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Old-Time Radio In Review
by Elizabeth McLeod
When you first hear "old time radio," whether you're rediscovering a lost part of your youth or you're discovering a form of entertainment you never knew existed, there's a real sense of excitement. But what happens when the "newness" of OTR wears off. Can these fifty or sixty year old programs really stand up as entertainment?
That's the question I hope to tackle in this monthly column, posted to the new OldRadio Mailing List and The Nostalgia Pages. I'll be considering many different shows, some familiar, some obscure -- but all of them available to modern listeners. I'll try to put the programs into some sort of historical perspective -- and I'll offer my candid opinions on whether they've stood the test of time. You may agree -- or not. Either way, I encourage you to listen for yourself -- and discover the world of Old Time Radio.
A Visit with The Goldbergs
A Visit with The Goldbergs
Sometimes we think we know what to expect in listening to a radio series.
And sometimes, everything we think we know is wrong.
Consider, for example, "The Goldbergs." What images come to mind?
A bustling neighborhood in the Bronx, heavy with ethnicity? Molly "yoo-hooing" down the dumbwaiter shaft to the unseen Mrs. Bloom? A show that's been described as "the first Jewish situation comedy," a show which was indeed defined by its ethnic characterizations?
That's how this long running program has been remembered over the years -- but the fact is, those memories are being colored more by recollection of the early television series than they are of the far-longer-running radio program. The fact is, for most of its years on radio, "The Goldbergs" was set in a small rural town. Molly and Jake and Sammy and Rosalie lived on a farm, not a city tenement. Their neighbors were the usual gallery of small town types. While not ignored completely, in this setting the "Jewish" aspects of the show were heavily downplayed.
And far from being a situation comedy, for most of its run "The Goldbergs" was, pure and simple, a soap opera. A well-crafted, well-written, well-acted soap opera, but a soap opera nonetheless. There were comic moments, but they were far outweighed by the usual soap-opera theme of Romance Constantly Frustrated.
Recently, a run of more than five hundred episodes of "The Goldbergs" spanning the years 1941 thru 1944 surfaced on the West Coast -- recordings of the daily serial episodes originally made for Canadian rebroadcast. These episodes offer, at long last, a detailed look at one of radio's most important, most overlooked, most misunderstood programs.
"The Goldbergs" was the work of one remarkable woman -- Gertrude Berg, one of radio's great auteurs. She was a woman who had carefully crafted a public image for herself, and then spent her entire working life living up to that image -- essentially blurring the line between the character she portrayed and the person she actually was.
Although she built her reputation portraying a lower-middle-class Jewish housewife, Berg had no personal experience with ghetto life. She was born to an upper-middle-class family, grew up in comfortable surroundings, was well-educated, and married a wealthy doctor. During the 1920s, Berg began to dabble in writing -- crafting short stories drawn from her memories of a colorfully-ethnic uncle, on whose tales of the ghetto she based many of her characterizations. In 1929, she made her first steps into radio, and by the end of the year she had sold "The Rise Of The Goldbergs" to NBC -- a homey drama built around family life, and the first of the legion of serial shows to achieve network success riding the coattails of "Amos 'n' Andy." For several years, in fact, the program was carried by Pepsodent, A&A's sponsor, in the timeslot immediately following A&A -- and the two series even shared the services of announcer Bill Hay.
Legend has it that budgetary constraints forced Berg to play the leading role of Molly herself, but it's just as likely she never would have allowed anyone else to play the role anyway -- throughout her carreer, Berg's best known characteristic was her overwhelming confidence in her ability to interpret her own work. The rest of the cast was just as carefully chosen -- stage veteran James R. Waters took the role of Jake, and the children Sammy and Rosalie were potrayed by child actors Alfred Corn (aka Ryder) and Roslyn Silber. Affirming Berg's judgement on their abilities, this cast would remain intact for nearly sixteen years.
For its first five years, "The Goldbergs" was indeed a colorful drama of ghetto life, complete with Bronx setting and dialect-speaking neighbors. But by 1934, this setting was growing stale -- and, more significantly, the taste of listeners was shifting away from heavily "ethnic" program material. A new wave of serial programs had sprung up, with a heavy emphasis on WASPy middle-class characters -- and the popularity of "The Goldbergs" began to fade. To breathe new life into the series, Berg made a momentous decision -- one which would shape her program for the rest of its years on radio. The Goldbergs packed up and left the Bronx.
They moved to the upstate farming town of Lastonbury, a rustic community in which Jake took a job as the manager of a mill -- and the storylines began to focus on the family's adjustment to its new surroundings. But the change came too late - Pepsodent dropped "The Goldbergs" during the summer of 1934, and aside from a brief, abortive revival in 1936, it was silent for the next three years. When the series was revived in 1937, it was as a Procter and Gamble daytime drama -- and the Lastonbury setting continued. By 1941, when the long run of surviving episodes begins, the town had become a well-established part of the storyline, the Bronx just a fading memory spurred by occasional letters to or from dear old Mrs. Bloom. The town itself took on a personality all its own -- far from being an idealized vision of small-town America, Lastonbury seems to be largely a nest of backbiters, gossips, schemers, and bigots.
By this stage in her evolution, Molly was a character best described as an endearing busybody -- completely unable to mind her own affairs. An almost obsessive matchmaker, she was well known among the townspeople for her interference in affairs of the heart -- which meddling often blew up in her face as often as it succeeded. Her husband Jake was a sputtering teakettle of a man -- a dyspeptic old grouch, constantly driven to the bicarbonate box by his wife's behavior. And by this time, the two children had all but grown up -- Sammy had matured into an earnest college student with high hopes for the future, and Rosalie had developed from a gum-cracking teenager into a confused young woman, never quite sure what she wanted out of life, and just a bit oppressed by her smothering mother.
Added to this core were several important supporting characters -- the French war widow Orianne and her little son David, refugees seeking a new life in America, the moody, jealous Doctor Cater and his uptight, socially-prominent family, the brooding ex-convict Mr. Way, and the awkward teenager Seymour Fingerhood -- eternally tormented by his unrequited crush on Rosalie: who knew how he felt and really didn't care.
Berg's scripts seamlessly weave these characters together, although her plotting is sometimes a bit baroque: What happens when Mr. Way and Orianne decide to go into the poultry-farming business together, and Way falls in love with the lovely young widow, even though she thinks she loves Dr. Cater but really doesn't and agrees to marry Cater in hopes of discouraging Way's affections because she thinks he wants to get back together with his ex-wife? Add Molly's incessant meddling to the mixture, and you've got a storyline that's likely to increase Jake's bicarb consumption by a factor of ten, at least.
But it works. The characterizations are nothing if not sincere, and Berg herself makes Molly, with all her faults, into a truly likeable character. Waters' portrayal of Jake manages to be both dramatically tense and subtly comic -- as often as he flies off the handle you get a sense that underneath it all he's really rather bemused at his wife's antics, and the grouchiness of the characterization never becomes a caricature. Corn and Silber actually grew up playing Sammy and Rosalie, and their genuinely brother-and-sister relationship is one of the most touching elements of the series. They bicker and fight and tease like real siblings always do -- but they also care deeply about each other and are always ready to help in times of crisis. You never get a sense that these two are acting -- they seem that much like actual siblings.
Mention should also be made of Arnold Stang's excellent work in the role of Seymour. In many ways, it's the epitome of all the bespectacled-little-nebbish roles that Stang would play over his fifty-year career, but at the same time, Seymour never falls into mere stereotyping. While he's basically a comedy-relief figure, Stang plays the part with a very gentle sort of vulnerability - especially in his awkward, stammering scenes with Rosalie. Perhaps Stang's most impressive scene in the series is when he tells Jake -- who doesn't really like Seymour at all -- that he's enlisted in the Navy. He delivers his lines with a quiet conviction -- a sense of "now you'll have to respect me, but I don't care any more if you do or not" -- that actually had me applauding.
Berg's attention to detail in this series has entered into radio legend -- and these legends, at least, are all true. She really *did* give Roslyn Silber an on-air shampoo when the script called for such a scene -- and Silber's sputtering ad-libbed protests as the soap gets in her eyes give that scene a compelling sense of realism. The manufactured sound effects are equally notable -- a decade before "Gunsmoke," Berg's sound crew was experimenting with the same sort of multi-layered background effects that made Dodge City such a richly-detailed place -- right down to the dog barking off in the distance. A scene in which the Goldbergs visit a bowling alley is one of the most vivid I've ever heard -- the constant murmur of voices in the background with just the right sense of echo, the balls rolling down the alley to strike the pins, and then rolling back on the ball return, the squeak of shoes against hardwood, the occasional cheers from onlookers. This background was probably recorded live at an actual bowling alley -- and it blends flawlessly into the broadcast, with the characters moving in and out of the echoing background in an impressive display of engineering technique. It's the sort of scene best heard thru headphones, where you can really appreciate the work that's gone into creating this little slice of atmosphere.
James Waters died in 1945, and was all but irreplaceable as Jake. The series itself ended shortly after, and didn't return until 1949 - this time retooled into the well-remembered situation comedy format. This series was a radio version of the already popular TV series -- and it took the family back to the beginning, losing in the process the subtle characterizations that made the original series so memorable. Lastonbury was gone as though it had never happened -- once again, the Goldbergs lived in the Bronx, complete with dumbwaiter shaft and Mrs. Bloom. Sammy and Rosalie were suddenly children again -- a bit implausible, given the fact that Berg herself was well into her fifties by this time. And Jake was now played by Broadway actor Philip Loeb -- who does manage to capture the lovable crustiness of Waters' portrayal without trying to slavishly recreate the original characterization.
But appreciation of the later series is marred by the overwhemling tragedy of Loeb's own life -- a labor-oriented liberal active in the affairs of actors' unions, Loeb was tarred as a Communist by red-baiters in the early fifties and eventually was driven to commit suicide after Berg was forced to fire him from the show. It's difficult to listen to the few remaining episodes of this late run without being distracted by the knowledge of what happened behind the scenes to this gentle, decent man.
Gertude Berg wasn't always an easy woman to work for. She had definite ideas on how she wanted the show to sound, and drove her cast mercilessly thru rehearsals. But the finished product shows the results of this meticulous approach -- and the recovery of such a substantial portion of its run is one of the most significant OTR finds of the past decade.
Give "The Goldbergs" a try. It's not what you think.
Elizabeth McLeod is a journalist, researcher, and freelance writer specializing in radio of the 1930s. She is a regular contributor to "Nostalgia Digest" magazine and the Internet OTR Digest Mailing List, maintains a website, Broadcasting History Resources, and is presently researching a book on Depression-era broadcasting. Elizabeth is always looking for 1930s radio recordings in all formats -- uncoated aluminum or lacquer-coated discs, vinyl or shellac pressings, or low-generation tape copies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org