October 22, 2019

Before Lucy And Oprah,There Was Gertrude

“The Rise of the Goldbergs” first aired less than a month after the stock market crashed in 1929. The series about a Jewish family with one foot in the old world and one in the new rose in popularity as Hitler was rising to power in Germany. Millions of listeners, Jews and non-Jews alike, tuned their radios daily to hear Yiddish-accented Molly Goldberg ladle bowlfuls of compassion and good-humored common sense. She brought a shared humanity as soothing as matzah ball soup into living rooms across America.

A new documentary, “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” by award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner is scheduled to open in July. Her film chronicles the story of Gertrude Berg, who wrote, directed, produced and acted in first the radio show and later the TV show, “The Goldbergs.” 

“My MO is making films about under-known Jewish heroes,” said Kempner, whose “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” about the baseball slugger earned an Emmy nomination. About Berg, the filmmaker noted, “It would be as if Oprah were forgotten 60 years from now.”

Kempner said that people think of “I Love Lucy” as the first situation comedy, and that “Gertrude Berg was never given credit for developing the domestic sitcom. If you look at ‘Lucy,’ ‘The Honeymooners,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends’ — it’s all about neighbors walking into each other’s homes. Gertrude was the prototype. She also provided a positive image of a Jewish family at a most precarious time for survival of the Jews.”

Berg was Lucy before “Lucy” and more: as Molly Goldberg, she was everyone’s Jewish mother. In 1950, Berg earned the first Emmy ever awarded for best actress, yet, as Kempner is fond of pointing out, “Gertrude Berg is the most important woman in America you never heard of.” 

The world’s troubles were no strangers to the Goldbergs’ living room. In one segment of her film, Kempner juxtaposes archival footage of Kristallnacht with a clip of the Goldberg family at their Passover seder. When someone outside throws a stone, shattering their window, Molly comforts her son and daughter and, with ever-present aplomb, urges her husband Jake to continue the seder, a first glimpse of the ritual for thousands of viewers. 

“Gertrude faced the Holocaust head on,” said Kempner, whose aunt and grandparents perished in Auschwitz. Referring to a clip in her film in which the Goldbergs receive mail from the old country, she added, “Gertrude showed what was happening in the world and that she was well aware survivors were coming to America and that it had to be addressed on a national level.”

Born Tillie Edelstein in 1899, Gertrude Berg grew up in what was then a Jewish section of Harlem. The seeds for her career were sown during summers at her father’s Catskills hotel, Fleischmann’s, where, as a young teen,  Tillie created skits to entertain guests’ children. Fleischmann’s is also where, at age 14, she met Lewis Berg, a Jewish engineering student from England, whom she wed four years later. After a fire ravaged the New Orleans plantation where Lewis worked as an engineer, the Bergs returned to New York City. Tillie changed her name to Gertrude and began writing radio scripts. Second in duration only to “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “The Rise of the Goldbergs” enjoyed a 17-year run. Then, in 1949, Berg persuaded CBS executives to broadcast “The Goldbergs” on television.

A typical episode opened with the buxom, aproned Molly — framed by her tenement window — making a pitch for Sanka coffee so convincing you could practically inhale the aroma. She then established immediate audience rapport: “Oy, have I got news for you.” Molly’s friend, Mrs. Bloom, sometimes leaned out her own window across an air shaft to summon, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.” Near enough to try on each other’s hats, the two schmoozed about everything from their catering business scheme to Pincus Pines, the Goldbergs’ favorite Catskills destination. 

When Gertrude Berg appeared on “Person to Person,” Edward R. Murrow’s popular celebrity interview program, viewers got to see — in contrast to Molly’s modest Bronx apartment — Berg’s swank Park Avenue duplex. Murrow asked about the distinctions between Gertrude Berg and Molly Goldberg. In unaccented English, Berg, who had written some 12,000 scripts, told Murrow, “I’m really Molly more hours of the day than I am Gertrude.” 

Her gracious smile and glamorous digs belied tough times for Jews in the entertainment business, many of whose names appeared on the blacklist. “The Goldbergs” had fallen victim to McCarthyism, a tragedy poignantly portrayed in Kempner’s documentary. Phillip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband Jake, was targeted in “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television.” Berg thus lost her sponsors. “She fought like hell to keep Phillip Loeb, confronting sponsors and going to everyone she knew,” Kempner said. She even approached influential Cardinal Spellman, who offered to help keep Loeb if Berg would convert to Catholicism. Berg finally realized the only way the show could continue was to hire a new Jake, and she made an out-of-court financial settlement with Loeb. Beaten down and unable to find work to support his son, who was schizophrenic, Loeb committed suicide. Berg was devastated.

On a lighter note, Kempner’s “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” incorporates footage of laundry flapping outside tenement windows while Molly Goldberg extols the virtues of Duz laundry soap. Gertrude Berg is said to have invented product placement, and her audience bought the products Molly raved about, like Pepsodent and the energy supplement Rybutol. During World War II, Molly encouraged Americans to buy war bonds. She also merchandized her political views. In one episode, Molly goes back to high school where, in a pageant, she portrays FDR delivering a fireside chat. 

Glenn D. Smith Jr., author of the Berg biography, “Something on My Own” (Syracuse University Press, 2007) said, “Through Molly, Berg felt she had a moral obligation. Listeners loved [the politics] or hated it. Some wrote in, swearing they wouldn’t buy Pepsodent…. A number of non-Jewish listeners loved her, but politically conservative non-Jews couldn’t stand her. They listened to the program, and then fired off letters saying they’d had enough. One signed off, ‘Viva la Hitler.’” 

Some, however, found Berg’s alter ego, Molly, so approachable they believed she could solve their problems. Smith, in his biography, quotes from a letter with a fan’s plea to save her marriage: “Now dear Mollie … Couldn’t you help me untangle my situation by broadcasting a problem like this one some evening soon?” 

Kempner explained, “For those 55 and above, Gertrude and her character Molly are totally memory lane, a smile or a tear in their eye; but for the next generation, especially women, it’s discovering someone who was such an important Jewish entertainer and a real role model for women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom I interviewed for the film, told me how much Molly Goldberg reminded her of her aunt and grandmother. Gertrude countered stereotypes. Rather than portraying the domineering Jewish mother, she created a powerful Jewish mother.” Kempner compares the image of Berg’s character, Molly, to that of Michelle Obama: “homespun, talented, bright and showing by example.”

Berg connected with her audience by blurring the line between reality and fiction. Her own son was called to service at the same time as Alfred Ryder, who played Molly’s son, Sammy Goldberg, on the radio. Smith writes that Berg scripted an episode culminating with “Ryder actually boarding a train for boot camp. The final ‘goodbye’ scene was then broadcast live from New York’s Penn Station.”

Although discrimination against Jews led some to change their names in order to land jobs, Gertrude Berg is said to have been the second most respected woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. “You didn’t have to be Jewish to love Molly,” Kempner said. As noted in historian Joyce Antler’s “You Never Call! You Never Write!” Berg received mail from fans as diverse as farmers’ wives, Quaker women, lumberjacks, sailors and “even one Mother Superior who wrote to Berg to ask for scripts she missed when her convent gave up the show for Lent.”

On the other hand, some Jews were downright critical. Carol Poster, an 85-year-old Jewish grandmother, remembers Berg mentioning on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that she had a “Chanukah bush.” “It disturbed many of us that this ethnic Jewish actress, who engendered great pride, belittled Chanukah,” Poster said. Others, who are younger, recall that Molly Goldberg reminded them of their bubbes, a source of both pride and embarrassment when Jews were striving to assimilate. Smith, in his biography, points out it was long after network executives began pressuring Berg to “tone down” the Jewishness that she yielded and moved “The Goldbergs” from their Bronx Jewish roots to the suburbs. 

Here was an immigrant family achieving the American dream with a house on a quiet, manicured street. Neighbors’ names — Mrs. Peterson, Mrs. Van Ness — bore no similarity to those of Molly’s Bronx landsmen, Mrs. Bloom and Mrs. Herman. But with the loss of Phillip Loeb as well as the Goldbergs’ upward mobility and watered-down ethnicity, the show lost its heart and lasted for only one more season, ending in 1956. At the same time, a different breed of comic performer, like Phyllis Diller and Lenny Bruce, was emerging. Completing a radio-TV-theater trifecta, Gertrude Berg went on to win a Tony award in 1959 for her Broadway performance opposite Cedric Hardwicke in “Majority of One.”