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Gertrude Berg: The Goldbergs, Molly Goldberg, and Failed Independent Characters

Berg, Ball, and Fey were the women most involved in the creation of their respective characters, but they created and portrayed simplified, devalued characters, which represent these women’s understanding of the workplace culture of their own time. These comediennes typify this dichotomy between creator and character in different ways. While all three actresses were certainly commercial successes, all three underrepresented their personal success when creating their character. Berg, Ball, and Fey were intimately involved with the worlds of broadcasting and television (and, for Ball, film). They became dominant forces in these areas, but still created characters that seemed to have virtually no power or independence in their own lives. These women tried – and failed – to create more powerful female characters, and instead were forced to make their powerless characters subvert their environmental limitations and subtly claim power in their homes and workplaces. To understand this phenomenon, I look to these actresses’ careers and the characters they created – both the beloved and the forgotten.

 

Gertrude Berg was, in a word, revolutionary. She created, wrote, produced, cast, and starred in the radio hit The Rise of the Goldbergs (1929-1931) and its identical reincarnatrion The Goldbergs (1936-1955), taking charge of every possible part of the process that created her fame and her beloved character, Molly Goldberg. Molly was the matriarch of the Goldberg family, Jewish immigrants to the United States living in New York City. Molly and her husband, Jake, spoke in dialect and comically stumbled over newly learned English words and phrases. Their children, Sammy and Rosie, were American-born, with no strong accents. Sammy and Rosie taught their parents to be American, introducing them to American ideas and sometimes correcting their accented pronunciation. Molly and Jake, on the other hand, taught the children the traditions and values of the Old World. Berg explained that Molly “lived in the world of today but kept many of the values of yesterday… She had some basic ideas that she learned long ago and wanted to pass on to her children.” Molly was both patriotic and passionate about her Jewish faith; Berg again explained, “next to the Constitution of the United States, the Ten Commandments came first… Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob interchanged easily with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson.”[1] The Goldbergs were meant to be a real immigrant Jewish family just working to get by, led by a loving (if not sometimes smothering) mother.

 

Though Berg herself was often confused for her character Molly, the two had little in common. In explaining the creation of the characters of the show, Berg identified herself and her generation in the family most like Sammy and Rosie, “first-generation Americans who were trying to make sense out of growing up in one world, America, but coming from another, the European world of their parents.”[2] Like Sammy and Rosie, Berg herself identified more as American than anything else, even Jewish.[3] She had a strong desire to make a name for herself and do “something on [her] own,” and with The Goldbergs she did, proving herself to be “the exception to the rule – the first woman to succeed in both the creative and the executive ends of the broadcasting industry.” Her success “rested on her ability to be as tough talking and relentless, as cunning and persuasive, as the male network or advertising executives who built and controlled the industry.”[4] Berg insisted on creative control of The Goldbergs, and used its success to her advantage; during her prime, Berg received a weekly salary of $7,500, making her the highest-paid woman in radio.[5]

 

Molly, however, was an immigrant woman with none of these career options available to her. Berg, a famous socialite, played a frumpy mother of a struggling Jewish family. The Goldbergs was revolutionary in its depiction of the everyday life of Jewish American immigrants, and Berg used her business skills to make herself a radio sensation and open the eyes of Americans to the daily struggles of Jewish immigrants. By doing this, she clearly enjoyed significant career opportunities, which could not even be considered by the characters in The Goldbergs.

 

Before The Goldbergs, Berg tried to portray more independent women, but failed to gain support from radio stations, the media, and her fans. Berg’s first radio script for CBS was Effie and Laura, a show about working salesgirls in which Berg played one of the leading roles. In her memoir, Berg describes Effie and Laura as “a sophisticated slice of life full of stark realism, economic problems, and the endless search for the meaning behind life… it seemed quite up to date and very modern.”[6] The show took place in Effie and Laura’s workplace, which implied female independence that proved unpopular with radio executives. Considered “too advanced in their views on love and marriage,” and thus inappropriate for radio, Effie and Laura survived only one episode.[7]

 

Berg experienced a similar failure in 1935, even after The Goldbergs had garnered significant fame. In her NBC program House of Glass, Berg played Bessie, a hotel cook working in a Catskill Mountain resort based on Berg’s own father’s hotel.[8] Bessie was in many ways the complete opposite of the beloved Molly Goldberg, but both characters were reflections of Berg’s own life. Molly grew out of Berg’s own experiences coming of age in a New York Jewish household on the Lower East Side. Bessie, on the other hand, represented Berg’s participation in the world of business and was a uniquely confident, independent female character in an otherwise conservative, patriarchal world of broadcasting.[9] While House of Glass received significant praise from fans and critics, many radio listeners expressed their disappointment with the cancellation of The Goldbergs. House of Glass lasted less than a season, when Berg jumped at the chance to revive The Goldbergs in 1936. A telling 1966 Variety article detailed why Bessie and House of Glass never caught on, explaining that, in the new program, Berg “is no longer the kindly, philosophical Jewish mother and house-wife… but a cold, matter-of-fact businesswoman whose major concern is the success of her summer resort.”[10] Fans and critics clearly preferred hearing Berg portray a housewife rather than a working woman, even though the latter character was much more similar to Berg’s own life. Her observable personal success did not lead to popular approval of her portrayal of independent women, but rather limited her character options to the more traditional, less threatening role of Molly Goldberg.

 

Leaving Bessie behind, Berg returned to Molly Goldberg and managed to subtly introduce political discourse into her program. Berg believed in the power of radio, stating patriotically, “in making this a government by the people, as well as curing our own present trouble, radio must be conceded to have shared this task with the president.”[11] An unabashed follower of Franklin D. Roosevelt, she used The Goldbergs as a vehicle for presenting her political beliefs, speaking out against Jewish persecution in Europe before American entry into World War II, and eventually supporting the American war effort. While the character of Molly may have remained relatively powerless in her own home, Berg still used the program and Molly’s comforting voice to advance her own political positions. Berg’s more overtly political character Bessie, and House of Glass, were, for the most part, forgotten.

The immense popularity of Molly and The Goldbergs is most compelling when compared to the public disapproval of Berg’s less traditional characters in Effie and Laura and House of Glass. Berg’s personal success and involvement in her programs was no secret, but her attempts at creating and portraying characters similar to herself always failed. A successful woman playing a strong, independent woman was not appealing to audiences in the 1930’s and 40’s. Surprisingly, comediennes working decades later still faced some of the same issues.


[1] Gertrude Berg, Molly and Me (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 191.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Glenn D. Smith, Jr., “Something on My Own:” Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956, (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007), 54-55.

[4] Ibid., 61.

[5] “The Inescapable Goldbergs,” Time, June 23, 1941, 55. As quoted in Cary O’Dell, Women Pioneers in Television: Biographies of Fifteen Industry Leaders (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1997), 44.

[6] Berg, Molly and Me, 183.

[7] Cary O’Dell, Women Pioneers in Television: Biographies of Fifteen Industry Leaders (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1997), 43.

[8] Smith,“Something on My Own,” 62.

[9] Ibid., 63.

[10] Robert J. Landry, “Gertrude Berg Dead at 66; ‘Goldbergs,’ Etc., Star Had ‘Instinctive Showmanship,’” Variety, September 21, 1966. As seen in O’Dell, Women Pioneers in Television, 44.

[11] Gertrude Berg, “Radio is Eulogized by One of Its Most Noted Characters,” Cleveland Press, August 1933, no page number, NBC Manuscripts, Box 21C, Folder 29. As quoted in Smith, Something On My Own, 76.

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