Once upon a time, before Monica’s parents on “Friends” or the mother-in-law on “Mad About You,” there was a strong and sympathetic prime-time Jewish mother.
For 17 years on radio and seven years on TV, from 1929 to 1956, Gertrude Berg embodied everyone’s mother on The Goldbergs.
Berg was proud of being Jewish, and her “Molly Goldberg” spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent. Resonating from the everyday life of an immigrant family to the larger culture, this Jewishness was not just colorful ethnic spice in her optimistic America. She brought to the public the Holocaust and the pressures of assimilation, from nose jobs to children leaving the old neighborhood. She drew inspiration from her childhood and conversations overheard in Lower East Side restaurants, and her scripts glittered with inventive malapropisms. (One favorite: “When we get to the bridge, I’ll burn it.”) But character development shaped her stories more than quick laughs.
Molly Goldberg’s significance was lauded recently at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York. In a panel discussion, documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner previewed clips of interviews and restored “Goldbergs” excerpts from her forthcoming film “Gertrude Berg; America’s Molly Goldberg.” Kempner says she’s intrigued by “under-known Jewish heroes,” a fascination demonstrated in her award-winning “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.”
Two biographies of Berg are in the works: Molly’s World: The Life of Gertrude Berg, by David Zurawilt, and Pete Smith’s It’s Your I America: Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956. Maybe the film and the books are precursors of a Gertrude Berg renaissance. Berg broke ground as an artist and entrepreneur With full creative control, she wrote and produced 10,000 scripts, all typed by her husband. “Writing is work!” the Emmy- and Tony-award-winning actress declared to Edward R. Murrow in a “Person to Person” interview. She wrote from six to nine each morning “when the phone doesn’t ring.”
Owning the rights to her series, Berg also had unusual financial control. On radio and TV she was a Bronx housewife welcoming America in through her window above Tremont Avenue (“Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloom!”). But Berg in her own home was an elegant Park Avenue intellectual, presiding over an apartment salon filled with art, books, people and good food, her grandson fondly recalled.
Her personas united to battle McCarthyism and anti-Semitism when Philip Loeb, the actor who played her onstage husband, was blacklisted. She fought hard for him, and after his tragic firing she was penalized for her loyalty Her film, Kempner says, will document this struggle.
Panelists concluded that the networks’ rush to disassociate themselves from Berg—she was driven from CBS to NBC to the DuMont network and then to syndication as she lost sponsors—fed the amnesia about how powerful this Jewish woman and her “Molly” were in shaping popular culture.