Commentary Magazine


From the American Scene:
The Real Molly Goldberg

For twenty-five years the affairs of “The Goldbergs,” a fictional Bronx family, occupied the more or less regular attention of a sizable portion of the American public. The saga began on radio in 1929 as a serial, first weekly, then daily, reaching, at its height in the mid-30’s, an estimated ten million persons with each broadcast. In 1946, “The Goldbergs” left radio for a Broadway play, Me and Molly. The next year Hollywood made a film of the play, entitled Molly, and the family began its television career, during which its audience occasionally numbered as many as forty million per appearance. The last few years have been rocky, however, the program shifting networks, changing from a daily to a thrice weekly to a weekly schedule, and appearing once as a summer replacement for Bishop Sheen. For a number of seasons it was off the air altogether. Now it has returned to television on film.

Although I never took to the serial on radio, the very first time I saw the family on television I was drawn into its affairs and remained a faithful fan up to its last few months as a live program, when I forgot more and more to turn it on. I wondered whether my own changing response was part of what seemed a more widespread attitude, and to find out about this and about the program generally, I arranged not long ago to talk with Mrs. Gertrude Berg. It is she who created the family and has always written the scripts and played Molly, the matriarchal central figure.

We were to meet on a Thursday afternoon at the Central Plaza Hotel, on Second Avenue, where the show held its rehearsals. I got down early, had a plate of blintzes at Ratner’s, which adjoins the hotel, and went in to meet Mrs. Berg. In the narrow corridor next to the elevator I noticed a bulletin board listing the rehearsal halls of several other television shows, including Studio One and the Kraft Theater. “Molly” was waiting in a small room off the foyer of a ballroom on the third floor. I was taken there by a short, middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Mrs. Fanny Merrill, and who, I found out later, has been Mrs. Berg’s factotum since 1929.

Television tends both to shorten and fatten one’s figure and on it Mrs. Berg looks the epitome of circularity. Only her eyes, which narrow alertly, and her wide mouth are horizontals. But in person, while retaining a certain impressive” solidity, she appears younger, smaller, less matronly. She had on a black dress, a black silk scarf, and a huge diamond ring. She was remote at first, her head held back warily, and her speech was careful and quite free of the accent that marks “Molly Goldberg.”

It’s hard to say where I get my ideas for the sketches, she said. “You know, how can any writer tell you how he works? From friends I visit—I have very many everywhere—from the family. Sometimes I build the program around an idea, like the problem of an old widower, sometimes around a character type. If I’m impressed by an actor some place, I’ll write a part for him that uses his special quality. That’s how I got the original Uncle David; I saw Menasha Skulnik. The same way I’ve worked Eartha Kitt and Regina Reznick into plots. I want things to look real.

My sense of Jewishness comes not from my father and mother so much as from my grandparents; I worshipped my grandmother. We scarcely spoke Yiddish at home; my mother came from England. I have vivid memories of visiting my grandparents. I was born and raised in Harlem, and lived in the East Bronx, near Southern Boulevard. I went to Wadleigh High School, in Manhattan. Afterwards I went to Columbia, taking all sorts of courses, but majoring in nothing and not graduating. I like to read everything. Hemingway, Faulkner, Shaw, James, Mann, Joyce, everybody. But I work out the shows myself. It’s very gratifying to realize that a creation of yours has become so real for so many people.

We talked a while about some of the individual sketches I had seen. “Ah,” she said, her face opening in her broad, unreserved smile, generally turned on during a show to ingratiate herself with another character, or with the audience when lauding vitamin pills or a sewing machine, “you remember some shows better than I do.

You see, darling, I don’t bring up anything that will bother people. That’s very important. Unions, politics, fund-raising, Zionism, socialism, inter-group relations, I don’t stress them. And, after all, aren’t all such things secondary to daily family living? The Goldbergs are not defensive about their Jewishness, or especially aware of it. Rosiely and Sammy are played by Arleen McQuade and Tom Taylor, just average-looking young people, not Jewish. Like so many college boys, Sammy is studying engineering. Jake is not rich; he’s only a contractor living in a Bronx apartment and he’s not going to go any higher. I keep things average. I don’t want to lose friends. She smiled and knotted the ends of her scarf.

“As for the Jewishness,” she went on, “you’ll notice there’s no dialect, just intonation and word order. A question at the end of a statement. ‘So you are coining already?’ Sometimes it’s a matter of literally translating a Yiddish idiom, like ‘Throw an eye in the refrigerator.’” I asked about the Orthodox service depicted on one Yom Kippur program. “What else? Where else would the Goldbergs go but to an Orthodox shut? It doesn’t matter what they do the rest of the year. Certainly, Uncle David would be Orthodox. Anyway, this is what people think Jews do.” I remarked that I had been bothered by her plain second cousin’s marrying a handsome and rich young man in one series of sketches. “Look around, darling,” she said leaning forward and lowering her voice, “and see how many homely girls have good-looking husbands.”

As we talked, I could hear persons coming into the room outside. “Excuse me,” she said, looking through the door over my shoulder, “it’s three o’clock and we must start. Why don’t you stay and watch?” She abruptly loosened the belt of her dress, and I went out to the ballroom.

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The dimly lit room was hung with elaborate chandeliers. At one end was a raised platform with a canopy over it, enclosed in a bower of artificial palm leaves and flanked by two tall wicker baskets holding artificial calla lilies, the usual arrangement for performing the ceremony at hotel-catered Jewish weddings. Rows of wooden chairs lined the walls. A round, gentle-faced, balding young man, who I learned was Cherney Berg, Mrs. Berg’s son and the show’s producer, was pasting strips of green tape on the floor; these took the outline of the Goldbergs’ apartment. The actors stood around trying out their dialogue on one another. Mrs. Berg minced quickly and heavily into the room, wearing a loud print wrap-around dress with short sleeves. She put her hands well back on her hips, in the stance of a housewife wiping her palms, and brusquely asked one of the actresses why she had come late, nodded indifferently at the answer, her eyes quickly scanning the room, and got down to arranging a group of chairs in the middle of the floor to represent the Goldbergs’ furniture.

The plot this week had to do with a long distance charge to Miami that Jake discovers on his monthly telephone bill just before a family circle meeting. It develops that Muttle (so spelled in the script), the family ne’er-do-well, had made the call at the previous meeting. But when he comes in, he announces that Solly-the-doctor (always so referred to; he is Uncle David’s son and physician to the family in all its branches) told him he has “a heart—it murmurs,” and he staggers dramatically to a chair. No one wants to ask Muttle about the call. The family, in hushed conclave in the other room, decide to retire him permanently on a weekly pension of $27, to be raised by taxing the fifty-four members of the circle half a dollar a week.

Muttle indignantly refuses the pension, but is not averse to continuing to “borrow.” He offers his latest invention (an intricate affair of glass tubes that enables one to drink orange juice right from the fruit), the proceeds of which are to pay off his debts with interest, and reveals, after a sardonic inquiry from Jake, that he paid for the telephone call with $4.85 that he put into the catch-all fruit bowl on the dining room buffet. “I . . . me . . . Muttle would make a long distance telephone call and not pay for it? . . . Then you don’t know Muttle. If I had to borrow, if I had to take the money, if I had to . . . I don’t know what.”

Mrs. Berg pretty well took over things. She announced she would try her lines without the script, evoking several respectful and playful “Oh’s.” The rehearsal proceeded in spurts and collapses. There was a good deal of ad-libbing. Once Mrs. Berg said, “Come, rest on my Castro Convertible,” instead of “sofa,” as the script had it, and the cast broke out with a chorus of “hoh-hoh’s.” “Why not?” she said belligerently. ‘They gave us the couch for the set.” All of the actors had fallen into the Goldbergs’ characteristic Yiddish intonation even when not delivering their lines, although only Eli Mintz, who plays Uncle David, speaks that way naturally. Throughout, Mrs. Berg kept rewriting. “Who made a call to Miami?” was changed to “Who in our circle would perchance have someone in Miami to communicate with?” She wrote several lines to get Rosie and Sammy out of the apartment. Instead of climaxing the plot with Muttle’s gift of his invention to the family, she switched to the discovery of the money in the fruit bowl.

During one short break, Mrs. Berg joined me. She was flushed and smiling broadly. “Well, darling,” she said, sitting down in the adjoining chair and laying her hand on mine, “how do you like it? It’s going good?”

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The show I had watched being shaped was typical. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “The Goldbergs,” in view of the program’s extended career, was its un-emphatic story line and commonplace content, quite the reverse of most soap opera. I remember programs which approached the humdrum so closely that occasionally nothing at all would happen for minutes at a time, no talk or movement; one just stared at a deserted Bronx living room. Other times, Molly just worked away at supper—cutting up a chicken, seasoning and tasting the soup, chopping fish or herring—demonstrating at length her domestic skills. This realism established a context in which one could find oneself unresistingly carried away by whatever familial or communal activity did develop. The proceedings seemed so indifferent to an audience that it was hard to keep one’s detachment and not to become part of them.

The plots rarely fell into well-arranged patterns, sometimes being extremely involved and gimmicky, sometimes aimless and diffuse. Often, there would be a long pause for a kind of vaudeville exchange, like the deadpan, hilarious dialogue between Eli Mintz and Menasha Skulnik one night in which the relative prestige of physicians and dentists was debated (Skulnik, playing a brother of Eli Mintz’s, had a son who was a dentist). The expected kept being twisted and reversed. There seemed to be at work an almost willful contrariness; Mrs. Berg’s uncompromising use of Molly’s garrulousness, prying, and need for keeping things astir made one often feel involved in an uncomfortable session of gossip. Mrs. Berg did not hesitate to show unsavory characters in an attractive light, or to show unpleasant aspects of likable ones.

One family dispute revolved around the question of whether a recently married cousin should buy furniture from a relative, regardless of style, rather than from a department store, where she could choose freely. The unpleasant persons—loud, self-righteous old-maid cousins—were victorious in championing the bride’s freedom, while the sympathetic ones, including Molly, were defeated. Unsparing of herself, Molly spent a half hour once relentlessly pursuing a fellow convalescing patient in a hospital ward, the mother of an eligible young man, in behalf of her frowsy second cousin. She nagged the woman into a relapse—and in the process made my skin crawl. Another time, provoked by Jake’s attack on her “mixing in,” Molly gave a party for the couples she had been instrumental in getting together. Molly herself was pleased with the sneer bulk of her efforts. “There were some pretty awful messes, clearly shown,” Mrs. Berg remarked of this program, “and it was a question whether these could make up for all the good marriages. The happily married couples would have surely been happy in any case; the wretched ones were pushed into their disasters by Molly’s pressures.” On the other hand, one program was devoted to Molly’s upbraiding Sammy for laughing at Rosiely because she looked ridiculous in an evening gown. “Did I teach you ever to laugh at people, to hurt their feelings because they look funny?” asks Molly.

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I saw one other session of Muttle’s troubles, on Second Avenue, and on the following Tuesday went down to the DuMont Television Center, on East 67th Street, an hour and a half before broadcast time to see the dress rehearsal. The studio occupied one floor, two stories high, of a converted furniture warehouse. The set was along one wall, open to the three cameras and the several sound booms. Technicians, advertising men, photographers, and assorted assistants, most of whom hadn’t seen the sketch before, watched the rehearsal attentively, laughing now and then, eliciting appreciative grins from Mrs. Berg when off camera. There were at least thirty persons standing around or handling the equipment. One man had gone to sleep in a lounge chair; the chair was the family’s gift to Muttle.

During the pause reserved for the middle commercial, which was on film, Mrs. Berg whipped out of the dress she was wearing, revealing another one underneath, and four men rushed over to the dining room table carrying a large circular board on which was laid out a complete setting, which they hurriedly transferred to the actual table. The changed table setting and Molly’s new dress marked the passage of time. The script had been shaped into a neat playlet between Tuesday and Thursday; rehearsals had gone on all day Friday, Saturday, Monday, and on Tuesday afternoon.

At the end of the rehearsal, I wandered on to the set. The strict attention paid to details of furnishing and decorating clearly reflected Mrs. Berg’s preoccupation with authenticity. The wallpaper and the furniture were pretentious and shabby. The sofa was indeed a Castro, as the label on the back testified. On the walls hung pictures of Washington and Lincoln, one of Sammy in uniform, and one of a naked baby sprawled on a bear rug. There was an old discolored brown-tone portrait of a family in 19th-century dress—ladies with high collars and elaborate hair arrangements, mustachioed men with spats and intricate watch chains.

Mr. Cherney Berg invited me to join him in the control room during the actual show. There, a flight upstairs, at a long table before a wide window that overlooked the hanging lights and other equipment in the studio, sat the assistant director in front of a panel of switches, the director, a script girl, Mr. Berg, and several others. There were five television screens. The assistant director, who wore earphones and a chest phone, was in constant touch with the three cameramen, and decided at each moment which of the three shots was to be broadcast; the selected shot was shown on the other two screens.

The cast, the directors, and others hugged and congratulated Mrs. Berg at the end of the program; in the group was a bald, sharp-faced gentleman—Mr. Berg. Before leaving the studio Miss McQuade changed from the shapeless wool blouse and skirt and flat heels she was wearing as Rosie to a tight fitting dress and high-heeled thin-strap shoes. Tom Taylor left in the same sports jacket and tan chino trousers he had worn as Sammy, and he drove off in a miniature, fire-engine red, foreign convertible.

As I was leaving the building, my eye was caught by the row of tall, narrow tenement houses across the street, of the type in which one might conceivably find the original of the Goldbergs’ stage menage. Standing under the modernistic, neon-lighted marquee, looking at those buildings, I suddenly felt how utterly improbable it was that television should catch the quality of life inside, with all its army of engineers and its technical armamentarium.

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The course that led Mrs. Berg herself from just such tenements to the studio is a well-known one, although the precise details are elusive. In talking with her, and even more with Mrs. Merrill, I got the impression that the account they were offering me of Mrs. Berg’s career was based on magazine and newspaper stories whose sorting and fixing of the facts they had found convenient. It seems established that Mrs. Berg was born in 1899. Her father, Jacob Edelstein, owned a resort hotel in the Catskills, and she is supposed to have written and performed monologues for its guests. She married Lewis Berg (first name sometimes spelled “Louis”) in 1918; he has variously been described as a chemical engineer, a “prosperous sugar technologist,” a designer of false teeth, a tax consultant, and an “industrial consultant.” In addition to Cherney, in his early thirties, the Bergs have a younger daughter, Harriet, who is married to an army physician.

According to most records, Mrs. Berg went into show business sometime in 1929 when the support of the family fell on her with the burning down of the sugar factory where her husband worked. Her original ambition was to be a radio writer, but she was signed to play Molly after she read aloud her illegible script. (She told one reporter that she had deliberately presented an illegible text so that she would be asked to read it aloud.) The earliest title of her weekly show seems to have been “The Rise of Goldberg,” and at the time a critic predicted it would not survive—it was nowhere near as good as “Amos and Andy,” he said. In 1931, the show went on a daily basis, for which Mrs. Berg then got $2,000 a week; her weekly check for the radio serial is estimated to have gone as high as $7,500. At least one historian has called “The Goldbergs” the oldest of soap operas; having gone on the air only a short time after “Amos and Andy,” which is itself supposed to hold that distinction, it is one of the oldest. Both were fifteen-minute programs, like all soap opera, and for many years “The Goldbergs” followed “Amos and Andy” every night from seven to seven-thirty. Originally, the show was a success story, as its title indicated, recording a Hester Street to Park Avenue rise, with the Goldbergs rapidly reaching the heights during the worst days of the depression. Family life on Park Avenue hardly conforming with common depression reality, Mrs. Berg just as quickly manipulated Jake into a total loss of his fortune, and the family returned to the East Bronx. By the time “The Goldbergs” left radio in 1946, Mrs. Berg had written more than 5,000 scripts.

Mrs. Berg ‘herself lives in a Park Avenue apartment today—a duplex with two bedrooms, living and dining rooms, kitchen and study—while working on her program; her main establishment is a twelve-room house in Bedford Hills, in Westchester County, next door to Tallulah Bankhead. Mrs. Merrill offered to conduct me about the apartment. The bathroom upstairs had two stacks of books on a laundry hamper, among which was The Bostonians by James, with dogeared pages. The whole place was elegantly decorated, the study paneled in wood and lined with shelves crammed with books. “All antiques,” Mrs. Merrill explained, “but you should see Bedford Hills, even more antiques, and many more books.” Perhaps because Mrs. Berg uses the apartment only as an elaborate office, it seemed to me to have the air of a frigid, unchanging, neat stage set. “You know,” Mrs. Merrill remarked, “every place Mrs. Berg goes she is greeted as ‘Molly.’ People want her to sign autographs as ‘Molly Goldberg’ rather than Gertrude Berg. She signs both names.”

How far in spirit the Goldbergs have traveled is evident from their characterization in the 30’s, when they were Jewish “greenhorns.” An early publicity photograph shows Mrs. Berg, thinner and younger, in long print dress and kerchief, standing over a Friday night table on which are Sabbath candles; on the wall in back of her are two large photographs, a man in skullcap with a white beard, a woman in kerchief. The radio scripts were written in straight Milt Gross dialect; Mrs. Berg once reported that she had been inspired by Gross. “You got vone bad habit, Molly!” reads one speech by Jake. “You alvays like to give to everyting a tvist. I’m talking about Mendel, so she brings in vid Mr. Bloom! I don’t care vat you say, Molly, Mendel ain’t treating me like a partner. By you is alleright he should aggrawate me and make out from me a notting, yet.” To which Molly answers: “Did I said like dat, ha?” When Mr. Kerrigan, the Irish janitor of the apartment house and a regular figure in the Goldbergs’ tenement life, visits their apartment, Molly has him sit down and asks Sammy to “put on your new talles,” and to recite portions of his Bar Mitzvah speech for him: “Not de whull ting—unly a liddle bit from de front and a liddle bit from de beck.” Considering that Sammy was in 1931 preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, and that in 1954, almost a quarter of a century later, he was only nineteen, “The Goldbergs” might be said to have a kind of comic-strip changelessness. The shift of Sammy’s ambition from physician to engineer is, then, a keeping up with the “styles,” something like Little Orphan Annie’s changing hairdo.

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With all their documentation, the Goldbergs purvey a special form of unreality. The program has never really got away from its origin as an immigrant epic. For non-immigrants in the early days, “The Goldbergs” fitted into the category of Abie’s Irish Rose, Gallagher and Shean, Chico Marx, Jack Pearl, all of whom offered their foreign quaintness for comedy, ingratiating themselves with supposedly lovable and exotic antics. Today ‘The Goldbergs” is a hybrid, weirdly mating that past and the present. Mrs. Berg simply is not the slim, trim contemporary matron, her successor in today’s family idealization; she looks and carries herself like that matron’s immigrant mother. One knows she isn’t what she pretends to be, just as one feels Little Orphan Annie is a superannuated midget. We enter an oddly convincing milieu with the Goldbergs, but by way of a crazy, mixed-up time machine: the people and their concerns and their setting belong to the 20’s and 30’s, but we keep being told the time is the present. There is too much straining after “naturalism.” Mrs. Berg’s language, cute as it always is, and right as it sometimes is, is contrived to meet outmoded expectations. For one thing, television audiences today do not find the portrait of a domineering, sheltering matriarch exactly comfortable. For another, it may be pointless and somewhat tedious now to insist, however mildly, on the family’s Jewishness. What has saved the program from comic strip flatness altogether is Mrs. Berg’s own, very real appearance and her frequent instinct for a timeless, “literary” detail of dialogue or conflict.

Yet it would be inaccurate to suggest that Mrs. Berg has been totally unaware either of the requirements of her audience or of the “artistic” inadequacies of her epic. She shifted once, from her humble, dialect-speaking Jews to nearly middle-class, “correctly,” even stiltedly, speaking ones. From “Amos and Andy” and Smith and Dale she moved in the direction of Kober and Odets.

When I talked with her, she was actually planning to transfer the Goldbergs to a suburban community. Since my visit she has been on various television dramatic shows simply as another actress. In one play, she was a middle-aged widow in Los Angeles who meets and marries a middle-aged tailor after placing a lonely hearts advertisement; in another, she played a well-to-do widow so tied to her late husband that she received “telephone calls” from him and was able to consider remarriage only when shocked back to reality by her rather brutal family. She carried off these characterizations with the skill, warmth, and plausibility—and none of the anachronisms—that she brought to Molly; as usual, she was superior to her material. (In these productions, no point was made of the ethnic origins of the characters.)

Her present role is at least as representative as her old one was for a time, and it is more closely adjusted to what she actually is today—a middle-aged, independently wealthy matron—than to what she imagines she might have been if she had taken the fork leading to Bronx domesticity. And she has cast away in these roles her often irritating vaudeville display of cuteness. Since her great achievement has always been of a documentary sort (in a sense she merely explored all the possibilities implicit in her real-life appearance and bearing), she may be on the way to creating a latter-day Molly Goldberg. Perhaps she will be more successful in resuscitating a used up character than most writers have been. She has sociology, at least, on her side, for there must be many Molly Goldbergs about; the problem is finding one in her natural habitat.

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