|Market Day, Jewish Quarter of Lower East Side, 1912,|
Courtesy of the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org
Lewis was older, intelligent, sophisticated and supremely self-confident. He was immediately taken with the creative, spirited and intense young girl, who he introduced to the world of culture—art, music, etc.
As assimilationist Jews with left-leaning political views and boundless curiosity, the two of them had ample common ground. Tillie, for her part, knew instinctively that Lewis was the kind of man who would encourage her to be the kind of woman who did something with her life. Besides, his British accent was exotic. It was one of those rare things: a good match.
Four years later, Lewis and Tillie made it official—Lewis wanted to wait till Tillie was older—and settled in Manhattan, where their two children, a boy and a girl, would be raised.
|Tillie (Gertrude by then) out with|
Lewis, circa 1953,
Courtesy of Sitcoms Online,
“My sense of my grandmother is that she had kind of a dark childhood,” Tillie’s granddaughter, Anne Schwartz, a children’s book publisher, observed. “‘The Goldbergs’ were really this idealized family she wished she had as she was growing up but she didn’t have that family.... After [Tillie]’s brother died her mother, Dinah, was a woman in a deep depression, in continual mourning—a recluse who was slowly losing her mind. ”
—and starring in it. Berg only intended to play the lead until she could find the right actress, but the audience’s response after she had to bow out of the show one night on account of a sore throat wasn’t one that anyone could ignore. The New York Times reported that: “From the time the program signed off at 9:30 until midnight, the switchboard was flooded with calls from listeners demanding to know what happened to Molly Goldberg,” the lead character and Tillie’s new persona (Molly for Maltke, one of the earlier rainy day characters and Gold for Goldstein, her mother’s maiden name). Over 100,000 letters soon arrived, asking the same question.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library,
Finished by noon (scripts usually took her three or four hours), Berg—helped by her trusted, long-time assistant Fannie Merrill—would rush off to the theater to rehearse for that night’s live performances (—plural; there was a second broadcast for the West Coast). Rewrites were sometimes necessary, but generally speaking, the scripts were thoughtfully conceived (she carried a notebook around all day), well written and timely.
|FDR, Washington D.C., 1934,|
Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt
Library Digital Archives
|VE Day in Trondheim, 1945,|
(Please note this photo may only be
reused with appropriate attribution.)
Their rationale? The ratings (a practice begun in the late l920’s) were slipping—and perhaps, they were. (It had, after all, been a long run.) But, other factors, undoubtedly, were at play.
As America prepared itself for the Cold War, Berg’s leftist politics were becoming unfashionable, particularly with the conservative corporate sponsors and media moguls, who didn’t exactly adore dealing with this outspoken, shrewd, no-nonsense, well, Jewish woman, including and especially the Jewish execs.
|American Family Watching |
“[Gertrude Berg] was no shrinking violet; she was an assertive woman,” observed Brooklyn born fan and future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She played the “you owe me after all I’ve done for you” card and got herself an audition, which went so well that CBS premiered “The Goldbergs” in the Monday 9 p.m. time slot.
“The Goldbergs came to television last week and the word this morning is that they probably are going to be there for as long as they choose.”
The show (still live) only got better.
Berg, who preferred to act (“Writing is work; acting is fun.”) was a natural—someone who was comfortable in front of the cameras.
“Breaking the fourth wall” (an innovation only hinted at visually fifty years later in “The Office” and “Parks and Rec”), Berg would begin the show by leaning out her window (the one that faced the airshaft) and chatting with the viewer—you:
“Hello is such a little word for such a big feeling. I want to say hello with all the letters of the alphabet.”
|Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg,|
Courtesy of Sitcoms Online, http://www.sitcomsonline.com/
If anything the writing was funnier, the lines crisper, the message even more philosophical:
Talking to Uncle David (a supremely well-conceived and -acted character), Molly advises:
“Don’t forget, David, darling. Marriage is just not an express train where you get on at the first station and you get off at the last station. Don’t forget there are local stops in between.”
And a phone call—reminiscent of a “Taxi”-like conversation—comes in (a big deal circa l950).
Uncle David (answering the phone): “It’s long distance.”
Molly: “How long?”
Berg never lost focus: “The Goldbergs” is about family (before “All in the Family”) co-existing in the cramped quarters of an affordable apartment (before “The Honeymooners” moved into Bensonhurst). The heart of that family was a mother-knows-best (before there was a “Father Knows Best”) dispensing advice about the (“Seinfeld”-esque) everyday things of life.
Like most (all?) writers, Gertrude Berg wrote about what she knew: Jewish families. But (like “The Cosby Show” would in years to come), while maintaining her roots she always addressed the universals that concern us all.
|Propaganda Comic Book Cover,|
Catechetical Guild, 1947,
“...an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted,” was how playwright and soon to be reluctant participant in the modernist remake of the Salem witch trials Arthur Miller put it.
The 213-page booklet, Red Channels listed (alphabetically for handy reference) 151 performers (including many of the great artists of the day), 130 organizations and 17 publications (for good measure) that, according to them, supported communism.
|Cover of Red Channels,|
“Most copies disappeared quickly into the drawers of executive desks at networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors. Few people discussed its contents openly. If they spoke of it, they seldom mentioned who was listed. Artists, even those listed, seldom saw a copy. Many of those listed did not know about it for weeks.” (Jack Gould, the aforementioned New York Times critic, referred to it as “the bible of Madison Avenue.”)
Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted (and who would go on to write the scripts Fail-Safe and The Front) remembers that:
“…inclusion in Red Channels…meant automatic blacklisting. No one ever questioned this; it was simply accepted by the networks and the movie studios. There was no government edict behind it, no proof of illegality, moral turpitude or, even worse, lack of talent. If you were in Red Channels, you were blacklisted.”
The concept of the blacklist originated three years earlier with the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) “…which included a large number of the most unattractive men in American public life-bigots, racists, reactionaries, and sheer buffoons….” who claimed that the film industry was riddled with subversives, parlor pinks, fellow travelers, traitors and spies all hiding in plain sight in Hollywood Hills. Subpoenaed witnesses fell into one of two groups: friendly and unfriendly. The former, like Ronald Reagan and Walt Disney, were happy to cooperate with HUAC; the latter refused to “name names” and out their friends who were suspected of being communists, or of being sympathetic to the communist cause.
|"Free the Hollywood 10" Demonstration"|
Wisconsin Historical Society, http://www.flickr.com/
(Note: This photo may only be reused with
“HUAC’s Hollywood forays and the sensitivity of the mass entertainment industry to bad publicity spawned one of the morally questionable aspects of the era.”
|Joe 1, First Soviet Atomic Test,|
And, that was just the start: Hiss v. Chambers, a contest that is debated to this day; the Soviet Union’s detonation of an atomic bomb, with or without secrets leaked by American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (see LYNCH); Mao Tse Tung’s (communist) take-over of the world’s most populous country; and the Korean War were on the horizon.
But, the real action was taking place down in unlikely Wheeling, West Virginia at the even more unlikely Woman’s Republican Club dinner. There, previously justifiably little known Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy told the group that he had in his hand a list of 205 people who were known to be communists and were still working in the federal government—maybe. (According to historian David Oshinsky the only accurate, verbatim transcript—a radio recording of the speech—has been erased. What is known for certain is that McCarthy had no such list.)
|Senator Joseph McCarthy, 1954,|
Courtesy of Prints and Photographs
Division, Library of Congress,
That was more than enough for The Goldbergs’ sponsor, General Foods, who in an earlier case had made their corporate position clear by issuing a press release that stated:
“The use of controversial personalities or the discussion of controversial subjects in our advertising may provide unfavorable criticism and even antagonism among sizable groups of customers. Such reactions [injure] both acceptance of our products and our public relations. General Foods advertising, therefore, avoids the use of material and personalities which in its judgment are controversial.”
Even though sales of their product were up, General Foods told Gertrude Berg she had two days to get rid of Loeb....
|Gertrude Berg and Philip Loeb, Courtesy of |
Sitcoms Online, http://www.sitcomsonline.com/
Berg and Loeb, Molly and Jake, had good chemistry, and it came across on the tube. Now that and the show were threatened.
Beyond that, Berg liked Loeb personally, respected his acting ability and sympathized with his political views, many of which she shared. Loeb was a co-founder of The American Federation of Radio Actors—AFRA, soon to be AFTRA—and a vocal member of Actor’s Equity. Through Actor’s Equity, he had fought successfully for rehearsal pay, pensions, medical plans and better working conditions for all performers.
It wasn’t lost on her that Loeb’s union activism was the reason that he was listed in Red Channels.
Berg confronted General Foods and told them she would go public with their threat:
“I will appear on every available platform from coast to coast denouncing General Foods and advising people not to buy its products” (see BOYCOTT).
General Foods backed off but only for a while. Not long after that (in 1951), they withdrew their sponsorship of the show, and CBS cancelled “The Goldbergs.”
Over the next eighteen months, Berg met with CBS and various advertising agencies—to no avail—in the hopes of securing a sponsor who would allow Loeb to stay in the cast.
Trapped, she reluctantly offered Loeb a cash settlement. He refused, on principle. Always feisty and fearless, he wanted to fight back.
|Berg and Loeb, Molly and Jake,|
Courtesy of Sitcoms Online,
“Philip Loeb has stated categorically that he is not and never has been a Communist. I believe him. There is no dispute between Philip Loeb and myself.”
Finally, in January 1952, Loeb, debt-ridden, faced with the dilemma of a union man being responsible for a number of people being out of work for eighteen months, relented and accepted a, by now, reduced (by half) settlement.
Broadway producer and friend Bill Ross would later reminisce:
“When he accepted the money, it was a disgrace. He had to accept it. His son was in a sanitarium and [a friend’s] father was paying the bills. He didn’t want that to continue, but he felt he had sold out…. Phil got more and more depressed.”
Broke, broken, bitter, depressed and despondent on September 1, 1955—four years after his ordeal began—after getting his affairs in order, Loeb checked into room 507 at the Taft Hotel using the name Fred Lang (German for ‘forever peace’), made some calls, changed into his pajamas, overdosed on sleeping pills that he had acquired only days earlier and died.
“He’s been hurt so terribly. Now see what they did to him. They took his living away. They took his life away. A person can stand only so much,” Loeb’s sister concluded.
|New York Times headquarters |
from 1913 to 2007,
“It could not be ascertained last night, however, whether his [Loeb’s] recent idleness had been because of what he called his ‘blacklisting,’ or whether he had been unable to find work for other reasons.”
Gertrude Berg who was, of course, devastated by the news, would (as with her mother's tragic end) never speak of it.
That same year (1955) the NBC suits forced “The Goldbergs” (with a new actor playing Jake) to move out to the ’burbs, where it would succumb to “death by homogenization.”
“Gertrude Berg did not want to take the show to the suburbs,” TV historian Richard Thompson observes, “and I wish they would have listened to her because it became a completely different show and it wasn’t good.” So it goes.
“I Love Lucy,” which debuted October 15, 1951, took the coveted Monday 9 p.m. time slot and in time, became the top-rated show in the country.
But, it wasn’t the ratings so much as the respective methods of recording “I Love Lucy” and “The Goldsbergs” that would make all the difference. “The Goldbergs” recorded their archival footage by filming the television monitor as the show was on air—a technique known as the kinescope process. “Lucy,” on the other hand, filmed the cast live, using three cameras, a technique that would introduce the concept of “editing TV.”
The dreadful technical quality of the recordings prevented syndication and ruined any chance “The Goldbergs” had at re-runs, which is why it does not exist in the consciousness of post-modern America.
|The Three Camera Angles, Vitameatavegamin Episode,|
"I Love Lucy," 1952, Courtesy of the Dann Cahn Collection, https://www.editorsguild.com/
Worthington Miner, CBS’s manager of program pevelopment back then (whose job involved finding a dramatic show, a variety show, a children’s program and a situation comedy) candidly admitted years later:
|Worthington Miner, at microphone |
(center), directing "The Missus Goes
A-Shopping,'" CBS Control Room,
1941, Courtesy of Steve Dichter,
Indefatigable and indomitable, she persevered. Her first move turned out to be a misstep, an unsuccessful spin-off that was cancelled after a year. In the interim, she made highly paid guest appearances on some of the now popular variety shows and acted in summer stock.
|Antoinette Perry, or "Toni,"|
whose name is behind the Tony Award,
|Gertrude Berg at Work, Courtesy of Sitcoms Online,|
Castleman, Harry and Walter J. Podrazik; Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television
“...for as long...”; Smith, 119
“Gertrude never….”; Denenberg, Interview with Anne Schwartz