Tuesday, August 11, 2009

YOO HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG—Commentary by Dr. Glenn D. "Pete" Smith, Jr.

Earlier, when I asked Program Director Nancy Fishman which program out of this year's edition of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) she was most anticipating, she didn't miss a beat in highlighting the salute to Gertrude Berg; a program consisting of four archival episodes from The Goldbergs television series, followed by Aviva Kempner's documentary Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009). In tandem with SFJFF's presentation of the 2009 Freedom of Expression Award to Kempner, a Q&A session following The Goldbergs program, and a panel discussion following Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the program was leant considerable charm by the participation of Dr. Glenn D. "Pete" Smith, Jr., author of Something On My Own: Gertrude Berg and American Broadcasting, 1929-1956 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007). Perhaps it was his Mississippian drawl, or his enthused (and contagious!) scholasticism, or the intriguing disconnect between his youthful interest in a subject matter mostly unknown by Americans under 60.

Glenn D. Smith, Jr. is an assistant professor of communication at Mississippi State University located in Starkville, MS. Something On My Own was published by Syracuse University Press in 2007, and nominated for the 2008 Bancroft Prize, given for exceptional work in American history. The book has received notice in the Journal of American History, the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Television Quarterly, and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, among other distinguished publications. It also has its detractors: Ben Birnbaum stages his complaints at Tablet Magazine. Professor Smith is currently researching the careers of union activist and blacklisted actor, Philip Loeb, and fellow Mississippian Carolyn Bennett Patterson, the first woman senior editor at National Geographic.

Dr. Smith's
salute to Gertrude Berg (in PDF format) supplemented the SFJFF program and his comments during the afternoon tribute added—as mentioned—charming heft to the informational proceedings.

* * *

Professor Smith's Intro to The Goldbergs:

Near the end of her life, Gertrude Berg asked herself, "Have I become the woman I always wanted to be or am I still trying?" If Gertrude was confused about her identity, she had good reason to be. After all, she spent more time as Molly Goldberg than she did as Gertrude Berg. The Goldbergs was produced, written and starred Gertrude but it was more than just a radio or television series; the first of its kind in either medium. It offered a glimpse inside the head of one of our more interesting, complex and prolific women in broadcasting history. If you wanted to know what Gertrude was thinking at any given moment in the day, look no further than that week's episode of The Goldbergs because—let's face it—she thought more about The Goldbergs than she did just about anything. I've often said in my writing that The Goldbergs was Gertrude's mouth piece for her political and social discontent. As you will see in the upcoming episode "Rent Strike", for example, Berg had something to say about the struggles of the common man and woman and she found the right person to say it in labor activist and actor
Philip Loeb, who played Jake to her Molly.

So, The Goldbergs provides a glimpse into the world of Gertrude Berg. It offers, for example, bits and pieces of her own childhood in East Harlem, New York. It gives the viewer an idea of the life Gertrude may have lived—had she the inclination to do so—she had enough talent, drive and ambition to do something on her own. But yet The Goldbergs offers more than just a glimpse into the Gertrude Berg experience—as we celebrate her life today, let's look at it as just that experience—it also offers a microcosm of the Jewish American experience. All of this is to say that Gertrude—through The Goldbergs—created a venue through which the Jewish American was celebrated and people from all walks of life, including myself, were welcome.

* * *

After screening the archival episodes of The Goldbergs—which included a heartfelt performance by a young Anne Bancroft in "Mother-in-Law"—Nancy Fishman asked Professor Smith to talk about the history of The Goldbergs on radio and television, bidding wars between studios for the show, and what caused it to eventually go off-air?

He responded: "Okay, some of you may not know that The Goldbergs was first a radio series in 1929, premiered at the start of the Great Depression, and Berg sold the series to NBC as a daily radio 15-minute serial with no sponsors. It took NBC two years to find a sponsor, Pepsodent Toothpaste (who also sponsored Amos n' Andy). She went from making about $75 a week in 1929—from which she had paid off the cast and crew—to $2,000 a week in the early 1930s. By the end of her first decade on radio—The Goldbergs, y'know, was a cottage industry—Berg was making the equivalent of about $7,500 a week and in 1937 she became the first woman in broadcasting to sign a million-dollar contract with a sponsor: Proctor and Gamble.

"So when I'm asked about Berg's legacy, just the fact that as a woman in a male-dominated business—and that's exactly what it was, make no mistake—she was able to write, produce, direct and star in her own radio series every single day for almost 10 years without interruption…! That being said, the show carried itself during the Second World War where Molly sold everything, including war bonds, and in 1945 the show was finally cancelled. In that 15-year period The Goldbergs bounced between CBS and NBC, whoever the highest bidder was at that time. If anything, that shows you how skillful Berg was at negotiations. If NBC, for example, didn't meet her demands, she would go to
Paley's network. If Paley, by example, by the end of the next contract didn't meet her demands, she'd go back to NBC….

"In 1949, the show did premiere on CBS—you saw three of the four episodes with Philip Loeb—and it lasted on CBS for 10 years and was ended, unfortunately, by the blacklist. Loeb was blacklisted for his union politics. He was a longtime member of Actors Equity, a champion for Actors Equity, he helped usher in things that I think most actors take for granted today, including rehearsal pay. …In his 20 years of union work, Phil would say that he loved Equity work first, his teaching at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts second, and acting third. It was, though, his union activities that got him blacklisted. Gertrude was asked by CBS and General Foods to fire him, but she refused. From there, she and Loeb were together in their 18-month stance in which they tried to find a new sponsor and a new network after CBS pulled the plug. The Goldbergs suffered from the blacklist itself, as did Berg. She spent the rest of her life piecing together what was left of her career and Loeb, of course, ended up committing suicide."

Asked whether Berg avoided being too Jewish on The Goldbergs, Professor Smith offered, "In the years I've researched Gertrude's career, one thing I've been struck by—in terms of The Goldbergs—is its universal appeal. She straddled that line between bringing the show that would celebrate—as we said earlier—the Jewish American experience, but not making it exclusive to one group of people. For years on radio some of her biggest fans were non-Jewish. Her favorite story, in fact, was when she got a letter from a group of Catholic nuns who had given up The Goldbergs for Lent. They had written to Berg to ask for copies of the scripts for episodes they had missed.

"As the show progressed from 1949-1955, it did get more diluted (if that's a word I can use in this situation); it became more homogenized (I think is the word we use in academia when talking about ethnic shows). The ones in 1949 specifically address more Jewish themes than the ones in 1955, believe it or not. But I think it's just because she wanted to walk that fine line. She was also very aware that Mr. William Paley was watching closely. When you think about Paley and his politics, as much as he gave to Jewish causes, he was also timid about the fact of who he was and where he came from. That played into that as well. In fact, in the beginning of 1949, he didn't even want the series for television. As I've often said, it's one thing to hear an anti-Semitic line on a radio show, or a rock being thrown through a window (for example) during Passover; but, it's another to see it on television. That made William Paley nervous and Gertrude—if anything—was a business woman. She was very sensitive to what sponsors might or might not feel or want her to do, until it came to Philip Loeb when they went a step too far."

Protesting that something was lost when the venue from The Goldbergs was shifted from the city to the suburbs, one gentleman questioned why that decision had been made? Smith answered: "Yeah, The Goldbergs lost a lot in translation—you're absolutely correct about that—and it had lost a lot of air time too. The show had been almost 18 months off the air. Philip Loeb was blacklisted in September of 1950. Berg and Loeb fought the battle often with the studio that entire season with General Foods. CBS and General Foods cancelled the show in the Spring of 1951. And the show didn't reappear until later in 1952. By that point you had a different type of situation where shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy—which, by the way, was the heir to Gertrude Berg's time slot—were on the air. By the time Gertrude came back to the air minus Philip Loeb, she was having to play catch-up. That's something Gertrude had never had to do in her life because she was the trendsetter for 20 years from radio, and now to play catch-up? Her son Charlie told me that she considered the Guild Film series sort of a step down. That was the last time the show was on the air in 1955. She had gone from CBS to NBC and then on to a syndicated film series, that was sort of her last gasp at a television career. She spent the rest of her life really trying to get back where she was in 1949 and that's, I think, the great tragedy of her career. The highlight was Molly Goldberg and—let's face it—that was the quintessential image that she created. She had a hard time, in many ways, letting go of that image. By 1955, things had simply changed and—you're right—the show as a result lost a lot in the translation."

Asked about what I termed earlier as "the intriguing disconnect between his youthful interest in a subject matter mostly unknown by Americans under 60", Professor Smith chuckled and said, "That's the $64,000 question. That's always the first question I get. I enjoy that question because—as I tell my students—you know, a good television show and a good writer should transcend difference.

"I became interested when I was in graduate school. I was working on my masters at the university and—like most graduate students—I was looking for a good thesis topic. I ran across her name doing some research and I'm a journalist and a historian by trade—and I've told this story many times—but it was just a damn good story. I mean, point blank, a screenwriter could look for this kind of stuff and never find it. So I stayed with it. Believe it or not, I identify with Gertrude's story. Growing up in the South, we Southerners knew something about trials and tribulations ourselves, and her story speaks to the American Dream. Who doesn't want what Gertrude had in some way? Once I got to the blacklist, and started investigating Phil's life—for some reason I keep calling him Phil, like I knew him—but, once I started investigating that, I knew I had a big story. Then I knew I had a dissertation topic, which became my book. That's the long way around a short answer, I guess."

Fishman pursued this query in the panel discussion after the screening of Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. Along with wanting to know what drew Professor Smith to Gertrude Berg, Fishman wanted to know when he knew he would end up writing about her? Which is unusual because Smith is from Mississippi, "Which," Fishman quipped, "was even farther away from Manhattan than the Bronx."

"Yeah," Smith grinned, "it's a long schlep. First of all, [her children] Cherney and Harriet were very hospitable to me. I was 27 or 28 when I sat down to interview Harriet and she said, 'Can I ask you a question before you start?' I said, 'Absolutely.' She said, 'Are you Jewish?' I said, 'No, ma'am.' She said, 'Do you mind if I ask your religious background?' I said, 'Well, I was raised Southern Baptist.' She said, 'Oh my God, you're a long way from home.'

"To answer your question, I was doing some research for my masters thesis in Auburn back in 1994 and—as I was telling this story earlier—like most grad students I was struggling to find a good topic for my masters thesis and I ran across Gertrude's name in some obscure book on women in comedy, which I found funny later on because Gertrude never considered herself a comedienne; she considered herself a performer first and foremost. But anyway, that reference led to another reference and turned into a class I was doing on broadcasting history and women in the media corps. I took it all in and that parleyed itself into a partial masters thesis and then a dissertation topic at the University of Southern Mississippi. But like most journalists and/or historians, it was just a damn good story. That's the honest-to-God's truth. I do identify with Gertrude's story a little bit—I have a family member who has struggled with mental illness—those kind of little nuggets stick with you. She reminds me—Gertrude, not Molly—of my own mother, a woman who has called me three times in the last four hours. A strong, domineering, Southern woman who did not get to live out her own dreams so she transferred all of those to her two daughters and her son. Part of it's that; but, it's just a good old-fashioned story.

"As far as when I knew that I had something, it was when I got into Syracuse. I had many fits and starts with this project. I had actually fallen asleep one night and had a dream about Gertrude. She was playing in a stage play and my mother was out in the audience with me—I can't figure that one out, to save my life—and she invited me, Gertrude did, to come back stage after the play. I told my mother she needed to stay in the audience and I went back there and Gertrude sat me down and we chit chatted—because Gertrude loved to chit chat—and she said, 'Darling, you're doing a good job. Make sure they don't forget me.' I woke up the next morning and I said, 'You know what? This is my project.' The minute I got to Syracuse and stumbled upon her two children, as my dissertation director told me, 'Goddamn, you've hit the motherlode here.' That's when I knew."

Asked where Gertrude Berg's broadcasting career would have gone had she not defended Philip Loeb, and conceding that morally she really had no choice, Professor Smith added, "It bothered her anyway. Even the fact that she went to the ends of the earth—which most people would agree that she did—the fact that she couldn't do enough really sat next to her. Those are the kinds of things that kept Gertrude up at night. She wasn't worried about the next day's script—because she had those things down pat—but, it was this fundamental belief that her grandfather taught her that in America the principle of fair play should actually mean something. She practiced that to the best of her ability in her career. Was she always fair? I don't know. Did she always make the right decision? I'm not sure. But I do know one thing. She didn't bat an eyelash [deciding] to protect Phil Loeb. That was the great tragedy of her legacy. She always felt like she didn't do enough."

Aware that Berg successfully played NBC and CBS off each other in a bidding war during the height of the show's popularity, Fishman wondered if it was easier for Berg to do so because she was a woman? Did that soften her relationships with Paley and
Sarnoff and their minions? "Absolutely not," Dr. Smith objected. "Being a woman just made it twice as hard for her, especially when they found out at the board meetings that she was nothing like Molly Goldberg. I have copies of memos going between one NBC vice president to another and they don't know what to do with her. She learned the business from the ground up and was literally the only woman in a roomful of men, who at first patronized her and considered her to be Molly Goldberg and—once they realized their mistake—she was laughing all the way to the bank, as they say."

As for whether she would have had the same success if her career had started after the advent of television, and if she had not already established herself as a major radio star, Professor Smith mentioned: "Let's give credit to
Worthington 'Tony' Miner, who was a young producer from the World Theatre who Paley had hired and entrusted with three charges. He wanted Miner to bring a children's show to the network so Miner helped create Mr. I. Magination. Paley wanted a variety show on CBS so Miner found Ed Sullivan to create Toast of the Town. Paley was looking for a third element, a radio drama, and Gertrude did force the issue on Paley and Paley did give her an audition; but, Miner saw the audition. He probably helped convince Paley that this was the third element in the trifecta, so to speak. To give a more personal answer, Gertrude told Judith Abrams when Judith asked that very question in the early 1960s, 'Do you think you would be successful today knowing what you know?' and Gertrude said, 'No. It's all about timing.' She said, 'I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and in show business it is all about timing.' "

Noting that television shifted towards conformism for reasons having to do with a lot more than McCarthyism and the blacklist, one fellow wondered if popular culture could have been different without those factors? Professor Smith thought not. "I don't think so, simply because Paley and Sarnoff controlled so much of the industry early on and they couldn't help creating the characters as people who didn't resemble them. They helped homogenize these images. You have a gulf from the 1950s to the 1970s. It took someone like Norman Lear to step forward and recreate the narrative, so to speak. Between that there's this gulf, this void, and women like Gertrude were no longer around to help create the narrative. Everyone talks about the creativity in Hollywood but—with all due respect—they recycle the same thing over and over and play it safe. You have to remember it's a business and Paley and Sarnoff were in the business of making money—not that there's anything wrong with that—but, somehow they're afraid that they're going to offend some viewers out there in Kansas somewhere who will take offense to someone like Gertrude Berg. They continue to underestimate our ability to be sensible viewers."

Asked if Berg was familiar with the Bronx, where The Goldbergs was set, Professor Smith replied: "Gertrude was a meticulous researcher and she spent a long time in the lower east side back in her radio days where she became recognizable. She would join mothers clubs in the lower part of Manhattan just to pick up the accent and the conversations and that sort of thing. But when she went to television, she gave up directing to
Walter Hart. CBS wanted to hire a writing staff and she liked that idea but—as Newsweek pointed out in 1949—she owned the whole kit and caboodle so she did go to the Bronx and according to at least one newspaper article I know, she did visit Treemont Avenue.

"She noticed there was a lot of commotion in one apartment—it was a child's birthday party—so she knocked on the door and asked if she could come in? One of the kids from that party ran out the door and ran to a nearby park and shouted, 'Molly's in our house!' A stream of kids came running back. As far as I know, she did visit the Bronx just to get the look and feel of what Molly's world was like. Even though she grew up in East Harlem, Gertrude loved Park Avenue. That's where her roots were as a modern woman.

Prefacing that several scripts on The Goldbergs were quite provocative and inclined towards the Left, another gentleman questioned whether there was ever any concern that they were pushing the envelope at a time when the tide was clearly moving in the other direction? "No," Dr. Smith answered, "because she was selling a buttload of Sanka coffee and that's all William Paley really was concerned with. I have made the stance before—let's make no mistake—Philip Loeb was the reason this show was blacklisted. It had little to do with the social issues in the show. I do grant you they are very progressive scripts; but, if you watched TV in 1949, I don't think Gertrude was the only one doing the unusual. The government had been chasing Philip for two decades. His politics in the union had divided many people within Equity. He'd been running from the Attorney General and later on the Senate Internal Security Committee off and on for years and it just finally caught up with him. But that is the reason the show came to a screeching halt, not because of the scripts. Because once again, as long as the show was selling the product, that's all the sponsor was concerned with. Loeb just got too much publicity and it got just a little too warm in the kitchen for the sponsor."

As for whether Gertrude Berg wrote scripts for others, Smith relayed, "She did other things in the 1930s. She actually had another radio series The House of Glass about a woman who runs a hotel in the Catskills (sound familiar?). She dabbled in that off and on. The integral years, the post-war years rather, between 1945 and 1949, were some dry years, so to speak. She was working on her play Me and Molly and the quote 'she was floundering around looking for something to do' that I used in the movie, that's from Harriet Berg who told me that. She said her mother was 'floundering around.' She said she was unbearable when she wasn't performing. Harriet did tell me this, she said, 'You can always tell when my mother got a new gig because we could stop taking the bus.' Not that Gertrude ever took the bus—she took maybe one trip—but she tried to cut back on the shopping, which she loved to do. It didn't last very long. She loved the work and that's what motivated her as a mother and a wife."

Cross-published on
Twitch.

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