Wireless Women, Clueless Men: Gertrude Berg, Everybody’s Mama

Well, I am back from my three-day getaway to Manchester, my makeshift Manhattan. And what a poor substitute it has proven once again. The only bright spot of an otherwise less than scintillating weekend was the production of James M. Barrie’s comedy What Every Woman Knows at the Royal Exchange Theatre. While I prefer the traditional proscenium arch over an arena that to me suggests circus acrobatics or boxing matches rather than verbal sparring, I eventually got past the irritation of being dazzled by confronting stage lights, of having to watch the action through a fireplace or other obstructing props, and of looking into the faces of audience members opposite while the players turned their backs to me.

I was won over, tickled then touched by the excellent performances in this smart and sentimental piece, particularly by Jenny Ogilvie’s knowing portrayal of Maggie, whose “every woman” charm eludes the very man for whom she so devotedly works her magic: her clueless husband, that is. I will have more to say about Barrie’s play—and the hazards of adaptation—in a journal entry coinciding with its 2 March 1947 soundstaging by the Theater Guild on the Air, on which occasion Helen Hayes was heard as Maggie.

Hayes is one of the leading ladies mentioned in the first broadcastellan quiz; and whether or not she ever had her own radio program is something for you to ponder should you choose to join in before the answer is revealed on 24 February. Until then, I could not possibly let Ms. Hayes or her interpretation of Maggie take center stage. That spot is reserved today for “every woman” Mollie (or Molly) Goldberg and her creator Gertrude Berg, who also portrayed the role for decades on radio, stage, big screen and small. As vaudevillian-turned radio personality Eddie Cantor once remarked, Berg “captured the charm” of New York’s East Side, and “through her sketches runs the entire gamut of human emotions, from laughter to tears.” It was no charmed life on Pike Street those days, but surely one with whom many radio listeners could readily identify.

Jewish immigrants Mollie, her husband Jake, and her two children, Sam and Rosie, came to NBC radio on 20 November 1929, just a few weeks after Wall Street laid that proverbial egg. Recordings of those first broadcasts are not known to have survived, but the early struggle of the Goldberg family has been preserved in print, in a 1931 novelization of the scripts to accompany the popular series.

Mollie is introduced as a woman whose worries are largely domestic and sometimes imaginary. Anxious because her son, Sammy, is late from school, Mollie speculates that he might have gotten himself “runned over by a cabsitac”; after all, “[d]ey run around so fast like cackroachers.” Mollie, you see, lacked a formal education in American English—unlike her children, who were quick to correct her. “De chicks is loining de rooster!” Mollie exclaimed in exasperation.

Husband Jake, meanwhile, was clueless about Mollie’s desire to improve herself; he was too busy with his struggling business. “Oy, vat beezness!” Mollie sighed, “Saturday, Sonday, holledays. Plain talking all de time! Vy don’t you buy a bed and slip dere and finished! And dat’s beezness? It’s a slavery—jost like in Oncle Tom’s Cabinet!”

Sure, Mollie loved going to the pictures watching movies like “Oy, vot a fool I am,” by “Ruddy Kipland” or “de Four Horsemen in de Apoplexies.” She also marvelled at technological advances such as the newly installed telephone in her home (“Mr. Telephon Company, vhere do you put de nickels?”). Yet, like Barrie’s Maggie, Mollie was eager to learn even that which not every immigrant homemaker was expected to know. For that purpose, she enrolled in a reading and writing course at a neighboring night school. So, as much as listeners were invited to laugh at Mollie’s malapropisms, they were also taught to admire her courage and perseverance:

Ay, ay, Amerike, Amerike! Everybody vhat only vants, can become here a somebody. An education is like in de fairy story, ‘Open see-saw open.’ Vhen you got an education den everyting; all de doors from de vorld stands open far you. You could even understand yourself, and vhat’s more important dan dat, ha? You’ll vouldn’t be ashamed from your mama, ha, Rosiely?

Years later, Berg commented on the significant contribution of the serial to American democracy. The “daytime serial,” she said, “can be a very effective force in bringing to the American people a deeper understanding of the democratic way of life” since it was capable of “revealing the meaning of democracy in people’s lives,” and of doing so far more effectively “than any speech.” During the war, however, Berg agreed to address the radio audience in her own educated, if not nearly as charming, voice, imploring those listening to the Treasury Star Parade to be mindful of the fight for democracy, rather than wasteful of the material benefits deriving from it.

“Women like us fight with the bonds we buy, the rubber we save, the food prepare and the fat we save.” It’s what every woman needed to know back then. And who was more ideally suited to tell them than Gertrude Berg, the mother of radio’s surrogate mom?

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