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Movie Mom

Gertrude Berg, Television Pioneer

posted by Nell Minow

A forthcoming book and documentary about Gertrude Berg tell the story of this pioneering broadcaster, producer, and actress. According to a story in Flow Magazine,

Gertrude Berg was the founder of the family situation comedy on radio and television. She was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz rolled into one, a business genius and negotiator as well as performer, writer, director and auteur of her own show — and this during an era when women in up-front power positions were rare. She was known as “Molly Goldberg” on her show The Goldbergs, which ran from 1929-49 on radio and from 1949-56 on television. Kempner’s film gives a fascinating multi-sided portrait of Gertrude Berg, the demons that drove her and the undeniable imagination and talent that made her such a prolific writer-producer and star of early television. Gertrude Berg had extraordinary powers of observation, love for her grandparents’ generation, and an innate drive to write and perform evident from her teenage years when she entertained the children of guests at her father’s Catskills hotel.

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Berg came from the vaudeville-era tradition of ethnic comedy, but she avoided caricature and created a warm and affectionate portrait of a three-generation Jewish family living in the Bronx.

On one side of [Berg’s character] Molly Goldberg and her husband Jake was the first-generation “Uncle David,” with the characteristic shrug of the shoulders and Yiddish theater inflection that made him endearing. On the other side were the third-generation “kids” who were becoming fully American. But it was Molly Goldberg herself, placed squarely in the middle, still speaking the Yiddish-inflected language of the Bronx when she moved to the suburbs years later, who created the central vitality of the show as she opened it each week from her window in the Bronx.

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In an era when women and Jews were seldom given opportunities in business of any kind and almost never in television, Berg was so successful that her radio program was broadcast simultaneously on all three networks. Kempner’s new documentary bills itself as the story of “The most famous woman in America that you never heard of.” Kempner, the creator of the award-winning 1998 documentary about Hank Greenberg, is the ideal film-maker to tell this story and I look forward to seeing it when it opens later this month.

  • jestrfyl

    In my childhood home – as Anglo Protestant, white bread and creamy peanut butter as you can get – I heard a LOT about Molly Goldberg. The first Yiddish I knew was from the show. I think many of my expectations of Jews were built on the show – and I never even saw it (to my recollection). It simply had that great an impact on my parents and grandmother. I was amazed that the Jewish folks I got to know and befriend were not much like the Goldbergs after all (not even my friends the Goldbergs). Some did not even speak Yiddish! Such is the influence of early radio and TV shows.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom/ Nell Minow

    I think the show did a lot to humanize some of the stereotypes and I am really looking forward to seeing the documentary.

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