Gertrude Berg

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Gertrude Berg
Gertrude Berg.png
As Molly Goldberg in 1951.
Born Tillie Edelstein
(1899-10-03)October 3, 1899
East Harlem, New York, New York, U.S.
Died September 14, 1966(1966-09-14) (aged 66)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actress, screenwriter
Years active 1929–1961
Spouse(s) Lewis Berg (1918–1966; her death)
Children 2

Gertrude Berg (October 3, 1899 – September 14, 1966) was an American actress and screenwriter. A pioneer of classic radio, she was one of the first women to create, write, produce and star in a long-running hit when she premiered her serial comedy-drama The Rise of the Goldbergs (1929), later known as The Goldbergs. Her career achievements include winning a Tony Award and an Emmy Award, both for Best Lead Actress.

Life and career[edit]

Berg was born Tillie Edelstein[1] in 1899 in the East Harlem[1] neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, to Jacob and Dinah Edelstein, natives of Russia and England, respectively. Berg's chronically unstable mother, Dinah, grieving over the death of her young son, experienced a series of nervous breakdowns and later died in a sanitarium.[1]

Tillie, who lived with her family on Lexington Avenue,[1] married Lewis Berg in 1918; they had two children, Cherney (1922–2003) and Harriet (1926–2003). She learned theater while producing skits at her father's Catskills Mountains resort in Fleischmanns, New York.[2][3]

Berg was also the author and lead actress of The House of Glass heard over NBC in 1935. Berg played a hotel owner in this short-lived radio program.

After the sugar factory where her husband worked burned down, she developed a semi-autobiographical skit, portraying a Jewish family in the New York tenements, into a radio show. Though the household had a typewriter, Berg wrote her script by hand, taking the pages this way to a long-awaited appointment at NBC. When the executive she was meeting with protested that he could not read what Berg had written, she read the script aloud to him. Her performance not only sold the idea for the radio program but also got Berg the job as the lead actress on the program she had written. Berg continued to write the show's scripts by hand in pencil for as long as the program was on the air.[2]

On November 20, 1929, a 15-minute episode of The Rise of the Goldbergs was first broadcast on the NBC radio network. She started at $75 a week. Less than two years later, in the heart of the Great Depression, she let the sponsor propose a salary and was told, "Mrs. Berg, we can't pay a cent over $2,000 a week."[4] Berg's husband, Lewis, who became a successful consulting engineer after the loss of his job which prompted her to write the initial radio script, refused to be photographed with his wife for publicity purposes, as he felt this was infringing on her success.[2]

Berg working on television scripts by hand in pencil in 1950.

Berg became inextricably identified as Molly Goldberg, the bighearted matriarch of her fictitious New York family who moved to Connecticut as a symbol of Jewish-American upward mobility. She wrote practically all the show's radio episodes (more than 5000) plus a Broadway adaptation, Me and Molly (1948). It took considerable convincing, but Berg finally prevailed upon CBS to let her bring The Goldbergs to television in 1949. Early episodes portrayed the Goldberg family openly and personally struggling to adapt to American life. Just as Berg stated in her autobiography, she chose to depict her Jewish grandfather's worship to America and the new world in her first radio broadcast show. Her characters Molly, Jake, Sammy and Rosie emphasized her day to day stories of Jewish immigration to America.[5]

Immigrant life and the Goldberg family struggle were familiar and relatable to most families during this point in American history. Radio seemed to lend a hand to new settlers and produced a common place to tie patriotism and families together. The program's victory is largely because of the familiar feelings of the American people portrayed in the program's scripts. The first season script was later published into a book form.[5]

Berg won the first ever Emmy Award for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series her debut year on the network—her twentieth consecutive year of playing the role—and the show stayed in production for five years.[6]

The Goldbergs ran into trouble in 1951, during the McCarthy Era. Co-star Philip Loeb (Molly's husband, patriarch Jake Goldberg) was one of the performers named in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television and blacklisted as a result. Loeb resigned rather than cause Berg trouble. He reportedly received a generous severance package from the show, but it didn't prevent him from sinking into the depression that ultimately drove him to suicide in 1955.[7] The Goldbergs returned a year after Loeb departed the show and continued until 1954, after which Berg also wrote and produced a syndicated film version. The show remained in syndicated reruns for another few years, after one year of production and 39 episodes (it aired on some stations as Molly).[6]

Berg with orchids in the greenhouse of her summer home.

In 1959, Berg won the Tony Award for Best Actress for her performance in A Majority of One. She made guest appearances on The Martha Raye Show and The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom. On February 6, 1958, she appeared on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.[6] In 1961, Berg won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre. Berg also published a best-selling memoir, Molly and Me, in 1961.

That same year, she made a last stab at television success in the Four Star Television situation comedy, Mrs. G. Goes to College (retitled The Gertrude Berg Show at midseason). Her costars were Cedric Hardwicke, Mary Wickes and Marion Ross. Berg played a 62-year-old widow who enrolls in college. The actress was also the "mystery guest'" on the series What's My Line three times circa the early 1960s.[6]

Berg was also a songwriter. Country music singer Patsy Cline sang Berg's composition "That Wonderful Someone" on Cline's 1957 debut album.[8]

Biographies[edit]

A biography of Berg, Something on My Own: Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929–1956, by Glenn D. Smith, Jr. (Syracuse University Press) appeared in 2007. Aviva Kempner's 2009 documentary, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, deals with Berg's career, and to an extent, her personal life.[9]

Death[edit]

Berg died of heart failure on September 14, 1966, aged 66, at Doctors Hospital in Manhattan.[10] She is buried at Clovesville Cemetery in Fleischmanns, New York. Her husband, Lewis, died in 1985 at age 87.[11]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d Smith, Glenn D. (2007). "Something on My Own": Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956. Syracuse University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0815608875. 
  2. ^ a b c Senseney, Dan (August 1954). The Heart of the Goldbergs (PDF). TV-Radio Mirror. Retrieved January 30, 2012. 
  3. ^ Shandler, Jeffrey. "Gertrude Berg", Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia
  4. ^ Current Biography 1941, pg. 71
  5. ^ a b Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  6. ^ a b c d Gertrude Berg at the Internet Movie Database
  7. ^ The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows (6th Ed.), by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh, pg. 404
  8. ^ "Patsy Cline". Allmusic. 1957. Retrieved January 31, 2012.  (Note the last name is misspelled on the website as Burg)
  9. ^ Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, mollygoldbergfilm.org; accessed December 6, 2014.
  10. ^ "Gertrude Berg, Molly of 'The Goldbergs' Dead; Actress Wrote and Starred in Popular Radio-TV Series". New York Times. September 15, 1966. Retrieved 2009-07-10. Gertrude Berg, known to millions of Americans as the original Jewish mother of radio, television, stage and screen, died yesterday of heart failure at Doctors Hospital after a brief illness. 
  11. ^ Gertrude Berg at Find a Grave

Further reading[edit]

  • Marc, David (2004). "Berg, Gertrude". In Horace Newcomb. Encyclopedia of Television. I (A-C) (2nd edition ed.). New York, New York: Fitzroy Dearborn. pp. 239–40. Retrieved 2010-11-10. 
  • Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1998. 

External links[edit]