A Catskill Catalog: June 10, 2009
“Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Bloom!” Those of a certain age will immediately recognize the catchphrase of the character Molly Goldberg, leaning out of her Bronx brownstone kitchen window calling to her neighbor across the air shaft. Molly was played by pioneering comedian Gertrude Berg.
I remember well the television show “The Goldbergs,” one of my favorite early childhood TV watching experiences. My neighbor Bud remembers the show from the radio. Either way, Gertrude Berg was a fixture in American popular culture from the 30s through the 50s. She learned her craft in the Catskills.
Gertrude Edelstein as born October 3, 1899 in Harlem, the only child of Jacob and Diana Edelstein. Young Gertrude divided her childhood years between New York and Fleischmanns, where her parents operated a resort hotel in the hilltop houses vacated by the Fleischmanns family just a few years earlier.
Gertrude started writing and performing early, creating skits and entertainments for her parents’ hotel guests. It was there that she learned her craft: how to appeal to an audience and generate laughs in short character-driven, story-based performances. Later, she honed that craft by taking playwriting classes offered by Columbia University.
Gertrude met Lewis Berg while working at her parents’ Catskills’ resort. In 1919 they were married. The couple had a son and a daughter.
Several of Gertrude and Lewis Berg’s grandchildren were in attendance the other day at a special preview screening of a new documentary by filmmaker Aviva Kempner called “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street in New York City. The film premiered at the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester last month, and will have its theatrical release in July.
Gertrude Berg was a pioneer, as a comedian, as a creative artist, and as a woman. She is credited with paving the way for female comedic stars like Lucille Ball. Some even credit her with inventing the sit-com format. She was one of the first performers who also wrote and produced their shows. And she was one of the first female voices on the radio. Yoo-hoo! Mrs. Berg.
Gertrude Berg’s radio career began as a writer, selling several dramatic scripts to the networks. In 1929, she convinced NBC executives to buy her series “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” by reading her script aloud to them. Her clever writing was animated by her dialect-accented characterization, and the executives were sold.
The radio show, its title later shortened to “The Goldbergs,” premiered that year on the NBC Blue radio network as a 15-minute comedy, Monday through Friday. This was an era of ethnic stereotypes, and “The Goldbergs” played to mainstream America’s stereotype of Jewish life just as NBC’s “Amos ‘n’ Andy” played to stereotypes of African-Americans.
As a daily 15-minute show, “the Goldbergs” was like a comedic soap opera, with story lines extending from one show to the next. It was one of the first programs to focus on the family and domestic life as a source for comedy, a staple of the situation comedies that came after. Molly was the archetypal Jewish mother. She, her husband Jake, and live-in in-law, Uncle David, spoke with sing-songy stage-Yiddish accents, their speech littered with malapropisms and inversions: “Answer the door already.”
The children, however, Rosalie and Sammy, spoke in mainstream English, thus symbolizing the Goldberg family’s “rise” into the assimilated American middle class.
Gertrude Berg wrote over 5,000 episodes of the radio show, which ran on NBC from 1929 to 1934 and on CBS from 1938 to 1949. In 1935, “The Goldbergs” temporarily off the air, Gertrude produced and starred in a short-lived program “The House of Glass,” set in a fictional summer resort, based on the Edelstein’s Catskill Mountain hotel.
“The Goldbergs” premiered on CBS television in 1949 and was featured on several networks each season until 1955, one of TV’s first situation comedies. In it, Molly would often lean out her fictional Bronx window and talk directly to the camera, creating a personal intimacy with her audience.
Gertrude Berg also wrote and starred in movies, toured the country with a Goldberg-themed vaudeville act and appeared as a guest star on numerous 1950s and 60s television variety and dramatic shows. She wrote several books including The Molly Goldberg Cookbook and her autobiography Molly and Me. She won both the Emmy for her TV work and the Tony Award for her 1959 performance in “A Majority of One.”
And she was a woman of conscience. In 1951, Gertrude refused to fire series co-star Phillip Loeb after he was blacklisted in a McCarthy era political witch hunt. Loeb resigned anyway to save the show from cancellation, taking a generous severance package from his generous producer-writer-star. Sadly, unable to work, he later committed suicide, a victim of those sorry times.
On September 14, 1996, Gertrude Berg died while in rehearsal as the lead in a new play written from an idea she had conceived. She is buried in Clovesville, in her beloved Catskills.