EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

EDDIE ANDERSON and JACK BENNY

My lack of interest in current television is at the point where I have a very limited diet. I’m not going to make an argument for the “golden age,” because I don’t think it’s valid. There have been many excellent shows since the 1950s. Still — and I’m willing to call this a matter of taste — I am attracted to early programming, and especially to situation comedies such as Make Room for Daddy, Burns and Allen, and the proto-sitcom, The Goldbergs. 

Thank heaven, then, for services like Netflix, which makes many of these shows available, including The Jack Benny Show. Benny is a favorite of mine, not only because he was such a unique character and was so skillful in portraying his fictional persona — the miser who wouldn’t admit to being older than 39 — but because of his place in American show business history.

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny's radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco."

A poster advertises a broadcast of Jack Benny’s radio show on a station in Seattle. LSMFT, for the benefit of the younger crowd, stood for “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.”

The production values of television shows in the 1950s do not compare favorably with what we have become used to sixty years later, but the era got its “golden age” reputation because of the cadre of writers and performers who had migrated to television on a path that led from vaudeville, burlesque, and the legitimate theater by way of radio. Jack Benny and many of his contemporaries had worked very hard to develop their sense of what audiences at the time thought was funny or dramatic, and to develop the timing and delivery that would work in the new medium. They learned their lessons well; Jack Benny’s slow burn is still funny, even when you can see it coming from a mile away.

An interesting aspect of Benny’s show was his relationship with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, a gravel-voiced black actor who was part of the Benny stock company which included, among others, announcer Don Wilson and Irish crooner Dennis Day.

EDDIE ANDERSON

EDDIE ANDERSON

Anderson who, like Benny, got his start in vaudeville, started working with Benny in radio in 1937, first in a few bit parts and then playing Benny’s valet. He played that role on radio and television until 1965. He was the first black performer to have a regular role on radio, but that meant that he was faced with what became a classic conundrum for black artists — the question of whether to play a subservient character or not work in movies, radio, or TV. It was a difficult question for the actors as well as for the black Americans who were being treated as second-class citizens if as citizens at all.

Given the racial climate at the time, The Jack Benny Show took an unusual approach by presenting Rochester as a quick-witted and sarcastic character who was always a little smarter than his boss. The approach was unusual also because this plot element juxtaposed two deadpan figures and the combination was hilarious and was sustained for nearly thirty years. At first, in radio, there was often a racial aspect to the humor surrounding Rochester, but after World War II, Benny — who took an unambiguous public stand in favor of racial harmony — insisted that all racial content be eliminated from his scripts.

Eddie Anderson was one of the most popular and highest-paid actors of his time. He appeared in many movies, including Green Pastures and Gone With the Wind. He handled his money wisely and was both wealthy and generous. Among other enterprises, he owned a company that manufactured parachutes for the American military during World War II.

You can see Jack Benny and Eddie Anderson in a typically funny scene by clicking here.

Eddie Anderson's home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

Eddie Anderson’s home on a street named after him in the West Adams district of Los Angeles.

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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.