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Fierce Leading Ladies: Gertrude Berg

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Earlier this year, I began my examination of the women who not only top-lined shows during the golden age of radio, but they filled important roles behind the microphone as well. While so many of the prominent men from this era managed to move to television, and largely cemented their legacy as legends, it’s often a bit harder to find information of the women in radio. However, as we showed in our examination of Mary Livingston, they were just as important and influential to not only radio, but how the medium shaped the growth of television.

This week, I’m turning my eye to a woman whose career began on radio before moving to television in it’s earliest forms. Gertrude Berg is a name which isn’t necessarily known today by those outside of film and television history circles, but in the first half of the twentieth century, this writer, producer, actress and creator was a legend and a household name to American audiences.

Gertrude Berg is a name I only learned about in my film school days, a depressing thought, considering I’m a classic TV watcher with a childhood spent with far too many hours spent in front of Nick at Night. When her television show The Goldbergs came to television in 1949, I Love Lucy was still about two years off. Other classics which we reflect on fondly like The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Andy Griffith Show were still more than a decade in the future. This was the wild wild west of television and The Goldbergs holds the distinction of being at the very least, one of the first situation comedies to come over television airwaves.

The New York Times reports that Gertrude Berg was born in October of 1899 in Manhattan. Period sources of the time tend to gloss over her childhood. However, Glenn D. Smith gives a detailed account of her life in his book: Something on My Own: Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956.

Smith describes Berg- born Tillie Edelstein- as a naturally creative, ambitious and dynamic young woman. She’s described as writing and performing from a young age. In his analysis of her early years, Smith writes,

To be sure, The Goldbergs was Tillie’s picture of the ideal Jewish family, a love letter of sorts to her grandparents, to the life they had given her as a child.

However, Smith also touches on a problematic relationship with her mother. Tille’s mother Diniah, according to Smith, “was just appalled by The Goldbergs and her daughters attempts to broadcast the family’s Jewish history…. in retrospect, Dinah’s longing to be more “American”… is best understood when considering the different forms of discrimination to which many Jewish men and women were subjected.

Berg met and married her husband Lewis, according to Smith in 1918. And like so many of the stories we’ve heard before, it is only at this point where her story seems to really take shape.

While she began her foray into writing and performing early, her professional drive took shape when she started studying playwriting at Columbia. From this point, it was a quick jump to her radio breakout. According to Smith, The Goldbergs premiered in November 1929. It was just weeks after the fateful Stock Market crash which would eventually plunge the country into the depths of the Great Depression.

According to the Radio Hall of Fame, the show, titled The Rise of the Goldbergs initially ran as a weekly 15 minute program. However, by 1931 it became a daily serial. The show ran at various times and on different networks, but it established itself as a radio staple, staying on the air throughout the great depression and world war two, until the show jumped to television.

The show was of the family sitcom variety winch was, and continues to be highly popular with audiences. However, where The Goldbergs differed and really broke ground in entertainment is that the show featured and spotlighted a Jewish family, a rarity in the rather WASPY 1950s. Filmmaker Aviva Kemper is quoted in the promotion for her documentary, Yoo-Hoo Mrs Goldberg.

She brought the Jewish-American family experience to mainstream audiences at a time that was the worst for Jews, both in terms of the domestic anti-Semitism and what was happening in Europe,

The series showed a working class family, as opposed to the far more middle class depictions of family which tended to dominate the airwaves. The Library of Congress describes the series,

The family consisted of an amalgamation of relatives all living under one roof- father Jake, kids Rosalie and Sammy and elderly uncle David. Overseeing them all, however, was the shows benevolent matriarch Molly...

Throughout the run of the show, Berg functioned as not only the star and creator, but she was also the primary writer, a producer and even sometimes a director. Interestingly, Berg was also the recipient of the Best Actress Emmy award at the third annual awards in 1951. The competition was fierce, seeing Berg beat Betty White, Helen Hayes, Judith Anderson and Imogene Cocoa.

Despite the series successful track record on the radio, while a number of sources seem to tell slightly different stories, they seem to agree that Berg fought an uphill battle in getting The Goldbergs a spot on television.

The Goldbergs hit troubled times in 1950 when Berg’s costar Philip Loeb was named in Red Channels as a purported communist. According to an article in the Atlantic, entitled Remembering a Remarkable Jewish Mother, the shows sponsor General Foods demanded that Loeb be dropped because he’d become too controversial. They write that Berg didn’t bow to pressure and the show went off the air. Berg fought hard for Loeb, but the actor later resigned before eventually committing suicide. The show later returned with a new patriarch, but was never quite the same.

Before she passed away in 1966, Gertrude Berg blazed a trail for women writers and creators in the middle of the twentieth century. Not only did she write for radio and television, Berg wrote plays and novels. She was a voracious writer and a smart creator, and hers is a story which should be remembered.

Stay tuned for more here at Female Gaze Productions as we look at classic pop culture through a historical and feminist lens. My name is Kim, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at Kpierce624, and as always if you’re like what you’re seeing, please like and subscribe.

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