If Gertrude Berg had been the norm, women would have ruled television and radio from the start. But she was an exception, and an exceptional figure she remains. Berg created, wrote, produced, and starred in The Rise of the Goldbergs (debuting on radio in 1929 and later known as simply The Goldbergs) and in doing so created the first in an enduring genre, the family sitcom. Thus began the continuum that spans from The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet to All in the Family, Roseanne, The Cosby Show, and beyond. Berg’s genius was to root the show’s humor not in jokes, as they had been in vaudeville, but in the characters and the environment in which they found themselves—truly a “situation” comedy. Molly Goldberg’s humor, Berg explained, “comes from life itself.” Though the setting and characters on The Goldbergs were urban and Jewish, the situations in which Molly and her fictional family found themselves were universal, and the show’s audience cut across religious and ethnic boundaries. And at the center was Gertrude Berg, a natural and prodigious writer: “Some days the writing went well and fast, some days it was hard and awful, and my mood for the day was determined by how well I thought the script had gone.”
An only child and a native New Yorker, a teenage Gertrude Edelstein planted the seeds of The Goldbergs with skits she wrote to entertain summer guests at the hotels her father ran in the Catskills. In 1918 she married Lewis Berg, a chemical engineer who had been a hotel guest, and spent a few years on what for her was foreign soil, a sugar plantation in Louisiana. The couple had two children. Each summer, as Berg returned to the Catskills and amateur sketch-writing, her professional ambitions grew. Though Berg’s husband was encouraging, her father advised her to give up on “looking for bubbles and rainbows and trouble.” She did not heed his counsel. “I simply had to find out if there was something there,” she explained many years later.
In 1928, after Berg and her family had moved back to New York, she wangled an appointment with the program director at a local radio station. He was not impressed with the script she had written, telling her it had “as much entertainment value as the phone book.” But he liked her voice and hired her to read on air, in Yiddish, a recipe for Christmas cookies that would serve as a commercial for Con Ed, the public utility. “Be surprised at nothing,” was the lesson she learned from that encounter. She then sold CBS a script for a short-lived radio series called Effie and Laura. On November 20, 1929, The Rise of the Goldbergs debuted on NBC.
The fifteen-minute shows, which eventually aired six days a week, featured Berg’s signature character, one she would reprise for decades. The story of a Jewish family in New York, The Goldbergs was marked by its gentle, even schmaltzy, good humor. As matriarch Molly Goldberg, Berg began most programs by calling “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloom,” to a neighbor. It became as familiar a cultural tagline as “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” would to subsequent broadcast audiences. Molly Goldberg was an immigrant to New York City who retained old-world ways as she adapted to the new. Molly’s trademark speaking style, a fractured combination of formal and colloquial English, generated much of the program’s gentle humor. “Maestro, kind sir,” Molly asked her son’s violin teacher, “how is the progressing of my offspring with the three B’s, Bach, Beethoven, and Berlin?” Berg said the character was inspired by several women, including her mother, her maternal grandmother, and select Catskills regulars.
Despite its remarkable success on radio, The Goldbergs was rebuffed by the nascent television networks in the late forties. Executives at both NBC and CBS told Berg that the show would not work in the new medium. A frustrated and annoyed Berg went straight to the top—William S. Paley. After a three-minute meeting with the CBS founder, Berg was given a chance at taking her show to television. Though ultimately not the phenomenon it had been on radio, the television incarnation of The Goldbergs was a success by any other measure and ran for several years.
During its long broadcast run, The Goldbergs went off and on the air more than once, primarily because Berg decided at various times to take her talents to other arenas like the Broadway stage and Hollywood film. From June 1951 to February 1952, however, the television version was forced off the air for lack of a sponsor after Philip Loeb, the actor then playing Molly’s husband Jake, was alleged to have ties to the Communist Party. Though Berg defended her costar and refused to fire him, Loeb resigned in an attempt to save the show. Berg continued to pay his salary for two years, but Loeb’s job prospects were nonexistent. He committed suicide in 1955.
Besides The Goldbergs, Berg wrote other, shorter-lived radio shows, including House of Glass, about the female owner of a resort hotel, and a soap opera, Kate Hopkins, about a nurse. On The Goldbergs, she also supervised production and casting. Her instincts in the latter category were solid; Eartha Kitt, Joseph Cotton, and Anne Bancroft were among the performers whose careers received a boost from appearing on The Goldbergs. “I remember when Van Heflin and Garson Kanin and Elia Kazan were on my show,” Berg recalled in 1959, thirty years after The Goldbergs’ debut. “There are times when I have to shake myself to realize that those great talents worked for me years ago for what they’d call less than peanuts today. Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill sang ‘Kol Nidre’ on my show for fifty dollars apiece. I hate to think what you would have to pay them today.”
Berg was also one of the first to exploit brand extensions, including a cookbook and a line of schmattes—Molly Goldberg–labeled housedresses.
In 1959 Berg starred on Broadway in the comedy A Majority of One (for which she received a Tony Award for Best Actress), then returned to television for a final time in 1961 in Mrs. G. Goes to College, in which she played a Molly Goldberg–like character. It was not a success. As the children of immigrants came of age in the postwar era, ethnic stereotypes like Molly and Jake Goldberg faded in popularity, while suburban WASPs such as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson became the new symbol of the American family.
“I didn’t set out to make a contribution to interracial understanding,” wrote Berg in her 1961 autobiography, Molly and Me: The Memoirs of Gertrude Berg. “I only tried to depict the life of a family in a background that I knew best. The reactions of the people who listened only showed that we all respond to human situations and human emotions—and that dividing people into rigid racial, economic, social, or religious groups is a lot of nonsense.”