On January 10, 1949, “The Goldbergs,” a popular long-running radio show, had its television premiere on CBS. The weekly show, about a Jewish immigrant family living in the Bronx, New York, and its environs (as they became acclimated to America, they moved to Connecticut), was created and written by, and starred, Gertrude Berg, who played family matriarch Molly Goldberg.
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Born in 1899, Gertrude Berg (nee Edelstein) was raised in a family that owned a hotel in the Catskills town of Fleischmanns, where she was involved from a young age in writing and producing shows for guests. She also studied playwriting through Columbia University's extension program before showing up at NBC radio to propose a semi-autobiographical radio drama based on the experience of her husband, a chemical engineer whose sugar-processing plant burned down. Though she owned a typewriter, she wrote the script out longhand but when she arrived at her long-awaited meeting with an executive at NBC, he protested that he couldn’t read her handwriting. Berg proceeded to read him the entire script out loud – and he bought it.
“The Rise of the Goldbergs” radio show aired weekly in 1929, moved to a daily slot two years later, and continued to be broadcast through 1946. After presenting a theatrical version of the show on Broadway in 1948, Berg brought “The Goldbergs” to TV in 1949. She continued to write all the scripts, which were broadcast live but without a studio audience, and although the show moved from CBS to NBC to the DuMont network, it remained on the air through 1956.
Berg won the first Emmy award for a primetime comedy actress in 1951. The same year, the show faced a crisis when actor Philip Loeb, who played Molly Goldberg’s husband, Jake, was branded as a Communist and blacklisted. Berg refused to drop him from the show, and the network dropped it from its schedule. Eventually, Loeb himself resigned, and “The Goldbergs” returned to the screen on NBC the following year. (Loeb, who was thereafter unable to find a work as an actor, committed suicide four years later.)
Although Gertrude Berg was once quoted as saying that, as the show’s author, she avoided "anything that will bother people ... unions, fund raising, Zionism, socialism, intergroup relations,” her TV show has been described as the most Jewish show that ever ran on television. Molly and Jake were clearly of immigrant stock, speaking Yiddish-inflected English, and uttering frequent malapropisms. And their two children were clearly raring to become Americanized. A radio show from April 1939, several months after Kristallnacht in Germany, featured the Goldbergs having a family seder, which is interrupted when someone throws a rock through their window. Occasionally, too, there were references to family members in Europe who were trying to escape the Third Reich.
The TV show aired for a final season in 1956, by which time the Goldberg family had moved to the fictional New York suburb of Haverville. The move may have made sense from a sociological point of view, but audience interest waned and the show was not renewed. In the years that followed, Gertrude Berg made guest appearances on a number of TV shows, and she appeared on the stage. Finally, in 1961, she starred in a short-lived TV series, “Mrs. G. Goes to College,” about a 62-year-old widow who decides to study for a bachelor’s degree.
Gertrude Berg died on September 14, 1966, at age 67. In an appreciation in the New York Times, critic Brooks Atkinson compared Berg favorably to Noel Coward and J.B. Priestly, noting she “was a writer and actress who brought out the humanity, love and respect that people should have toward each other. Her contributions to American radio, television films and stage will always be remembered.”