THE GOLDBERGS

U.S. Domestic Comedy

In many ways the program that Gertrude Berg devised in 1928 and sold to NBC radio the following year was unique. No other daily serial drama reflected so explicitly its creator's own ethnic background, and few other producers retained such close control over their work. Until the late 1930s, Berg herself wrote all the scripts, five to six fifteen-minute stories per week, and even after hiring outside writers continued to act as producer; she performed the role of the main character herself throughout the show's thirty year history on radio and television.

The Rise of the Goldbergs began as skits produced at her family's Catskills hotel for the rainy-day entertainment of guests. Originally centered around the comic character Maltke Talznitsky, Maltke became Molly and Talzinitsky modulated to Goldberg, while Berg herself ventured into writing theatrical and commercial continuities. On 20 November 1929, the first episode of The Rise of the Goldbergs aired as a sustaining program on WJZ, flagship of the NBC Blue network, no doubt building on the success of radio's first network dramatic serial, Amos 'n' Andy, introduced in August 1929. Early scripts concerned themselves explicitly and intimately with an immigrant Jewish family's assimilation into American life. The cast consisted of "Molly" herself, playing the wise and warmhearted wife of Jake (James R. Waters) and mother of Rosalie (Roslyn Silber), and Sammy (Alfred Ryder/Alfred Corn). Uncle David (Menasha Skulnik) filled the role of resident family patriarch. Molly, Jake, and Uncle David spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent, while the children favored standard American with a goodly dash of the Bronx. Much humor derived from Molly's malapropisms and "Old World" turns of phrase, drawing on the vaudeville ethnic dialogue tradition. The first season's scripts deal with such issues as the difficulties of raising children in an American environment that sometimes clashed with old world traditions, and the immigrant family's striving for economic success and security. Molly's conversations up the airshaft with her neighbor--"Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloo-oom"--and frequent visitors in their small apartment vividly invoke New York tenement life. The success of this slice of specifically ethnic, but far from atypical, American experience resulted in eighteen thousand letters pouring into NBC's office when Berg's illness forced the show off the air for a week.

The Rise of the Goldbergs aired sporadically for its first few seasons, then more regularly from 1931 to 1934 sponsored by Pepsodent, appearing daily except Sunday from 7:45 to 8:00. After a hiatus it returned in 1936 as a late afternoon serial, running five days a week from 5:45 to 6:00 on CBS under the sponsorship of the Colgate-Palmolive-Peet company via the Benton and Bowles agency. At this point it was renamed simply The Goldbergs. Procter and Gamble took over the program in 1938.

In 1939 the show's setting shifted from the Bronx to the Connecticut town of Lastonbury, in keeping with its narrative of American assimilation. Yet Berg never lost sight of the specifically Jewish ethnic background that made the Goldbergs unique in network radio and television. One memorable episode, aired 3 April 1939, invoked Krystallnacht and the worsening situation in Nazi Germany as the Goldberg's Passover Seder was interrupted by a rock thrown through their living room window. Other stories referred to family members or friends trying to escape from Eastern Europe ahead of the Holocaust. Most plot lines avoided head-on discussion of anti-Semitism or world politics, however, concentrating instead on family and neighborhood doings with the occasional crime or adventure story to liven up the action. Molly continued to supervise her family's activities, Jake experienced business setbacks and successes, Rosalie and Sammy grew up, got married, and went off to war, as American families in the show's loyal listening audience followed a similar trajectory.

In 1946 the show suspended production, during which time Berg adapted it to the Broadway stage as a play called Me and Molly which ran for 156 performances. In 1949 The Goldbergs moved to television with a new cast (except Molly), sponsored on CBS by General Mills' Sanka Coffee, which dropped the program in 1951 when Philip Loeb, then playing Jake, was blacklisted in the infamous Red Channels purge. Reappearing without Loeb and with a different sponsor and network in 1952, the television Goldbergs ran on NBC from February 1952 through September 1953, then on DuMont from April to October 1954. These early seasons were all performed live and featured the Goldberg family back in the Bronx (with the children once again teenagers). In 1955 they moved to the New York suburb of Haverville in a version filmed for syndication; this lasted one season.

 


The Goldbergs

Combining aspects of the family comedy and the daytime serial, The Goldbergs pioneered the character-based domestic sitcom format that would become television's most popular genre. Its concern with ethnicity, assimilation, and becoming middle class carried it through the first three decades of broadcasting and into the post-war period, but ultimately proved out of place in the homogenized suburban domesticity of late 1950s TV.

-Michelle Hilmes

CAST
Molly Goldberg.....................................Gertrude Berg Jake Goldberg (1949-1951)........................Philip Loeb
Jake Goldberg (1952)..........................Harold J. Stone Jake Goldberg (1953-1956).................Robert H. Harris Sammy Goldberg (1949-1952)..............Larry Robinson Sammy Goldberg (1954-1956)....................Tom Taylor Rosalie Goldberg..............................Arlene McQuade Uncle David................................................ Eli Mintz Mrs. Bloom (1953)...................................Olga Fabian Dora Barnett (1955-1956).....................Betty Bendyke Carrie Barnett (1955-1956)........................ Ruth Yorke Daisy Carey (1955-1956)......................... Susan Steel Henry Carey (1955-1956) ..........................Jon Lormer

PRODUCERS
Worthington Minor, William Berke, Cherney Berg

PROGRAMMING HISTORY
CBS
January 1949-February 1949 Monday 8:00-8:30
March 1949-April 1949 Monday 9:00-9:30
April 1949-June 1951 Monday 9:30-10:00

NBC
February 1952-July 1952 Monday, Wednesday, Friday 7:15-7:30
July 1953-September 1953 Friday 8:00-8:30

DuMont
April 1954-October 1954 Tuesday 8:00-8:30

First-run Syndication
1955-1956

FURTHER READING
Berg, Gertrude. Molly and Me. New York: McGraw Hill, 1961.

Hilmes, Michele. The Nation's Voice: Radio in the Shaping of American Culture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Lipsitz, George. Time Passages. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Stedman, Raymond W. The Serials. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

 

See also Berg,Gertrude; Family on Television; Racism, Ethnicity and Television; Gender and Television