O, Pioneers!

February 25, 2011

Amanda Randolph

PBS has been running  a series of documentaries under the title “Pioneers of Television.” We have watched three of them — on westerns, detective shows, and sitcoms — and found them informative and entertaining. Being the quarrelsome type, however, I question the use of the term “pioneers” — at least with respect to sitcoms, which were the topic of Monday night’s broadcast.

The program included segments on Jackie Gleason – specifically on the one full season of “The Honeymooners,” Lucille Ball, Andy Griffith, Danny Thomas, and Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. I can’t argue with the stature of those performers nor with the contributions all of them made to the development of TV comedy. But while there were some general references to the fact that situation comedies originated on radio, I don’t understand how a documentary about sitcoms can ignore Gertrude Berg.

Gertrude Berg

I had a similar complaint — and wrote about it here — when the US Postal Service released a series of stamps honoring “pioneers” of television and didn’t include Gertrude Berg. I won’t repeat that post here, but Berg started her show — most widely known as “The Goldbergs” — on radio in 1929 and moved it to television in 1949. She owned, produced, and wrote the show, and she played the main character. Although it was a comedy, the show had very serious overtones, and it was the first show of its kind to introduce general audiences to the family lives of American Jews. That’s not a pioneer?

While I was watching that program Monday night, I spotted an actress named Amanda Randolph in a still from the Danny Thomas show. She played Louise, the wisecracking maid to the “Williams” family. By that time, Amanda Randolph had been an entertainer for more than 30 years — as a piano player and then as an actress in radio and movies. She was the first black actor to star in a regularly scheduled television show — “The Laytons” — which ran for a couple of months on the old Dumont network in 1948. She later had a recurring role as Ramona Smith – the mother of Sapphire Stevens – on the television version of “Amos  ‘n’ Andy” — the first TV show with an all-black cast, and the last one for many years. That’s not a pioneer?

Lillian Randolph

Amanda Randolph was the older sister of Lillian Randolph, another groundbreaking black actor and singer. She started working in radio in the mid 1930s and became a mainstay in that medium and in television and films. She had a recurring role in the radio, television, and movie versions of the popular comedy “The Great Gildersleeve,” and she played Madame Queen — girlfriend of Andy Brown — in the radio and TV versions of “Amos ‘n’ Andy.”

Lillian Randolph may be best remembered now for the role of Annie in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Somebody at PBS doesn’t remember, but I do.

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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.