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TV pioneers 'Abbott & Costello,' 'The Goldbergs' return on DVD

Susan King
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

When television started creeping into households across America after World War II, numerous producers and stars from the golden age of radio instinctively realized the handwriting was on the wall; to survive, they had to move to the new medium.

Some made the transition and became even more popular on the small screen, such as family comedies like "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" and "Blondie," police dramas such as "Dragnet" and Westerns such as "Gunsmoke" and "Death Valley Days." Even "I Love Lucy" was a revamped version of Lucille Ball's popular radio comedy, "My Favorite Husband."

There were missteps. The domestic comedy "The Life of Riley" starring William Bendix on the radio was a huge hit. But when the series premiered on NBC TV in 1949, it starred a young, horribly miscast Jackie Gleason. It disappeared after one season, only to be resurrected in 1953 with Bendix, with whom it ran until 1958.

Two of the most influential TV series that came from radio — "The Abbott & Costello Show" and "The Goldbergs" — are arriving on DVD in newly restored editions. Here's a look at both series.

"The Abbott & Costello Show"

During the 1940s, the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello of "Who's on First?" fame were movie box-office giants as well as stars of a popular radio show. In 1952, they began their own syndicated comedy series loosely based on their radio show, which featured their famous burlesques sketches.

On April 6, E1 Entertainment is releasing a collector's edition of all 52 episodes along with three hours of bonus features. The series, which continued through 1954 and then aired for years in repeats, influenced such contemporary comedians as Jerry Seinfeld.

"Jerry Seinfeld said that without Abbott and Costello performing all of these great burlesque routines, they would have been lost forever," says Lou's daughter, Chris Costello

Her father, she says, was the visionary of the team. "I think Dad saw this changing trend toward TV. Information I've received indicated that Bud really didn't trust it (TV). He didn't think it was going to last, so Dad owned and produced the entire series."

Besides, Costello noted, "Dad and Bud loved performing as if they were on the burlesque stage. They loved all of their burlesque buddies, so they were always giving jobs to a lot of the people who came out of burlesque."

The show was performed in front of a live audience. "In fact, Bud Abbott's sister, Babe, was planted in the audience because of her laugh. She was the one who would scream with laughter."

"The Goldbergs"

"The Goldbergs: The Ultimate Goldbergs," released Tuesday and available only from the Shout! Factory Web site, features all 71 episodes known to exist — beautifully restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive — 12 episodes of the radio show, an excerpt from Aviva Kempner's 2009 documentary "Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," and the pilot for "Goldberg" creator and star Gertrude Berg's subsequent TV series, "Mrs. G Goes to College."

Berg not only starred in "The Goldbergs" — first on radio from 1929 to 1946 and then on TV from 1949 to 1956 — she also wrote the episodes and produced the warmhearted series. Berg also won the first Emmy for best female comedy performance. "The Goldbergs" revolved around matronly Molly Goldberg, the benevolent, loving mother of a Jewish family living in a New York apartment with her husband, Jake, Uncle David and her growing children, Rosie and Sammy. Berg began each program with a cheery "Yoo Hoo!" as she went to her window to call on one of her neighbors.

Though she was a pioneer, Berg is practically unknown today. "A lot of it had to do with the fact she was too early," noted Kempner. "She was Oprah before there was Oprah."

"The Goldbergs" was telecast live. Only when the series moved to syndication in 1955-56 was it shot on film. What survives from the early years of the series are less than picture-perfect kinescopes — a 16mm camera was used to shoot the images from a TV screen.

Even though the show was very Jewish, it also had a huge appeal among Gentile audiences. "I don't think it was a coincidence that a Jewish woman was writing the most positive portrayal of a Jewish mother at a time of domestic anti-Semitism and the Holocaust," says Kempner.

The series, she says, is the template for every successful sitcom set in an apartment building such as "Lucy," "The Honeymooners," "Seinfeld" and "Friends."

But a dark, sad cloud hangs over "The Goldbergs." Philip Loeb, the veteran actor who played Jake on the CBS series from 1949 to 1951, was blacklisted for alleged communist sympathies. The accusations were never proven, and Loeb denied any communist ties,

"It's a terrible story," says archive head Jan-Christopher Horak. "(Berg's) sponsor, Sanka, said, 'Take him off the show or we're out.' She resisted terribly. She finally, reluctantly, did let him go, though apparently continued to pay him his salary."

Still, his career went into decline. Four years after Leob was fired, he committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills.

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