July 31, 2012
When I saw a film named The Answer Man in the Netflix catalog, I thought it might be about Albert C. Mitchell, who had a radio show by that name that was still running when I was a kid. In that show, Mitchell offered to answer any question that was called or mailed in by a listener. The show was contrived to give the impression that Mitchell could answer these questions off the top of his head, but that wasn’t the case. Steve Allen famously did a parody of this show in which he played the “Question Man.” He would be given an answer, and he would provide the question. One answer, for example, was “the cow jumped over the moon.” The question was, “What happened when lightning hit the milking machine?”
Anyway, the movie isn’t about that. Instead, it’s about a writer named Arlen Faber (Jeff Daniels) whose one success was a book called Me and God, in which he revealed that he had had a personal encounter with the Creator of all that is . The book took the form of a series questions and the Almighty’s answers. This one success was the only one Faber needed. The original book and a wide variety of spin-offs — including a cook book — written by other people made him a wildly popular celebrity.
But Faber wasn’t interested in fame. In fact, in the 20 years after the book appeared, he hasn’t made a public appearance or consented to an interview, despite the pleas of his publisher. He spends most of his time in his Philadelphia apartment and, on the rare occasion that he speaks directly to another human being, his behavior ranges from disagreeable to obnoxious.
His routine is upset, however, when his life intersects with those of two disconnected strangers: Elizabeth (Lauren Graham), a single mother who has just opened a chiropractic office, and Kris Lucas (Lou Taylor Pucci), a young man whose bout with alcoholism has put at risk the book store he runs with his assistant Dahlia (Kat Dennings).
Faber comes in contact with Lauren because he needs treatments for his bad back. Lauren and her receptionist, Anne (Olivia Thirlby), don’t know what to make of the volatile and manipulative Faber, but Faber is attracted to Laurenr — the first such attraction for him in decades — and he develops an uncharacteristically benign relationship with her young son, Alex (Max Antisell). Faber wants to get rid of some of the books that he has accumulated in his apartment, and he tries to sell them to Kris, who has no cash to buy them with. The impending loss of his store is not the worst of Kris’s problems, though. His effort to stay sober isn’t helped by the fact that he lives with an endearing but alcoholic father. In a desperate attempt to keep from slipping under the waves, Kris blackmails Faber into an arrangement in which Kris will take a few of Faber’s excess books off his hands each time Faber, drawing on his supposed supernatural source of wisdom, answer one of Kris’s questions .
There is, of course, a reason why Faber has hidden from public view for two decades, and that back story eventually comes out into the daylight.
This film, which was made in 2008, got mediocre reviews, but we found it engaging. I did object to some unnecessary physical humor, but the premise is unusual, the main characters are interesting, and the actors are effective in those roles. Although this is described as a romantic comedy, Pucci’s performance as a young man in the grip of addiction is particularly disturbing.
Don’t believe the critics.
May 4, 2012
I gather from schnibles I’ve seen on the Internet that 30 Rock caught some flack for a parody of the 1950s television series Amos ‘n’ Andy. In the 30 Rock sketch, which was called Alfie and Abner, the characters were played by Tracy Morgan and John Hamm, who was in black face and an Afro wig, an image some folks found offensive. Somewhat incongruously — not to put too fine a point on it — the set was a replica of the Kramdens’ Bensonhurst kitchen rather than the most frequent Harlem scenes on Amos ‘n’ Andy — the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge hall and the apartment of George and Sapphire Stevens.
The premise of the 30 Rock sketch was that one actor was in black face because NBC thought it would be too big a step to have two black actors on the stage at the same time. The irony is that Amos ‘n’ Andy, which had its original run from 1951 to 1953, was the first television series to have virtually an all black cast. White actors appeared in incidental roles in only a handful of episodes. I think it’s fairly well known that the show was driven out of production because of objections — most prominently from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — on the grounds that it presented negative stereotypes of black Americans. It continued in reruns on some stations into the 1960s.
The television series evolved from a radio series that ran from 1928 until 1960. At the height of its success, Amos ‘n’ Andy was not only the most popular radio show on the air but the most popular diversion of any kind. And yet that series featured white actors mimicking black characters — namely Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who created the show. For a while, Gosden and Correll performed all the male roles and some of the females. Later, other actors and actresses were cast in the supporting parts while Gosden and Correll continued to play the principal figures: Amos Jones, Andrew H. Brown, and George “Kingfish” Stevens. Gosden and Correll went a step further in the 1930 RKO movie “Check and Double Check,” donning black face to play Amos (Gosden) and Andy (Correll). Duke Ellington and his orchestra appeared in that movie.
The TV series is now controlled by CBS, which has withdrawn it from circulation and has at times taken legal action in an attempt to squelch the widespread Internet sale of bootleg tapes and DVDs of the episodes.
The Amos ‘n’ Andy television show is in a unique position, I think, in the sense that if it were judged in a vacuum — with no reference to who created it and when it first appeared — the conclusion might be different than it is when the show is viewed in its historical context. It was introduced when black American citizens in large numbers were still being denied their civil rights, when black people in many parts of the country were regularly threatened with violence, and when black people were freely lampooned in movies, cartoons, and minstrels. The show was still being broadcast in syndication in 1955, when Sarah Louise Keys, Claudette Colvin, and Rosa Parks in turn refused to give up their seats on the Montgomery, Alabama bus system to make way for white passengers. With Jim Crow making his last stand against legal equality and common decency, it shouldn’t have been surprising that black society and others would object to some of the characterizations on Amos ‘n’ Andy.
I have owned copies of all 78 known episodes of the series for many years, and I have watched them all several times and assigned students to write about them. I have also done a lot of research about the show itself and about the actors who appeared in it, and I have interviewed several people who were connected to it, including Nick Stewart who played Lightnin’ — the janitor at the lodge hall. Based on all that exposure, I think one can at least make the argument that, taken out of its milieu, Amos ‘n’ Andy would be no more offensive than all-black sitcoms that have appeared since, including Sandford and Son and Family Matters.
In fact, Amos ‘n’ Andy is fashioned on the same model as The Honeymooners. The rap on Amos ‘n’ Andy has been that it perpetuates stereotypes of black men as lazy, shiftless, and dumb, and of black women as shrewish and unattractive. As for the men, those characterizations apply to only four characters in the series: Andy Brown (Spencer Williams Jr.), George “Kingfish Stevens (Tim Moore), Lightnin’ (Nick Stewart, billed as Nick O’Deamus), and the lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun (Johnny Lee).
These men live in a universe in which virtually everyone is black and, significantly, in which everybody but them is dignified, moral, and responsible. Just as The Honeymooners didn’t imply that all white men were naive schemers like Ralph Kramden or good-natured dumbbells like Ed Norton, Amos ‘n’ Andy didn’t imply that all black men were lummoxes, wasters, or charlatans. In both cases, the point was that the main characters were out of step with everyone around them; they were the exceptions, not the rules.
The most prominent female character on Amos ‘n’ Andy was Sapphire Stevens, the Kingfish’s wife. Sapphire was played by Ernestine Wade, who actually was a pretty woman. Sapphire longed for a more genteel life in which she wasn’t hounded by bill collectors and in which she could associate with folks a little more erudite and stimulating than Andy Brown. Wade portrayed her as a decent woman who was faithful to a husband who didn’t deserve it; if Sapphire nagged the Kingfish and at times lost her temper with him, no one could blame her any more than they could blame Alice Kramden from blowing up at Ralph.
Less sympathetic a character, perhaps, was Ramona Smith, Sapphire’s mother, who was presented as the classic bellicose battleship of a mother-in-law — an accessory the Kingfish had in common with Ralph Kramden.
The broadest of the regular characters were the shambling, drawling Lightnin’, and Calhoun, a loudmouth and a fake.
There was a shift in emphasis in the television series in which Amos, although a title character and often the voice that introduced the episode (“Hello, folks. This is Amos. . . .”), became a secondary figure, and the Kingfish became the focal point of almost every episode. In the TV series, Amos was a level-headed, intelligent, soft-spoken, man who owned his own taxicab and led a quiet life with his lovely wife, Ruby, and their two daughters. Amos was often the Jiminy Cricket to the Kingfish and Andy, giving them sound advice and sometimes directly getting them out of trouble.
An aspect of this show that is always overlooked is the quality of the cast it brought together. Many of the actors had long careers as entertainers, persisting through an era in which they were unappreciated, type cast, and often rudely treated.
Tim Moore, who played the chronically unemployed and finagling Kingfish, had a remarkable life as a vaudevillian, entertaining all over the world. He also appeared in several Broadway shows and in films. He was even fairly successful as a boxer. He was lured out of retirement to play the role in Amos ‘n’ Andy. His character’s sobriquet was actually his title as head of the lodge — the kingfish. When he wanted his pals to bail him out of some scrape, he often reminded them, “After all, we are all brothers in that great organization, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.”
Spencer Williams Jr., who played the sweet but gullible oaf Andy Brown, was an important figure in the history of American film. A World War I army veteran who worked in many aspects of the movie business, including as a sound technician, eventually became a writer, director, and producer of so-called “race movies,” films that were made specifically to be shown in segregated theaters. His film “Go Down Jesus,” which was made on a $5,000 budget and with nonprofessional actors, was one of the most successful “race films” of all time. Time magazine called it one of the “25 most important films on race.”
Alvin Childress, who played the sensible and gentle Amos Jones, held a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He began working as an actor with a Harlem theater company, and he worked on both the stage and on film. He appeared on Broadway as Noah in Philip Yordan’s play Anna Lucasta, which ran for 957 performances. Although he appeared in a couple movies and in episodes of Perry Mason, Sandford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, Childress, who felt he had been typed by casting directors as Amos Jones, had a hard time sustaining his career. His first marriage, which lasted for 23 years, was to a well known writer and actress, Alice (Herndon) Childress.
Nick Stewart, who played Lightnin’, was a dancer and comedian who appeared in night clubs, Broadway shows, films, and radio. Stewart was the voice of Br’er Bear in the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South. In 1950, He and his wife, Edna, founded the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles, where for many years they provided a venue in which black actors could appear in quality productions.
Johnny Lee, who played the blustering, incompetent lawyer, Algonquin J. Calhoun, was a dancer and actor who appeared in a couple of dozen films and television shows, perhaps most notably as the voice of Br’er Rabbit in Song of the South. He had featured roles in Come On, Cowboy! (1948) and She’s Too Mean for Me (1948) and he played a stuttering bill collector in Boarding House Blues (1948). He also starred in an all-black musical comedy, Sugar Hill, at the Las Palmas Theatre in Hollywood in 1949. His last TV role was Mr. Gibbons the Locksmith on Dennis the Menace in 1963.
In addition to these regular players, Amos ‘n Andy provided occasional roles for some very talented actors, including the sisters Amanda and Lillian Randolph. Amanda Randolph, who played Ramona Smith, mother of Sapphire Stevens, was the first black actress to appear on a regularly-scheduled network television show. That was The Laytons, which appeared on the old Dumont network for two months in 1948. She was an exceptional jazz pianist and a composer. She appeared in New York musicals, entertained in Europe, performed in vaudeville, and cut records as both a musician and a vocalist. She appeared on Broadway, in films, and on radio. On radio, she played the title role in Beulah in the 1953-1954 season, inheriting the role from Lillian.
She was the first black American actress to have her own daytime network TV show – Amanda, which ran on Dumont in the 1948-49 season. Among her many TV roles was Louise, the wisecracking maid on Danny Thomas’s comedy series.
Lillian Randolph, who appeared in Amos ‘n’ Andy as Madame Queen, a former girlfriend of Andy Brown, was also a multi-talented performer on radio, television, and film. She had played Madame Queen on the radio, too, and made the character’s name a household word in the United States. She played the maid Birdie Lee Coggins in The Great Gildersleeve radio series, and she repeated the role in Gildersleeve films and the later TV series. Her performance of a gospel song on the TV series led to a gospel album on Dootone Records. She also made regular appearances on The Baby Snooks Show and The Billie Burke Show on radio. Her best known film roles probably were Annie in It’s a Wonderful Life and Bessie in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer. Her television roles included Bill Cosby’s mother on The Bill Cosby Show, and Red Foxx’s aunt Esther on Sandford and Son. Altogether, she appeared in about 93 movie and television properties. In 1954, Lillian Randolph became the first black member of the board of directors of the Hollywood Chapter of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
One of the most eminent persons to appear on the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV series was Jester Hairston, who made occasional appearances as both Sapphire’s brother Leroy and as wealthy and dapper lodge member Henry Van Porter. Although he appeared in about 20 films and several TV shows, acting was secondary to Hairston’s career as a composer, songwriter, arranger, and choral conductor. He wrote the song “Amen” for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field and he dubbed the song for Sidney Poitier to lip-sync. He also wrote the Christmas carol Mary’s Little Boy Child. Harry Belafonte’s recording of the song reached No. 1 on the charts in the UK in 1957. From 1986 to 1991, Hairston played Rolly Forbes in the TV series Amen.
Hairston was a graduate of Tufts University, and he studied music at the Julliard School. He was highly regarded as a conductor of choirs, including on Broadway, and as a composer and arranger of choral music. In 1985, when few foreign performers were appearing in China, he took a multi-racial choir to tour the country. Hairston was a founder of the Screen Actors Guild.
Also among the actors who appeared on Amos ‘n’ Andy was Roy Glenn, who had a rich baritone-bass voice that he got to use in one episode, singing some lines from “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Glenn had a long acting career, appearing in 96 films and television shows. His most prominent role probably was Sidney Poitier’s father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
The only Amos ‘n’ Andy alumnus I’m aware of who not only is still living but has worked as an actor recently is Jay Brooks, who appeared in two episodes of Seinfeld, as Sid, the man who provides a service in Jerry Seinfeld’s neighborhood by moving cars from one side of the street to the other to comply with New York City’s alternate-side parking regulations.
The actors who appeared on Amos ‘n’ Andy were often criticized for accepting roles on a show that some people felt was demeaning to black people. More often than not, the roles offered to black performers in those days in any venue were stereotyped if they weren’t out-and-out offensive. Some of the actors — Alvin Childress, for example — argued that they had to work where they could and that by accepting parts on the first all-black show on television, they had paved the way for others to follow. It’s too late to resolve that question but, taken on its own merits, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a funny show, due in large part to the performances of a lot of experienced actors who, over their careers, made enormous contributions to American popular culture. They don’t deserve to be forgotten.
December 10, 2009
The announcement by the CBS television network that it had cancelled “As the World Turns” got me to thinking about the soap operas my mother listened to on the radio. In that era, it was common for a radio to be on all day in a house, so what Mom listened to, the rest of us listened to. That is, unless we happened to be in the downstairs kitchen, where we listened to what Grandma listened to — namely, WOV, the Italian radio station in New York.
One of the shows I became quite familiar with was “The Romance of Helen Trent,” which, the announcer reminded us every day, was “the real-life drama of Helen Trent, who, when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair, fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many women long to prove, that because a woman is 35 or more, romance in life need not be over, that romance can begin at 35.” That show was on CBS radio from 1933 to 1960, with three actresses — Virginia Clark, Betty Ruth Smith, and Julie Stevens playing Helen. The one I remember was the gorgeous Julie Stevens, who played the Hollywood dress designer from 1944 until the show went off the air and later appeared as reporter Lorelei Kilbourne on the TV series “Big Town.”
Another radio show I vividly remember was a unique series called “Wendy Warren and the News,” which was on CBS every day at noon, beginning in 1947.
Wendy Warren, who was played by Florence Freeman, was a radio and print journalist, who got involved in all kinds of mysterious and dangerous situations. The show was injected with an unusual element of realism by including an actual daily newscast — with the redoubtable Douglas Edwards as the anchor — and by telling its stories in 24-hour increments. The show, which was broadcast on weekdays, even took the weekends into account in its scripts.
Time, the news magazine, reported on the show as follows in its edition of July 7, 1947:
Sudsy daytime serials are easy targets for radio’s detractors. But soap operas go on & on because sponsors find them profitable. Last week, an outlandish new jumble of fact & fancy called Wendy Warren and the News (CBS, Mon.-Fri., 12 noon, E.D.T.) tried desperately to vary the formula.
The new twist: CBS Reporter Douglas Edwards leads off with a three-minute summary of the day’s headlines. A girl reporter named “Wendy Warren” (Actress Florence Freeman) follows him, shrills out 45 seconds of “women’s news,” promptly plunges into her tortured fictional love life. By the end of the first broadcast, the new heroine was in an old, all-too-familiar lather. “She turns deathly pale,” the announcer confided, “and, but for Gil Kendal’s ready arm, would fall.”
I can still hear the announcer’s voice saying, “And now …. Oxydol’s own Ma Perkins.”
This show was broadcast on NBC from 1933 to 1949 and on CBS From 1942 to 1960. In an unusual arrangement, “Ma Perkins” was heard simultaneously on both networks from 1942 to 1949.
Ma Perkins was played by Virginia Payne, who didn’t miss a broadcast in 27 years. Her character, if you can believe it, was a widow who ran a lumber yard in a small town called Rushville. The story line was hometown stuff, all about Ma Perkins’ three children and her relationships with the locals. Payne was only 23 when she took the part, so an older model was used for public appearances at first, and Payne herself dressed up in a wig and spectacles so as not to ruin the image of the kindly old woman. An interesting quirk in this show was that Payne was never identified on the air as the actress in the title role until the final episode in 1960, when she made some farewell remarks at the end of the broadcast.
One more show came to mind today: “Our Gal Sunday.” I heard this one often enough, too, that I can recite the daily introduction. This was “the story that asks the question: Can this girl from a little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?”
Sunday, played by Vivian Smolen when I was listening to it, was an orphan who had been raised by two prospectors in a mining camp. She wound up as Lady Brinthrope, married to a titled Brit who lived on the East Coast of the United States. The stories often had to do with the tsurris caused by high-brow women making a play for Sunday’s husband, Lord Henry.
The memories of a misspent youth.
October 9, 2009
I was amused to read an Associated Press story today by a writer who had the naivete to suggest that John Sterling is a successor to Mel Allen. It is true that Sterling has a job analogous to Mel’s old job, but he’s about as much a successor to Mel as I am a successor to St. Stephen.
The writer refers to Sterling as “the voice of the Yankees,” which is what Suzan Waldman calls Sterling when she introduces him on the radio broadcasts. Frank Messer, who took over when Mel was inexplicably fired, had the grace to always introduce Mel as “the only real voice of the Yankees.”
Sterling and some other baseball broadcasters today are like carnival barkers. I had to laugh the other night when he was making his usual complaints about all the noise in the Blue Jays stadium. What about the noise he makes on the air during every game? Every home run is “high” and “far” whether it’s high and far or not …. and some fly balls are “high” and “far” that aren’t home runs at all. Anyone can find an old Yankee broadcast on the Internet and hear the difference between that and Mel’s mellow “going, going, gone.” And that’s to say nothing about the contrast between Mel’s “and the ballgame is over” and Sterling’s “theeeeeeeee Yankees win!!!!!!” Whenever I hear that I chuckle about the critics who used to call Mel a “homer” — meaning a Yankee partisan.
The quality of baseball broadcasts isn’t helped any, of course, by the fact that almost every word that comes out of the announcers’ mouths is commercialized. The fifteenth out is sold, the call to the bullpen is sold. It won’t be long before there’s a sponsor for every time Nick Swisher looks up at the sky to make sure God is still there. “This look to the heavens is brought to you by ….” Announcers like Mel and Red Barber had it easier; they could talk about baseball for whole half innings at a time. But frankly, I’d rather hear Mel pitching White Owl cigars or Ballantine ale then listen to Sterling shrieking, ”the Melkman delivers … that’s the Melky way!”
The AP report says Swisher likes that stuff.
The AP story is at the following link: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jUoeWQsFlz_CsbkUuN-rVb6x3AGgD9B72ASG2
September 18, 2009
See, my problem is that I want to be Garrison Keillor. I don’t mean that I want to live in Minnesota, but that I want to have a live radio show and I want to be able to tell stories the way he does.
I had a taste of live radio when I was in college. Over the course of four years and another couple of years after I got out of grad school, I did shows on the Seton Hall University radio station, which had an audience extending at least six blocks in all directions. To me, it was a mystical experience, sitting alone at night in a little studio, talking to a mike as though it were a living thing and hoping that somewhere out there in the dark someone, anyone, was more absorbed in my prattle than the engineer dozing in the glow of the transmitter lights on the other side of the double window. Wondering when the call would come, the husky female voice with its streaks of seduction and madness: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.”
But I digress. The only person I can recall who could tell stories as well as Keillor was Jean Shepherd. I listen to Keillor’s monologues over and over, trying to divine the particular quality that makes his tales so compelling. But, of course, I can do no such thing; the stories are as good as they are because they come from him. So my only option is to be him. That doesn’t seem like so much to ask for if I can’t be Clint Eastwood, sitting in that lonely studio, waiting for the call I know will come and the sultry, slightly dangerous voice I know I will hear ….
Sorry. Lost my head. Well, Garrison Keillor and I do have a couple of things in common. He recently suffered what has been described as a minor stroke — that’s not what we have in common — but he quickly recovered and went back to work, apparently intending to concede nothing to his advancing years. He and I are both 67.
Keillor told an Associated Press reporter that some of his friends have been encouraging him to retire.
“People are always ready to give you advice about what you should do,” Keillor told the AP writer, “and you should take it easy and so on. But taking it easy makes me restless and unhappy. “I’m not a collector of things. I don’t have hobbies … so work is what I do.”
He and I are of one mind on that point. When I was involuntarily a man of leisure, I could feel the seams coming apart. Now that I’m overbooked again, I feel like a man of 60.
The AP writer, incidentally, no doubt wanting to assure readers that the stroke had no lasting effect on Keillor, delicately slipped in to the copy the observation that Keillor’s speech showed no sign of slurring. And who says there’s no real journalism anymore?
The AP story, from the web site of the San Francisco Chronicle, is at this link:
September 2, 2009
In a 1956 episode of “The Honeymooners,” Ed Norton (Art Carney) is advising Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) that one of their neighbors reads all the mail that comes into the building. To illustrate his point, Norton tells Ralph what the Kramdens’ gas bill was the previous month. And then he congratulates Ralph for breaking the all-time low gas bill record set by the Collyer Brothers in 1931.
The studio audience laughs, because they remember the Collyer Brothers, whose macabre death had occurred only about nine years before that episode was filmed. Homer and Langley Collyer, offspring of a well-to-do family, lived in a mansion in what was then high-fashion Harlem — remaining there after their father inexplicably abandoned them in 1919 and moved downtown. By that time the brothers were well educated — at least one of them had graduated from nearby Columbia — but instead of pursuing careers in engineering or admiralty law, they gradually withdrew from society, living like hermits and literally filling the house with tons of newspapers, bicycles, firearms, electric motors, musical instruments — a collection far too varied to be characterized, although it is usually referred to as “junk.”
In 1947, the two men died in the house under tragic circumstances. Langley Collyer had been killed by one of the booby traps he had assembled to ward off intruders and Homer, who was blind and largely helpless, had died of starvation, just a few feet from his brother’s body. Police and laborers removed 103 tons of material from the house, which was condemned and razed.
E.L. Doctorow has written a novel, “Homer and Langley,” being released this month, which consists of what Doctorow describes of his “reading” of the Collyer Brothers’ lives. By that he means that the book is not a history; in fact, he said he did no research, which may be an exaggeration, but he makes his point. He was curious, not about morbid details that had been repeated again and again, but about what motivated the two men to shut the world out of their lives or rather, as he puts it, to “emigrate” to a life within their home, a life lived on their own terms.
Doctorow was interviewed on NPR today — specifically, on “All Things Considered: — and his remarks suggested more respect for the Collyers than they usually are afforded. Certainly he eschewed the ridicule that an Ed Norton couldn’t help but attach to the names. The writer apparently doesn’t begin with a judgment about the brothers — or about people who don’t choose to live as others do. He begins with curiosity about how their lives fit into the whole picture of life in their time. He also said that he was saddened by a comment made in the novel by Homer, who is the narrator: “What could be more terrible than to be turned into a mythic joke?”
A story based on the Doctorow interview, the audio, and an excerpt from the novel are at this link:
August 5, 2009
A few months ago, I wrote in this journal that my wife and I had discovered and watched on line a few episodes of the television series “The Goldbergs.” Those episodes are at http://www.archives.com.
After I wrote that blog, I heard from a publicist who was handling a new documentary film about the owner, writer, and star of “The Goldbergs” — Gertrude Berg — who was one of the most remarkable women of the second half of the 20th century. As a result of that contact, I wrote the following story, part of which has appeared in the Courier-Post of Cherry Hill and has been picked up on other blogs:
When the U.S. Postal Service issues its “Early TV Memories” stamps this summer, don’t look for Gertrude Berg.
The New York City native, who 80 years ago created the domestic situation comedy, and became a media mogul, was not included with the likes of Lucille Ball and Harriet Nelson, who decades later followed her into American homes.
But Berg is being reintroduced to the American public in a documentary film – “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” – written and directed by Aviva Kempner.
The title evokes the phrase associated with Berg during the radio and television runs of the show she created and controlled, most widely known as “The Goldbergs.”
The principal character, Molly Goldberg, and her neighbors in a Bronx apartment building, interacted by leaning out their windows and calling: “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg … Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Bloom.”
From her window, Molly – portrayed by Berg – invited listeners and viewers into the Goldberg household to share the lives of her husband, Jake; their children, Sammy and Rosalie; and Molly’s brother, David Romaine.
The show ran on radio from 1929 to 1946 – five days a week for much of that time – and on television from 1949 to 1956. Berg herself wrote every script in longhand.
There were also a stage play, a movie, a lucrative vaudeville tour, a comic strip, a jigsaw puzzle, a newspaper column, a line of women’s dresses, and a popular cookbook – although Berg couldn’t cook.
Berg’s rise to prominence, Kempner emphasized, occurred “at the time of the greatest domestic anti-Semitism in America, and during the rise of Adolf Hitler in Europe.’’
Berg presented the family as Jewish – adopting a mild Yiddish accent and a unique use of language that became a hallmark of the character:
As Molly shows off a hat, a neighbor asks: “With what dress are you going to wear it?’’
“With mine periwinkle,’’ Molly answers, striking a pose: “Visualize!”
And Berg didn’t shy away from difficult issues affecting Jews.
The documentary points out that in 1933, the year Hitler became dicator of Germany, she had a rabbi conduct a Seder service on the program. And after Kristallnacht in 1938, she wrote an episode in which a stone smashed an apartment window while the Goldbergs were celebrating Passover; Molly calmed the children and urged Jake to continue leading the Seder.
“And yet,’’ Kempner said, “Molly Goldberg was universal. You didn’t have to be Jewish to love her.’’
This urban mother first appeared on radio a month after the stock market crash, and the Goldbergs became so important to the national psyche during the Great Depression, as people maintaining the family circle in spite of want, that Franklin Roosevelt himself acknowledged it.
Kempner – based in Washington, D.C. – made the documentary through her Ciesla Foundation, whose goal is to “produce films about under-known Jewish heroes.” Kempner – whose work includes a 2000 film about baseball legend Hank Greenberg – said that although the Gertrude Berg film is complete, she is still raising money to pay for it.
The new film includes vintage photos and motion pictures and input from members of Berg’s family, actors, her biographer and others, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The story they tell has its dark sides.
Berg, born in 1898, did not grow up in the kind of setting she portrayed in her shows.
“She never had a nurturing mother like Molly Goldberg,’’ Kempner said. “She created what she didn’t have.’’
Berg’s own mother sunk into depression after the early death of her son and ended her life in a mental institution. Berg’s father badgered Gertrude into working at resorts he opened in the Catskills and in Florida but never supported her career as an actress and producer.
By contrast, her husband, Lewis Berg, a chemical engineer, typed many scripts from his wife’s handwritten originals.
Especially unsettling in Gertrude Berg’s life was the impact of “Red Channels,” the publication that purported to expose Communists working in radio and film.
One of those identified was Philip Loeb, an actors’ union leader, who played Jake Goldberg on the television series. Berg herself was listed as a “sympathizer.”
CBS and her sponsor pressured Gertrude Berg to fire Loeb. She refused, and her show was cancelled. NBC eventually picked up the show, but Loeb had accepted a cash settlement out of consideration for Berg and the other actors. Blacklisted from radio and film, he committed suicide in 1955.
Berg won an Emmy for her portrayal of Molly Goldberg, and a Tony for her 1959 Broadway performance in “A Majority of One,” and her autobiography was a best seller.
Still, only a small percentage of Americans today know who Gertrude Berg was, Kempner said, “and I want to restore her correct place in our cultural history.’’
The home web site for the film is at http://www.mollygoldbergfilm.org/home.php Information about theaters showing the film is available there.
The Ciesla Foundation web site is at http://www.cieslafoundation.org/
April 25, 2009
We were happy last night to find that the web site http://www.archive.org has several episodes of the television series “The Goldbergs,” a program far superior to most half-hour shows today, with allowances for the technical advances that have taken place since the ’50s. This is a warm show, humorous without being silly, with a solid dramatic basis. The show starred Gertrude Berg, who also owned it and wrote it and insisted on such things as everday situations and no laugh track. The Goldberg family consisted of Molly Goldberg; her husband, Jake, who was in the wholesale garment business; her uncle, David Romaine; and her children, Rosalie and Sammy – to whom Molly always referred as “my Rosalie” and “Samalie.” The family first appeared in a long-lived radio series and also was portrayed in a Broadway play written by Berg and in a film. The episode we watched last night was the final season in what was not a continuous run. In this 1955 show, the family had just moved to the suburbs from The Bronx – mirroring what was actually going on with a lot of urban Jewish families at the time – and Molly was having a hard time adjusting to an unfamiliar neighborhood. The dialogue in this show is priceless; Berg had a good ear for how people talk. Molly and David, in particular, use a peculiar verbal shorthand one doesn’t hear often. For instance, when Molly wants to say, “Give me a minute to write that down,” she says, “Pardon me while I jot.” We’re grateful for whoever preserved these shows.
There was a shadow over “The Goldbergs.” Philip Loeb, who was cast as Jake when the television series was on CBS, was fingered as a Communist by Lee J. Cobb and Elia Kazan in their testimony in 1950 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Berg was pressured to fire Loeb, and she refused, so CBS dropped the show. Loeb resigned and accepted a monetary settlement, but he committed suicide in 1955. Eight months after CBS dropped it, NBC picked the show up with another actor in the role.
March 31, 2009
Andrew Klavan, the fiction writer and journalist, makes an interesting point in his “Limbaugh Challenge” column making the rounds this week. Klavan suggests that many people he characterizes as liberals, who are dismissive of Rush Limbaugh, probably have never listened to Limbaugh’s show and know what he says only through excerpts and sound bites – which Klavan maintains are edited precisely to make Limbaugh sound bad. When I was a fulltime journalist, readers often complained that I was a knee-jerk liberal, and I’ve also heard that complaint a few times with respect to my preaching. Those who made such judgments had never talked to me, and therefore had no way of knowing that I have many views that are hardly liberal. So I have a little context for this discussion from my own experience. I have a little more context from the fact that I have listened to Rush Limbaugh’s show many times, just as I have listened to Michael Savage and Sean Hannity. Truth be told, these fellows and I disagree on many if not most things, but I have found common ground with all of them at one time or another. Moreover, listening to them gets me to at least re-examine some of my own ideas, which I think is Klavan’s point. At the minimum, I suspect that Klavan is correct in his suggestion that people who publicly excoriate Limbaugh have only a cursory idea of what the man thinks and says. Limbaugh deliberately presents himself at times – as Lewis Grossberger once put it – as a “political vaudevillian,” and that makes it easy to simply write him off. But he represents and influences the viewpoints of too many earnest Americans to be dismissed simply as a clown.
March 26, 2009
Barry Nelson, a fine actor, once gave me an unanticipated lecture about judging other people. I had asked Nelson – in the context of our conversation – whether he felt responsible for the content of films or television shows or plays in which he appeared. I asked him specifically if he would decline to appear in a property if he felt the content was, say, pornographic. Nelson said he would not necessarily decline to appear in a property because of its sexual content and that, in a broader way, he didn’t feel that appearing in a property meant that he was making the writer’s viewpoint his own – or, to put it another way, that he was giving approbation to a viewpoint that the writer had expressed in the script. Nelson didn’t stop there. He went on to caution me that each person has his own needs and has to find his own ways to satisfy them. Not everyone is attractive, Nelson said. Not everyone has good social skills and can draw to himself friends and lovers. Not everyone can easily obtain the intimacy that is a fundamental requirement of a healthy human spirit. What I might reject as pornography, Nelson said, might be providing another person with release or comfort or excitement that he would otherwise live without.
I could have spent the rest of the day debating the definition of pornography and the connection between pornography – in at least some of its definitions – and activity that ranges from degrading human nature to criminal. However, I think Barry Nelson used pornography as his talking point only because I myself had raised it. His broader point about judging other people’ s needs and behavior had the impact I think he intended. That conversation took place many years ago, and it came to mind this week while I was reading about the death of George Weber, the radio newsman who was murdered in his Brooklyn apartment. According to the news accounts, Weber contacted a disturbed teenager via the Internet and offered to pay him $60 to engage in rough sex. The encounter spun out of control, and the teenager, John Katehis, stabbed Weber multiple times. Police say Katehis admitted to that.
My initial reaction was revulsion to the idea that Weber had sought out a teenaged stranger for a sexual thrill. The bare fact, if it is a fact, that he would exploit a boy of that age – never mind one who seems to have had deep-seated problems of his own – is inexcusable. I still think so. But over the past few days, I have been thinking of the loneliness and the compulsion that may have, must have, contributed to this catastrophe in two lives. My moral judgment about decisions that George Weber made doesn’t matter, except to me. Like tens of thousands of other people, I heard George Weber’s lively, good-natured voice many times, never having a reason to wonder about the heart and soul that fed it. If I wonder now, Mr. Nelson, it’s only because I mourn his death and regret whatever emptiness he was trying to fill in his life.
George Weber’s blog: http://georgeweberthenewsguy.blogspot.com/