one year.

GERTRUDE BERG IN THE 1960s

Gertrude BergGertrude Berg triumphed on Broadway in a two-year run with A Majority of One, winning the Tony award for "Best Actress" in 1959. She also turned up as a guest on a number of variety shows and dramatic productions before returning to CBS in 1961 with Mrs. G. Goes to College.

Gertrude Berg programSurrounded by an all-star cast that included Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Leo Penn, Marion Ross, and Mary Wickes, this sitcom about a widow (the same basic Molly Goldberg character) who returns to university life received tepid ratings.

The series was renamed The Gertrude Berg Show mid-season but was ultimately expelled after a freshman year marked with bad reviews. The actress turned her attentions to the theater, starring in several acclaimed productions around the country.

Gertrude Berg died on September 14, 1966 while preparing for another Broadway run.


Film Collector Jeff Valencia tells us - "Talk about lost shows, get this - when Guild Films in NY went bankrupt the negatives to the Goldberg shows (along with others like The Joe Palooka Story) were placed in a bank vault. Time passed and now all the 35mm negatives are lost. The only copies of the last season are with UCLA. Cherney Berg had a complete set in 16mm and I had about 18 shows in 16mm. The first 6 years of the show were live and the network contract stipulated that they destroy the kinescope recordings after 90 days. So there are only a handful of live Goldbergs."

 

Thanks to Jeff Valencia!

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Cast of Molly (The Goldbergs) in 1955:

Gertrude Berg

Molly Goldberg / Gertrude Berg
Jake Goldberg / Robert H. Harris
Uncle David / Eli Mintz
Sammy Goldberg / Tom Taylor
Dora Barnett / Betty Bendyke
Carrie Barnett / Ruth York
Daisy Carey / Susan Steel
Henry Carey / Jon Lormer


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