When Women Invented Television

<em>When Women Invented Television</em>

Gertrude Berg entered a room like the prow of a ship, commanding attention to match her ambition. She wasn’t arrogant; she just carried her accomplishments with her. She dressed her matronly figure in dark, dignified dresses and furs that showed off her good taste and the fortune she had amassed from her radio program. She had created, written, and starred in The Goldbergs, a popular serialized comedy about a Jewish American family living in a Bronx tenement.

She constructed her professional image carefully, her wardrobe tailored, her gloves exquisite, her brown hair always pulled back into an impeccable chignon. She spoke in a practiced mid-Atlantic accent—that distinctive lilt common to 1940s film stars—rather than in the Yiddish accent and patois her radio character was known for. That all reminded the world that Berg was not the hausfrau she played on the radio but a cultured titan of the medium. Her granddaughter, Anne Schwartz, told me that “she spent money faster than she made it.”

Berg looked the picture of empowerment when she walked into Bill Paley’s CBS office in late 1948 to demand a television deal. But in fact, she needed him to give her a chance on his new television network.

Both had grown to become giants of the Radio Age. Both were approaching fifty years old. Each had aided the other’s rise. Not long before, he had done everything possible to win her, and then win her back again, in a series of radio talent-raid wars between his network, CBS, and its main rival, NBC.

Now, though, Berg found herself beseeching Paley to give her a chance on TV. The new medium had debuted at the 1939 World’s Fair almost a decade earlier, leaving onlookers mesmerized. It had been licensed to broadcast in the United States since 1941. But it had only recently budded into a viable business—and it was still far from a sure thing. That was exactly why Berg felt it was the perfect time for her to strike, before the market got too saturated, while she could still stake a claim and determine what a Gertrude Berg television show would look like.

Berg had some major factors in her favor. First, she boasted nationwide fame. Second, Paley’s wife, Babe, was, according to some accounts, urging him to sign Berg for a television series. But some forces were working against Berg, too: as of 1948, variety shows had been the thing on TV—which was what had made Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan its breakout stars so far. Situation comedies like Berg’s had yet to take hold onscreen. They required a more complicated formula: actors, rehearsals, scripts, camera angles. Yet they still had to be broadcast live, as all television was at the time. Thus the looser format of variety shows made the most sense in the early days.

Berg levelled with Paley: she had kept his radio network afloat through the Great Depression and World War II. She told him she “didn’t believe it was fair that a woman who had been so successful with a show on radio, should be shut out from TV without so much as a chance,” as she later recalled. She wanted to keep her character, Goldbergs matriarch Molly, alive and active in the public imagination at all costs. This goal would drive the rest of her life, and would extract its share of those costs.


Reprinted courtesy of Harper.

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