Berg, Gertrude (1899–1966)
Berg, Gertrude (1899–1966)
American actress, producer, and author, who was famous for the hit radio and television series "The Goldbergs." Born Gertrude Edelstein on October 3, 1899, in New York City; died on September 14, 1966, in New York City; only child of Jacob and Diana Netta (Goldstein) Edelstein; attended Wadleigh High School, New York City; Columbia University, extension courses in playwriting; married Lewis Berg, December 1, 1918; children: Harriet and Cherney Robert.
"Effie and Laura" (radio drama, 1927); "The Rise of the Goldbergs" (radio series, 1929–31, book version, 1931); "The Goldbergs" (radio series, 1931–34, 1936–50, television series, 1949–59); "House of Glass" (radio drama, 1935); Make a Wish (film, released 1937); "Kate Hopkins" (radio drama, 1941–42); Me and Molly (play, produced 1948); (film, with N. Richard Nash) Molly (1950); The Molly Goldberg Cookbook (1955); (with C. Berg) Molly and Me (1961).
Gertrude Berg made a career playing the loquacious and lovable Jewish housewife Molly Goldberg, who, with her family of five and some 200 other characters over the years, captured the hearts of Americans for three decades. Beginning on November 29, 1929, with the premiere radio broadcast of "The Rise of the Goldbergs" (shortened to "The Goldbergs" in 1931), Berg wrote, acted in, and produced over 5,000 radio scripts featuring her fictitious family from the Bronx. Second only to "Amos and Andy" in popularity and longevity, the radio classic "The Goldbergs" eventually swept the entertainment media, spinning off as books, a play, a television series, and a movie.
A second generation American, Berg grew up in New York and attended the city's public schools. In 1918, she gave up extension courses in playwriting to marry an engineering student, Lewis Berg. The couple spent a few years in Louisiana, where Lewis worked as a mechanical engineer for sugar refineries, before moving back to New York, where Berg produced her first short-lived radio series, "Effie and Laura," about two worldly employees of a five-and-dime. Two years later, Berg presented her script for the Goldbergs to the powers at NBC, reading it aloud to ensure the liveliness of the characters and the accuracy of the Yiddish intonation. Enthralled with the script, NBC management urged Goldberg to play the part of Molly.
The Goldberg family—including Molly and Jake, their teenage children Rosalie and Sammy, and the comical Uncle David—met with instant success. Four weeks into broadcasting, when Berg came down with a sore throat and a substitute played Molly, the radio station received 11,000 protests. By 1931, the show, sponsored by a soap company, was aired five times a week. Berg worked nine-hour days in order to prepare the five 121/2-minute scripts, which were constructed toward a Friday climax to leave listeners eager to tune in on Monday.
Berg's characters were drawn from her childhood and extensive research into Yiddish culture. From the characteristic opening "Yoo-hoo!
Mrs. Bloo-oom!" yelled up the airshaft to her neighbor, Molly lovingly schmoozed, meddled, and plotted through the domestically driven story lines. Berg's humor, derived from Yiddish dialect and garbled syntax ("If it's nobody, I'll call back."), was never cruel or patronizing. Often the characters expressed Berg's own philosophy, while the Goldberg children, Rosalie and Sammy, provided the point of view of first-generation Americans, trying, without much success, to separate their parents from their old-world ways.
Many of the neighborhood characters Berg created were played by amateur actors in their real-life roles, such as clerks, delivery boys, and elevator operators. "The Goldbergs" was also one of the first programs to eschew sound "effects" in favor of the real thing, like running water and frying bacon. If sounds were too complicated to be produced in the studio, then the broadcast was made from an outside location. Realism was occasionally carried a step further, incorporating events from the actors' own lives into episodes. When Sammy was called to duty in World War II, the episode was broadcast from Pennsylvania Station, where both the actor's departure for duty and the troop train he boarded were genuine.
During the brief periods when the show was off the air, Berg kept busy. In 1935, she created another series, "The House of Glass," based on memories of her summer vacations at a Catskill's resort hotel owned by her father. Although it enjoyed a moderate success, the show was not nearly as popular as "The Goldbergs." She also created scripts for "Kate Hopkins," a serial about a visiting nurse. In 1948, Berg starred in her own play Me and Molly, produced at the Belasco Theatre in New York. Critic Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times was lavish in his praise: "Mrs. Berg is a real human being who believes in the people she writes about. … The result is a leisurely, intimate, cheerful portrait of interesting people and the humor is kind-hearted." He went on to praise her integrity "amid the gag traps of Broadway."
Launched in 1949, the television version of "The Goldbergs" quickly drew some 13 million viewers. Shortly after winning an Emmy in 1950 for her television work, Berg appeared in the movie Molly, co-authored with N. Richard Nash. Capturing audiences from many different ethnic and religious groups, "The Goldbergs" was often cited as promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding. The show received awards from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Heritage Foundation, and B'nai B'rith, among others. In 1950, the Girls Clubs of America cited Berg as the Radio and TV Mother of the Year.
After performing in summer stock during the mid '50s, in 1959 Berg returned to Broadway in Leonard Spigelgass' long-running play A Majority of One, in which she portrayed Mrs. Jacoby, a Jewish widow who lost a son in World War II. Berg received critical acclaim and won a Tony for her performance. In 1963, she starred in Dear Me, the Sky is Falling.
In addition to her books, The Rise of the Goldbergs (1931) and The Molly Goldberg Cookbook (1955), Berg wrote her memoirs, Molly and Me, with her son Cherney in 1961. Her real family, including daughter Harriet, appeared to be as solid as the Goldbergs. When her character Molly referred to "a home, full of hearts and faces dat's yours and you is deirs" as the most important thing in life, perhaps she spoke for Gertrude Berg.
Mainiero, Lina, ed. American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. NY: Frederick Ungar, 1979.
McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.
Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1960. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1960.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts