The Ultimate Goldbergs TV Series
US DVD: 16 Mar 2010
In 1949, CBS began broadcasting two heartwarming sitcoms about an older generation of immigrants who spoke heavily accented English while raising their Americanized offspring. Both shows were broadcast live and ran until 1956. One show was Mama (aka I Remember Mama), about a Norwegian-American family. It ran consistently on the same network and achieved such popularity that when it was canceled, public outcry briefly revived it. The other show was The Goldbergs, a phenomenal radio hit whose TV career was rocky, to say the least. Since both shows were live for most of their run, these benchmarks haven’t been easily accessible. Thanks to the archival restoration efforts of UCLA, what remains of The Goldbergs can now be seen, 60 years later.
It takes about five minutes of watching any random episode to conclude that there’s never been a more Jewish show on television. Then again, for all the Yiddish humor, we don’t initially see the Goldbergs observe Jewish holidays, go to temple, or show any signs of living Jewishly—aside from an almost concealed menorah on the sideboard. At least that’s how it seems in the earliest episodes here, but hold the phone. As we get deeper into the series, we go deeper into real Jewish tradition.
The show is an example of “melting pot” art from the tail end of the Ellis Island era in popular culture, when the wide variety of accents heard in city streets was reflected on the vaudeville stage, on radio, in comics, and wherever pop culture served the mythology of the mainstream. In this world, foreigners were amusing but good-hearted people who were just trying to be as American as apple strudel. So who’s that hanging on the wall over the piano? Nu, George Washington, the father of mein country, who else? The Goldberg’s Jewishness is conveyed in terms of such ethnic humor at the service of Americanism. The comedy, the very identity of the program unreels in heavily accented banter and gestures, full of “nu’s” and “so’s” and malapropisms and mispronunciations. “Don’t put words in my vocabalerry,” warns Molly.
Mind you, this show depicts an important side of Jewish life in America, and it was necessary for immigrants to see themselves in pop culture. Still, the more deeply represented Jewishness of the suburban family in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man, where the plot turns on rabbis and bar mitzvahs, has largely been absent from pop depictions of Jewish Americans ever since Al Jolson told his rabbi father that instead of being a cantor, he wanted to don blackface (like a real American) and be The Jazz Singer in that classic paradigm of assimilation.
Gertrude Berg created, produced and wrote The Goldbergs for radio, where its combo of warmth, simple stories, funny accents, and determined universalism made it a hit. The mythological impetus can be seen in its original title from 1929, The Rise of the Goldbergs. Playing Molly Goldberg, Berg became a rare powerful woman in the industry who controlled her own program. This tremendously popular show ran almost continuously, sometimes on more than one network, through 1945. Twelve radio episodes from the war years are included as bonus MP3s in this set.
The radio series is famous for its catchphrase “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Bloom!” as Molly hailed her neighbor for a good gossip. Molly discussed her husband Jake, a wedding dress wholesaler, and their thoroughly American kids Sammy and Rosalie, who were hep to the jive. The concept was partly autobiographical with Molly based on Berg’s grandmother, Jake on Berg’s father, and the kids on her own children. Rosalie can also be seen as a version of Berg herself, the girl who would grow up to mythologize her family, not unlike daughter Katrin in Mama.
According to the website of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, the radio version confronted Jewish problems directly on occasion: “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.” Now that’s torn from the headlines.
For much of its run, it was a daily 15-minute show on the Columbia Broadcasting System, which branched into the fledgling TV industry. A natural impulse for “radio with pictures” was literally to depict radio’s hits. Jack Benny made the transfer with great success, and his program is a fascinatingly alternative template that, to quote a song from Cabaret, doesn’t look Jewish at all, and which resurfaced almost intact as Seinfeld, but we digress. When Berg’s radio run ended, she refashioned the material into a Broadway hit, Molly and Me, and eventually persuaded CBS to try a TV version.
The TV incarnation began auspiciously. Berg became the first winner of an Emmy for best actress in a comedy. The first three seasons aired on CBS from January 1949 to June 1951. Then the show went off the air in the midst of the Red Scare controversy, thanks to the blacklisting of co-star Philip Loeb. It returned sporadically over three networks and syndication. All but the final season were broadcast live, and therefore most of the episodes are lost. Of the 71 in this set, all that are known to exist, the last 39 comprise the season filmed for syndication. The first 31 are all that’s left of six seasons.
Only seven CBS episodes survive, the earliest from August 1949 and the latest from March 1951. They are produced by Worthington Minor and directed by Walter Hart (who did the 1950 movie version), with the last one directed by Matthew Harlib. Berg remains the writer. She was a prolific dynamo comparable to radio’s Norman Corwin or TV’s Nat Hiken, creator of Sgt. Bilko and Car 54. (“Nat Hiken! The man was a genius!” to quote Zippy the Pinhead.)
The basic situations are very simple, even flimsy. Somebody usually acts on a conclusion that turns out to be wrong, with Molly’s meddling either working out or not. “Molly, you’re going to leave your finger out of this pie even if I have to put my foot in it,” says Jake. The raison d’etre isn’t these plots but how they’re spun out (some might say padded) with the verbal comedy and character observation that really drives the series, all of which is performed with a combination of broad caricature and the naturalism endemic to live TV. “Not at all,” shrieks Mrs. Cramer in her nasal pitch across the airshaft, waving a hand for emphasis, “and if people can’t be people in time of an emergency, you don’t have to be a person at all, and finished!” If you left out all the gratuitous interplay, the stories would run five minutes.
Mrs. Bloom is referred to but never seen, at least not in the surviving episodes. Each show begins and ends with Molly at her window speaking directly to the audience, signing in and out with a pitch for Sanka coffee and how it has 97 percent of the caffeine removed and the sleep left in. (This was when it also had a picture of what looks like an Arab or Indian in a hooded robe and a beard.) Molly’s spiels feel both well-worn and spontaneous, complete with unfinished sentences and repetitions and endless bits of verbal business. She is a mountainous, bosomy woman with large, black, widely-parted hair like a helmet. I assume and hope it’s a wig.
As on radio, Molly is surrounded by hubby Jake (Philip Loeb), Uncle David Romain (Eli Mintz), and teens Sammy (Larry Robinson) and Rosie or Rosalie (Arlene “Fuzzy” McQuade). She yells out the window to her neighbors, Mrs. Esther Cramer (Betty Walker) and Mrs. Hermann (Dora Weissman). These two regulars aren’t mentioned in the standard reference books, Alex McNeil’s Total Television or Brooks & Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, but they appear in most of these surviving CBS programs. We’re lucky if the closing credits bother to mention anyone else who appears in an episode. Henry Lascoe makes two appearances as the self-centered and grasping Cousin Simon, who at one point stays with them when he thinks he’s dying.
The show’s charm and intimacy derives partly from its likeable characters and their ingratiating patter, partly from the single setting (we’re literally never outside Apt. 3B of 1030 East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx), and partly from a notable absence. This was too early in TV for a studio audience or a laughtrack, and this alone does wonders in allowing the show to breathe and to touch gently on serious emotions. It underlines the show’s intimacy and its origins as a serial. I Love Lucy, shot on film, would pioneer both the audience and the “sweetened” laughter. It’s not too early for a multi-camera system; at least two cameras are used and possibly three. I Love Lucy often takes credit also for the three-camera system, and that’s not completely fair.
We can see in The Goldbergs a quality also visible in another live show produced for CBS by Minor, who was in charge of the network’s dramatic programming. On a DVD collection of Studio One episodes, E.G. Marshall notes that Minor’s CBS had a house style that he calls subjective, following its characters around with an inquiring camera. He contrasts this with what he calls the objective style of Fred Coe’s NBC at the same era.
Although I’ve observed that Jewish realities don’t pop up on these shows, one shouldn’t be too hasty from partial evidence. One show opens with exciting news—Molly has been contacted by relatives in Europe from whom she hasn’t heard since before the war. As Jake observes point blank, it’s good news just to hear anything at all, and Molly talks about how smart her father was to come here because otherwise where would she be? This touches on truths the series is too discreet to dwell upon but smart enough to acknowledge, after all. Perhaps these are touches observed and appreciated by certain viewers, somewhat like the details of African-American heritage in the corners of The Cosby Show while it was busy being “universal”.
These seven episodes constitute our evidence of Loeb’s term as Jake. Berg insisted on keeping him and working to clear his name, and the stalemate with the network and sponsor ended the CBS run. According to some sources, Loeb voluntarily left the show and Berg kept him on salary after he was replaced for NBC. Loeb’s work dried up and he committed suicide by sleeping pills in 1955. Although the Goldbergs were always praising what a great country their families had moved to from Poland, at least one among them wasn’t so well served in the new world.
When the show returned to the air from February to July 1952, it had moved to NBC and was produced and directed by Hart. Formerly a weekly half-hour, it was now a 15-minute show three nights a week. Math tells us this must have yielded more than 60 episodes, of which exactly two survive. Molly now hawks kitchen knives and vitamins. Jake is now played by Harold J. Stone, a prolific TV actor who two decades later appeared in another sitcom with Jewish themes, Bridget Loves Bernie. He seems to have been cast to resemble Loeb, for they both were tall and distinguished, with touches of grey in a full head of hair.