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BERG, Gertrude

Born 3 October 1899, New York, New York; died 14 September 1966, New York, New York

Daughter of Jacob and Diana Goldstein Edelstein; married Lewis W. Berg, 1918

A second-generation American raised in New York City, Gertrude Berg drew observations of Jewish family life from her own childhood as well as from exhaustive research into urban Jewish folkways. Berg attended New York City public schools and took extension courses in playwriting at Columbia University from 1916 to 1918. She spent her childhood summers in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where she wrote and performed sketches to amuse the guests at her father's hotel. For three years after her marriage, Berg lived on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, spending most of her time reading and writing. She began writing for radio after her return to New York.

Berg's first attempt at a radio series was Effie and Laura (1927), a story about two worldly young women who worked in a five-and-ten and talked about everything from economics to the meaning of life. Berg's first success was The Rise of the Goldbergs (1929-1931), renamed The Goldbergs in 1931. Over the years, The Goldbergs included over two hundred characters, though only five characters sustained the series. The central character, Molly Goldberg (played by Berg), was a powerful and benevolent Jewish mother absorbed with finding sensible solutions for her family's problems. She was an amalgam of characteristics drawn from Berg's mother, grandmother, and various hotel guests. Her humor, derived from malapropisms and Yiddish dialect, was lovingly authentic and never patronizing or condescending.

The Goldberg children, Rosalie and Sammy, typified firstgeneration Americans trying to make sense of their dual heritage. Though always devoted to their parents, Sammy and Rosie also were dedicated to modernizing them and to correcting their pronunciation. Their zeal was seldom appreciated by the elder Goldbergs.

Berg wrote five 12-and-a-half-minute scripts per week. Each week's scripts worked toward a climax designed to arouse enough curiosity on Friday to make listeners tune in on the following Monday. In addition to its durable humor, The Goldbergs is noted for its realism. The program eschewed sound "effects" in favor of real eggs frying or real water running in the studio. Programs requiring sounds too complicated for the studio were broadcast from appropriate external locations. When Sammy was called to active duty in World War II, his departure was broadcast from Pennsylvania Station. The troop train he boarded was genuine, as was his departure for duty. Such use of events from the actors' lives contributed realism of the highest dramatic value.

Except for a few brief interruptions, The Goldbergs remained on the air until 1950, through more than 5,000 scripts. Then the show moved to television, where some three million viewers assured the success of the program for nearly 10 years. Berg wrote several versions of The Goldbergs for various media: a book, The Rise of the Goldbergs (1931), a play, Me and Molly (1948), and a film, Molly (1950), written with N. Richard Nash.

Throughout her works, Berg asserts the importance of domestic life for both men and women. To Molly Goldberg "a home, full of hearts and faces dat's yours and you is deirs" is paramount. Her husband also acknowledges his need for marriage: "You got right, Molly. I vouldn't be notting but a shadow; I vouldn't be a real man. I can't even picture to mineself dat I should be a single man." The Goldberg family adjusts to changing times, but its integrity as a family never falters. Though The Goldbergs is ethnic comedy at its finest, the program's warmth and authenticity give it universal appeal.

Molly and Me (1961), a memoir written with Berg's son Cherney, is a straightforward account of the people important in Berg's life and, ultimately, in her writings. The book reveals Berg's penchant for glib generalizations about people and events. The most interesting characters are men—waiters, guests, storekeepers, relatives. Though the women characters generally are less sympathetically drawn, their strength and power are unmistakable.

Berg's works, however, pose two major problems for critics. Almost every story Berg wrote is about the Goldbergs, and the Goldbergs are Berg's family. Accordingly, the distinction between Berg and Molly is elusive. A second problem compounds the first, namely, that Berg's writing relies heavily on the actor's skill in bringing characters to life. The realization of Molly's character, for example, depends upon Berg's performance as much as upon Berg's writings. Therefore, the greatness of Berg's achievement cannot rest solely upon the strength of her writing. The ultimate critical and commercial success of Molly and her family is the result of Berg's command of the total creative process—from writing, to production, to performance.

Other Works:

House of Glass (radio drama, 1935). Make a Wish (film, released 1937). Kate Hopkins (radio drama, 1941-1942). The Molly Goldberg Cookbook (1955). "Let God Worry a Little Bit" in From the Wise Women of Israel: Folklore and Memoirs (1993).

Bibliography:

Barnouw, E., A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933 (1966). Barnouw, E., The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States 1933-1953 (1968). Edmondson, M. and D. Rounds, From Mary Noble to Mary Hartman: The Complete Soap Opera Book (1976). O'Dell, C., Women Pioneers in Television: Biographies of Fifteen Industry Leaders (1997). Weber, D., "The Jewish-American World of Gertrude Berg: The Goldergs on Radio and Television, 1930-1950" in Talking Back: Images of Jewish Women in American Popular Culture (1998). Weber, D. "Memory and Repression in Early Ethnic Television: The Example of Gertrude Berg and the Goldbergs" in The Other Fifties: Interrogating Midcentury American Icons (1997).

Reference Works:

CBY (1960). National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.).

Other reference:

Commentary (April 1956). NYT (15 Feb. 1959, 15 Sept. 1966). Newsweek (11 April 1949). SR (26 May 1956). Time (26 April 1943, 26 Sept. 1949, 8 March 1948). Theatre Arts (Spring 1948, Spring 1951).

—CAREN J. DEMING

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