ART CARNEY

ART CARNEY

In a 1956 episode of “The Honeymooners,” Ed Norton (Art Carney) is advising Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) that one of their neighbors reads all the mail that comes into the building. To illustrate his point, Norton tells Ralph what the Kramdens’ gas bill was the previous month. And then he congratulates Ralph for breaking the all-time low gas bill record set by the Collyer Brothers in 1931.

The studio audience laughs, because they remember the Collyer Brothers, whose macabre death had occurred only about nine years before that episode was filmed. Homer and Langley Collyer, offspring of a well-to-do family, lived in a mansion in what was then high-fashion Harlem — remaining there after their father inexplicably abandoned them in 1919 and moved downtown. By that time the brothers were well educated — at least one of them had graduated from nearby Columbia — but instead of pursuing careers in engineering or admiralty law, they gradually withdrew from society, living like hermits and literally filling the house with tons of newspapers, bicycles, firearms, electric motors, musical instruments — a collection far too varied to be characterized, although it is usually referred to as “junk.”

LANGLEY COLLYER

LANGLEY COLLYER

In 1947, the two men died in the house under tragic circumstances. Langley Collyer had been killed by one of the booby traps he had assembled to ward off intruders and Homer, who was blind and largely helpless, had died of starvation, just a few feet from his brother’s body. Police and laborers removed 103 tons of material from the house, which was condemned and razed.

E.L. Doctorow has written a novel, “Homer and Langley,” being released this month, which consists of what Doctorow describes of his “reading” of the Collyer Brothers’ lives. By that he means that the book is not a history; in fact, he said he did no research, which may be an exaggeration, but he makes his point. He was curious, not about morbid details that had been repeated again and again, but about what motivated the two men to shut the world out of their lives or rather, as he puts it, to “emigrate” to a life within their home, a life lived on their own terms.

HOMER COLLYER'S BODY IS REMOVED FROM THE HOUSE

HOMER COLLYER'S BODY IS REMOVED FROM THE HOUSE

Doctorow was interviewed on NPR today — specifically, on “All Things Considered: — and his remarks suggested more respect for the Collyers than they usually are afforded. Certainly he eschewed the ridicule that an Ed Norton couldn’t help but attach to the names. The writer apparently doesn’t begin with a judgment about the brothers — or about people who don’t choose to live as others do. He begins with curiosity about how their lives fit into the whole picture of life in their time. He also said that he was saddened by a comment made in the novel by Homer, who is the narrator: “What could be more terrible than to be turned into a mythic joke?”

A story based on the Doctorow interview, the audio, and an excerpt from the novel are at this link:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112346577

Sui generis

August 5, 2009

GERTRUDE BERG

GERTRUDE BERG

A few months ago, I wrote in this journal that my wife and I had discovered and watched on line a few episodes of the television series “The Goldbergs.” Those episodes are at http://www.archives.com.

After I wrote that blog, I heard from a publicist who was handling a new documentary film about the owner, writer, and star of “The Goldbergs” — Gertrude Berg — who was one of the most remarkable women of the second half of the 20th century. As a result of that contact, I wrote the following story, part of which has appeared in the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill and has been picked up on other blogs:

When the U.S. Postal Service issues its “Early TV Memories” stamps this summer, don’t look for Gertrude Berg.

The New York City native, who 80 years ago created the domestic situation comedy, and became a media mogul, was not included with the likes of Lucille Ball and Harriet Nelson, who decades later followed her into American homes.

But Berg is being reintroduced to the American public in a documentary film – “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” – written and directed by Aviva Kempner.

The title evokes the phrase associated with Berg during the radio and television runs of the show she created and controlled, most widely known as “The Goldbergs.”

The principal character, Molly Goldberg, and her neighbors in a Bronx apartment building, interacted by leaning out their windows and calling: “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg … Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Bloom.”

From her window, Molly – portrayed by Berg – invited listeners and viewers into the Goldberg household to share the lives of her husband, Jake; their children, Sammy and Rosalie; and Molly’s brother, David Romaine.

The show ran on radio from 1929 to 1946 – five days a week for much of that time – and on television from 1949 to 1956. Berg herself wrote every script in longhand.

PHILLIP LOEB

PHILLIP LOEB

There were also a stage play, a movie, a lucrative vaudeville tour, a comic strip, a jigsaw puzzle, a newspaper column, a line of women’s dresses, and a popular cookbook – although Berg couldn’t cook.

Berg’s rise to prominence, Kempner emphasized, occurred “at the time of the greatest domestic anti-Semitism in America, and during the rise of Adolf Hitler in Europe.’’

Berg presented the family as Jewish – adopting a mild Yiddish accent and a unique use of language that became a hallmark of the character:

As Molly shows off a hat, a neighbor asks: “With what dress are you going to wear it?’’

“With mine periwinkle,’’ Molly answers, striking a pose: “Visualize!”

And Berg didn’t shy away from difficult issues affecting Jews.

The documentary points out that in 1933, the year Hitler became dicator of Germany, she had a rabbi conduct a Seder service on the program. And after Kristallnacht in 1938, she wrote an episode in which a stone smashed an apartment window while the Goldbergs were celebrating Passover; Molly calmed the children and urged Jake to continue leading the Seder.

“And yet,’’ Kempner said, “Molly Goldberg was universal. You didn’t have to be Jewish to love her.’’

This urban mother first appeared on radio a month after the stock market crash, and the Goldbergs became so important to the national psyche during the Great Depression, as people maintaining the family circle in spite of want, that Franklin Roosevelt himself acknowledged it.

THE CAST OF "THE GOLDBERGS"

THE CAST OF "THE GOLDBERGS"

Kempner – based in Washington, D.C. – made the documentary through her Ciesla Foundation, whose goal is to “produce films about under-known Jewish heroes.” Kempner – whose work includes a 2000 film about baseball legend Hank Greenberg – said that although the Gertrude Berg film is complete, she is still raising money to pay for it.

The new film includes vintage photos and motion pictures and input from members of Berg’s family, actors, her biographer and others, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The story they tell has its dark sides.

Berg, born in 1898, did not grow up in the kind of setting she portrayed in her shows.

“She never had a nurturing mother like Molly Goldberg,’’ Kempner said. “She created what she didn’t have.’’

Berg’s own mother sunk into depression after the early death of her son and ended her life in a mental institution. Berg’s father badgered Gertrude into working at resorts he opened in the Catskills and in Florida but never supported her career as an actress and producer.

By contrast, her husband, Lewis Berg, a chemical engineer, typed many scripts from his wife’s handwritten originals.

Especially unsettling in Gertrude Berg’s life was the impact of “Red Channels,” the publication that purported to expose Communists working in radio and film.

One of those identified was Philip Loeb, an actors’ union leader, who played Jake Goldberg on the television series. Berg herself was listed as a “sympathizer.”

CBS and her sponsor pressured Gertrude Berg to fire Loeb. She refused, and her show was cancelled. NBC eventually picked up the show, but Loeb had accepted a cash settlement out of consideration for Berg and the other actors. Blacklisted from radio and film, he committed suicide in 1955.

Berg won an Emmy for her portrayal of Molly Goldberg, and a Tony for her 1959 Broadway performance in “A Majority of One,” and her autobiography was a best seller.

Still, only a small percentage of Americans today know who Gertrude Berg was, Kempner said, “and I want to restore her correct place in our cultural history.’’

The home web site for the film is at http://www.mollygoldbergfilm.org/home.php Information about theaters showing the film is available there.

The Ciesla Foundation web site is at http://www.cieslafoundation.org/

 

GERTRUDE BERG

GERTRUDE BERG

We were happy last night to find that the web site http://www.archive.org has several episodes of the television series “The Goldbergs,” a program far superior to most half-hour shows today, with allowances for the technical advances that have taken place since the ’50s. This is a warm show, humorous without being silly, with a solid dramatic basis. The show starred Gertrude Berg, who also owned it and wrote it and insisted on such things as everday situations and no laugh track. The Goldberg family consisted of Molly Goldberg; her husband, Jake, who was in the wholesale garment business; her uncle, David Romaine; and her children, Rosalie and Sammy – to whom Molly always referred as “my Rosalie” and “Samalie.” The family first appeared in a long-lived radio series and also was portrayed in a Broadway play written by Berg and in a film. The episode we watched last night was the final season in what was not a continuous run. In this 1955 show, the family had just moved to the suburbs from The Bronx – mirroring what was actually going on with a lot of urban Jewish families at the time – and Molly was having a hard time adjusting to an unfamiliar neighborhood. The dialogue in this show is priceless; Berg had a good ear for how people talk. Molly and David, in particular, use a peculiar verbal shorthand one doesn’t hear often. For instance, when Molly wants to say, “Give me a minute to write that down,” she says, “Pardon me while I jot.” We’re grateful for whoever preserved these shows.

 

GERTRUDE BERG and PHILIP LOEB

GERTRUDE BERG and PHILIP LOEB

There was a shadow over “The Goldbergs.” Philip Loeb, who was cast as Jake when the television series was on CBS, was fingered as a Communist by Lee J. Cobb and Elia Kazan in their testimony in 1950 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Berg was pressured to fire Loeb, and she refused, so CBS dropped the show. Loeb resigned and accepted a monetary settlement, but he committed suicide in 1955. Eight months after CBS dropped it, NBC picked the show up with another actor in the role.

 

RUSH LIMBAUGH

RUSH LIMBAUGH

Andrew Klavan, the fiction writer and journalist, makes an interesting point in his “Limbaugh Challenge” column making the rounds this week. Klavan suggests that many people he characterizes as liberals, who are dismissive of Rush Limbaugh, probably have never listened to Limbaugh’s show and know what he says only through excerpts and sound bites – which Klavan maintains are edited precisely to make Limbaugh sound bad. When I was a fulltime journalist, readers often complained that I was a knee-jerk liberal, and I’ve also heard that complaint a few times with respect to my preaching. Those who made such judgments had never talked to me, and therefore had no way of knowing that I have many views that are hardly liberal. So I have a little context for this discussion from my own experience. I have a little more context from the fact that I have listened to Rush Limbaugh’s show many times, just as I have listened to Michael Savage and Sean Hannity. Truth be told, these fellows and I disagree on many if not most things, but I have found common ground with all of them at one time or another. Moreover, listening to them gets me to at least re-examine some of my own ideas, which I think is Klavan’s point. At the minimum, I suspect that Klavan is correct in his suggestion that people who publicly excoriate Limbaugh have only a cursory idea of what the man thinks and says. Limbaugh deliberately presents himself at times – as Lewis Grossberger once put it – as a “political vaudevillian,” and that makes it easy to simply write him off. But he represents and influences the viewpoints of too many earnest Americans to be dismissed simply as a clown.

http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-klavan29-2009mar29,0,5456892.story

 

GEORGE WEBER

GEORGE WEBER

Barry Nelson, a fine actor, once gave me an unanticipated lecture about judging other people. I had asked Nelson – in the context of our conversation – whether he felt responsible for the content of films or television shows or plays in which he appeared. I asked him specifically if he would decline to appear in a property if he felt the content was, say, pornographic. Nelson said he would not necessarily decline to appear in a property because of its sexual content and that, in a broader way, he didn’t feel that appearing in a property meant that he was making the writer’s viewpoint his own – or, to put it another way, that he was giving approbation to a viewpoint that the writer had expressed in the script. Nelson didn’t stop there. He went on to caution me that each person has his own needs and has to find his own ways to satisfy them. Not everyone is attractive, Nelson said. Not everyone has good social skills and can draw to himself friends and lovers. Not everyone can easily obtain the intimacy that is a fundamental requirement of a healthy human spirit. What I might reject as pornography, Nelson said, might be providing another person with release or comfort or excitement that he would otherwise live without.

 

BARRY NELSON

BARRY NELSON

I could have spent the rest of the day debating the definition of pornography and the connection between pornography – in at least some of its definitions – and activity that ranges from degrading human nature to criminal. However, I think Barry Nelson used pornography as his talking point only because I myself had raised it. His broader point about judging other people’ s needs and behavior had the impact I think he intended. That conversation took place many years ago, and it came to mind this week while I was reading about the death of George Weber, the radio newsman who was murdered in his Brooklyn apartment. According to the news accounts, Weber contacted a disturbed teenager via the Internet and offered to pay him $60 to engage in rough sex. The encounter spun out of control, and the teenager, John Katehis, stabbed Weber multiple times. Police say Katehis admitted to that.

My initial reaction was revulsion to the idea that Weber had sought out a teenaged stranger for a sexual thrill. The bare fact, if it is a fact, that he would exploit a boy of that age – never mind one who seems to have had deep-seated problems of his own – is inexcusable. I still think so. But over the past few days, I have been thinking of the loneliness and the compulsion that may have, must have, contributed to this catastrophe in two lives. My moral judgment about decisions that George Weber made doesn’t matter, except to me. Like tens of thousands of other people, I heard George Weber’s lively, good-natured voice many times, never having a reason to wonder about the heart and soul that fed it. If I wonder now, Mr. Nelson, it’s only because I mourn his death and regret whatever emptiness he was trying to fill in his life.

George Weber’s blog: http://georgeweberthenewsguy.blogspot.com/