At one point, America's favorite family was a Jewish immigrant and her children.
A Shaina Maidel...Onscreen and Off
Off-camera, Berg was a society woman. Her Yiddish accent all but fell away when she was not in character, and unlike her simple protagonist, Berg lived large, in a spacious Manhattan apartment.
But she prized her ethics above her fame. While Berg tried not to use the show to address "anything that will bother people," such as politics, Zionism, and unions, she never compromised on the Jewish content. For example, opera star Jan Peerce appeared each holiday season to sing Passover and High Holiday songs.
Berg was also known for treating her actors with respect . When James R. Waters, the actor who played Jake, Molly Goldberg's husband, died, instead of recasting another actor in his role, she simply wrote the scripts around him always being unheard or offstage. On the television show, Jake Goldberg was portrayed by Philip Loeb, who was blacklisted during Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist censures. At first, Berg refused to fire him. Even when she was forced to replace Loeb, she quietly kept the out-of-work actor on a regular salary.
The Goldbergs from a Distance
In 1949, CBS enlisted Berg to create a half-hour television adaptation of the show. Network flip-flops in time schedules, as well as constant rotations in cast plagued the show from the start. Many episodes of The Goldbergs were recorded live, and others were only shown once and then destroyed. Today, only a handful of episodes survive.
In its heyday, however, The Goldbergs was a popular sensation. The actors each received thousands of fan letters each week, as did the fictional characters they portrayed. For the better part of the 1930s, it was the second most popular radio serial in America, behind Amos & Andy. When the Emmy Awards announced the new category of Best Actress, Gertrude Berg was its first winner.
Today, The Goldbergs has all but vanished from the public memory--partly due to the lack of extant episodes, and partly because its pacing was much slower than the generations of sitcoms that followed.
Known or not, Gertrude Berg and her fictional family introduced a new genre that irrevocably influenced American television. From the faintly Jewish tone of anti-Semite Archie Bunker's kvetching in All in the Family, to the wacky plot twists of Full House and Arrested Development, countless television shows bear in some way the genetics of their Jewish ancestor The Goldbergs--the first ever family sitcom.
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