GERTRUDE BERG: FROM TILLIE TO MOLLY

From Tillie to Gertrude, Mrs. Berg became forever immortalized with the character she wrote and played for over twenty-five years, Molly Goldberg. 

Gertrude Berg was born Tillie Edelstein in New York City in 1898. She had one older brother who died when she was very young. Her mother never adjusted to this loss, becoming very protective of Tillie, and was institutionalized in later years.

Her father, Jake Edelstein, went through various careers. One of his long-standing enterprises was running a resort in the Catskill Mountains where Tillie worked and eventually created and performed skits to amuse the guests' children. She met an older Englishman, Lewis Berg, one summer at the resort. He wooed her, and when she turned eighteen they married.  They moved to New Orleans for his career as an engineer on a sugar plantation until a fire burned it down.

Tillie and Lewis returned to New York City. It became her home and her creative muse. She started to pursue her writing and acting full time and changed her name to Gertrude Berg, taking her husband's last name.

She began writing radio scripts, starting with two forward thinking shop sales girls, but it was not optioned. Berg returned to a fictional family she had formulated as a young woman, now calling them The Goldbergs, a combination of her mother's maiden name and her husband's last name.

The Goldbergs premiered eighty years ago on radio in 1929 with Gertrude filling in for the role of Molly until another actress could be found. She was so good that when she was sick for a week the public sent in mass amounts of fan mail asking, "Where's Molly?"  Audiences loved listening to the stories and struggles of the Goldberg family and their neighbors, and instantly took to the warmth and guidance of the accented Molly Goldberg.

CBS executives knew they had a hit. As scriptwriter and star, Gertrude Berg was one of the leading women in radio with the longest running show second only to Amos and Andy.  Unlike Molly, Berg lived on Park Avenue, owned a country house, and did not speak with an accent or recite malapropisms.  She wrote early in the morning, and then went to the studio to produce and star in her show.

In 1947, following her 17 year run on radio, Gertrude saw television as a new exciting media, and a new opportunity to reinvigorate and reintroduce The Goldbergs following World War II. After a stage play, The Goldbergs premiered on CBS in 1949. Gertrude Berg was lead writer, star, and producer yet again, and The Goldbergs climbed in popularity.

In 1950, Gertrude Berg won the first best actress Emmy Award in history and The Goldbergs was nominated for Best Kinescope Show. She had a clothing line for housewives. She published a cookbook and wrote an advice column called Mama Talks.  Her television show was made into a movie called Molly by Paramount Pictures with Berg on set and in the editing room, exerting her influence as screenwriter and producer.

How quickly the good times can change. In the same year, The House on Un-American Activities published Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. Gertrude's costar, the popular Philip Loeb (Jake Goldberg), an active union organizer among actors, was listed. The sponsors pulled their support for the show. Gertrude was faced with a dilemma: find new sponsorship or fire Loeb with whom she had great stage chemistry. She appealed to the sponsors, the network, and even Cardinal Spellman who told her he would help if she did one thing: convert to Catholicism.

It was at that point that Gertrude and Philip knew there was no hope for him continuing in the show. They settled out of court. The show floundered after that, having been put on hold for close to two years. It found its feet upon casting first Harold Stone for one season, and then Robert Harris as replacements for Loeb. In turn, Gertrude was also blacklisted as a communist supporter through her association with Philip Loeb. The whole entertainment community was under attack. In 1955, unable to work and support his schizophrenic son, Loeb committed suicide. This devastated Gertrude Berg.  The Goldbergs, which moved from the Bronx to the suburbs, ended a few years later.

Berg went on to star in theatrical productions. She played at summer stock, anything to keep working and acting. Eventually, she won a Tony in 1959 for best actress in A Majority of One. Blacklisted actors came together for a television presentation of The Word of Sholom Aleichem in the same year. Following this success, she returned to television as writer and star in Mrs. G Goes to College, which later became known as The Gertrude Berg Show.   She was the highest paid guest star at the time, and appeared with Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Perry Como.

She died in 1966 from what her family termed "over work" as she was in production on another Broadway show. She is buried in the Catskills, where her enthusiasm for the written word, acting, and The Goldbergs all began.

 

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