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The Making of Ordinary Americans 
By Sheryl Flatow
Elizabeth Dimon
Elizabeth Dimon can’t recall when she initially became aware of Gertrude Berg, the creator, producer, writer, and star of The Goldbergs, the first successful sitcom on American television. She only knows that it was well over a decade ago and she was immediately captivated. “This woman had such an incredible warmth about her,” says Dimon. “I started to learn about her, and found she was a remarkable actor and entrepreneur. She wrote all her own scripts, beginning with her radio show [which premiered in 1929] and all the way through her TV show. For a woman to do what she did in that time period was pretty amazing. When the documentary about her came out, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, I got a little obsessed. I ordered DVDs of The Goldbergs, I got her biography, her autobiography, her cookbook. I think what fascinated me was she had been an icon, and now she’s virtually forgotten.”
Dimon also saw Berg as someone who would be a great character to portray. She began considering the possibility of trying to write a play about the television pioneer, which would give her a role “that I could continue to play as I age.” A few years ago, she brought her obsession to William Hayes, PBD’s producing artistic director. They decided to apply for a grant to commission a Gertrude Berg play, but they didn’t get it.
By then, Hayes had also come under Berg’s spell. “I’d never heard of her when Beth first told me about her,” he says. “I looked her up online and immediately became very intrigued.” He delved into research, and was hooked. “It was pretty extraordinary for a woman, especially a Jewish woman, to rise to such fame and status in the era that she did. The more I learned about her, the more interested I became. But when the grant didn’t come through, we stepped away from her. And then I realized that her story had now become an obsession for me as well. I knew that if I felt that strongly, I needed to commission a play.”
William Hayes and Joseph McDonough
He was looking for a seasoned playwright who showed “the same level of passion that Beth and I had.” When speaking one day with Joseph McDonough, he piqued the playwright’s interest. “I was so unfamiliar with her that when Bill told me about her, I thought he’d said Gertrude Bird,” McDonough says. Once he discovered his mistake, he began gathering information and joined the Berg fan club. “It’s amazing what a powerhouse she was and how popular she was,” he says. “She was so far ahead of her time, but she is not remembered as the important figure in our culture that she should be.”
Elizabeth Dimon and Margery Lowe
Ordinary Americans, which received its world premiere at PBD on December 6 and continues through January 5, seeks to correct that staggering oversight. The play does more than introduce audiences to a major figure in television history, an artist and savvy businesswoman who had total control over her show and her material, and whose portrayal of Molly Goldberg earned her the first-ever Emmy Award for Best Actress. It shines the spotlight on the courageous stand she took in the face of McCarthyism and anti-Semitism, when she stood up for actor Philip Loeb, her husband on The Goldbergs, who was blacklisted. That chapter in their lives is the focal point of the play. 
“She tried to save her friend and her show, and was really heroic in standing up to McCarthyism before just about anybody,” says McDonough. “That’s what really excited me and why I was passionate about writing this play.” For Hayes, it was almost a moral imperative that the Communist witch hunt and the very personal way in which it affected the cast of The Goldbergs be the heart of the play, which he envisioned as a cautionary tale. “I was watching the rise of racism and anti-Semitism in our country, and how it paralleled what was happening in the ’40s and ’50s,” he says. “And I knew the play needed to hold up a mirror and say, ‘Folks, stop. We’re doing it again.’ The main theme of the play is the destructive nature of fear and paranoia.” In addition to Dimon, Ordinary Americans features David Kwiat as Philip Loeb, and Rob Donohoe, Margery Lowe, and Tom Wahl in multiple roles. 
Even though the scope of the play became much larger than the life of Gertrude Berg, her accomplishments as an artist, as a Jewish woman, and as an American continue to infuse the show. The play features scenes from The Goldbergs – one taken from an actual episode of the program, the rest invented by McDonough – that convey a sense of why she was such a welcome presence in Jewish homes and non-Jewish homes all across the country. (McDonough captures Berg’s writing style so adroitly that it’s impossible to tell who wrote what.)   
Ordinary Americans table read
“When I first watched The Goldbergs, I kept thinking, ‘What is the appeal?’” says Hayes. “And I realized that part of the appeal was the brilliance of opening up her window and treating you like her neighbor. People needed it at that time. It was like FDR and his fireside chats. Talking directly to each of us was ingenious, and it’s why she gained so much trust.”       

“She presented an American family,” says Dimon. “Even though it was a sitcom, the show always had a little message at the end that the audience would learn from, or some ethical lesson that she would learn or her children would learn. You know how it’s often said that the more specific you are, the more universal your work becomes? Think of Fiddler on the Roof: it’s so specific but it plays well everywhere because family is family. Or My Big Fat Greek Wedding; you don’t have to be Greek to relate to it. Gertrude understood that and it came across, which is why everybody loved her.”  
McDonough adds, “That’s the reason the play is called Ordinary Americans. It’s one of the main points of the play. Tillie, as everybody called Gertrude Berg, was adamant that she wasn’t writing a Jewish sitcom; she was writing an American sitcom. This was very important to her, and very important to me as I wrote this play: it’s a story that I hope appeals to all Americans. And it’s critical in our society today, when we have voices out there that are trying to separate us.”  
Joseph McDonough watching
Ordinary Americans play reading
2019 New Year/New Plays Festival
McDonough began working on Ordinary Americans over two years ago, and the play has evolved extensively during that time. Now a trim, intermissionless 90 minutes, the show ran close to three hours when it was first presented to the public in a reading at last season’s New Year/New Plays Festival. “We learned a lot from that,” says Hayes. “We learned it was too long and that there was too much exposition that wasn’t moving the story forward. We also discovered that we had the wrong ending.”
“The Festival was a great experience because it told me what was working and what wasn’t working,” says McDonough, “and it resulted in our massaging and tightening the play quite a bit. One of the big things that came out of it was that we ended up dropping one cast member who played two roles, Philip Loeb’s son and the son in The Goldbergs. It became clear that they were taking us beyond the story we wanted to tell and were not necessary to the play.” 
2019 New Year/New Plays Festival
David Kwiat, Margery Lowe, Elizabeth Dimon, and Rob Donohoe
Some crucial changes took place more recently. Roughly six months before Ordinary Americans opened, it became a memory play. Even later in the process, Hayes and McDonough recognized that the play’s most gut-wrenching scene, in which Loeb testifies before the House Un-American Activities Committee, was in the wrong spot. “We’d lived with the play for almost two years, and then in a matter of three or four months before we opened, we realized that we had in the middle of the play the scene that had to be at the end,” says Hayes. “So we reworked it, and the play became a tragedy.” They continued to edit and modify and strengthen the piece throughout rehearsals.    
All plays based on real people take artistic license. McDonough says that with Ordinary Americans, he felt an obligation to try to be “factually accurate and truthful.” But, he adds, “I never met any of these people, so to a certain degree I’m just guessing. There’s not a lot out there on Tillie beyond the documentary and one biography. She wrote an autobiography which helped me to get the flavor of her voice and her personality, but the stories were about her early life so they weren’t pertinent to the play. There’s an interview she did with Edward R. Murrow, so I could hear what she really sounded like away from The Goldbergs, although I’m aware that when people are being interviewed, they’re not necessarily letting their hair down. There’s even less available on Philip Loeb, but I was able to look over some of his papers on microfilm at the New York Public Library. I found some handwritten notes that he’d made in preparation for testifying before HUAC. There wasn’t a lot, but I was able to take some of his phrases and thoughts and put them into the play. I also found the eulogy his sister delivered at his funeral, and incorporated some of her thoughts into the senate testimony as well.”

McDonough also found an interview with Frank Stanton, the president of CBS who has a confrontation with Berg in the play. The interview was done decades after the play takes place, but it addresses his handling of the blacklist and McCarthyism. “He explained why he did what he did, and it’s in the play almost word for word,” says McDonough. “I wanted to be fair to the guy, so I figured I’d let him speak for himself.”

Dimon, whose obsession with Berg is the reason Ordinary Americans exists, says she’s “honored and grateful” for the opportunity she’s been given. “I hope I’m doing Gertrude proud, because I really do think she was remarkable. All I can do is portray her to the best of my ability, based on who we think she was and on how Joe presents her: a woman of courage and passion, a woman with a lot of talent and a lot of chutzpah.”
Too Jewish?
By Sheryl Flatow
When The Goldbergs went off the air in 1956, the demise of the show meant more than the end of a beloved program that had been welcomed into people’s homes since it was introduced on radio in 1929. The departure of Molly, Jake, and Uncle David from the small screen marked the disappearance of leading Jewish characters from television series, both comedies and dramas, for well over a decade. When major Jewish characters began appearing again in the ’70s, they sometimes perpetuated cringe-inducing stereotypes, were generally ambivalent about their ethnicity, and almost always wound up with a spouse who wasn’t Jewish. This was true, with some important exceptions, for much of the twentieth century.

The absence of Jews on TV was deliberate, a concerted effort by ABC, CBS, and NBC, the only three commercial networks for 30 years. (From 1946-1956, there was a fourth network, DuMont, which never had the resources to compete with the Big Three. Fox entered the fray in 1986.) That the vast audience for The Goldbergs cut across all ethnic groups and cultures was lost on the powers that be. In the book The Jews of Prime Time , author David Zurawik tells about a memo that was widely known within the industry, which said that CBS had research indicating that Americans were not interested in seeing “people from New York, men with mustaches, and Jews.” But, Zurawik says, there is no evidence that such a memo ever existed. 
In fact, the “memo” provided an excuse for the networks to shun Jewish characters. Television, like Hollywood, was run by Jewish executives who generally were eager to assimilate and distance themselves from their heritage. They also believed that much of the country had an aversion to Jewish characters. Thus, they were opposed to shows that could be perceived as “too Jewish.” Perhaps this was understandable, if cowardly, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was busy destroying lives, as the majority of its targets were Jews. But “too Jewish” remained a mantra for decades, up to and including the premiere of Seinfeld in 1989. And it was never non-Jews who expressed this concern. It was a Jewish thing. 
With that mindset, it’s amazing The Goldbergs made it to television at all. NBC rejected it and, initially, so did CBS, even though the TV networks were eager to bring radio stars and shows to this new medium. The Goldbergs had been a megahit on both CBS and NBC radio, and few personalities were as popular as Gertrude Berg. She knew why she was being met with resistance, but she ultimately was able to convince CBS founder William S. Paley, who was adamantly against featuring Jewish characters on his network, to allow her to audition for sponsors. To Paley’s surprise, General Foods enthusiastically bought the show and helped The Goldbergs get a coveted spot in CBS’ Monday night lineup. (To illustrate just how wary Paley was of Jewish characters, Zurawik writes that years later, he turned down the opportunity to invest in Fiddler on the Roof because it was “too Jewish.”) 

Although other ethnicities and cultures were occasionally represented in sitcoms, like the Cuban Desi Arnaz as the Cuban Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucy – CBS executives initially fought that, too – and Lebanese-American Danny Thomas as Lebanese-American Danny Williams on The Danny Thomas Show , they were the exceptions. The characters portrayed on TV reflected a very narrow vision of America. Virtually everyone was Caucasian, and by the end of the ’50s, with programs such as Leave it to Beaver , The Donna Reed Show , and Father Knows Best , there was a cookie-cutter quality to the families: wholesome, white bread, suburban, comfortably middle class, midwestern (although the locales were often not identified), and far removed from ethnic types like The Goldbergs .

As every culture can and does attest, representation matters. Seeing one’s own ethnicity or skin color reflected on the big and small screens creates a sense of inclusivity in the American tapestry. But how one is represented matters, too. Jewish characters continued to surface over the decades, but they weren’t always well served. They became more visible in primetime in the mid-1980s, after the Jewish founders gave way to big corporations. And the landscape changed entirely with the advent of cable, which was more willing to explore people from all different backgrounds.

In order to better convey how Jews were – and weren’t – portrayed on primetime TV after The Goldbergs and through the remainder of the twentieth century, we’ve compiled a select list of shows that were significant for a variety of reasons, positive and negative. The list focuses strictly on regularly scheduled comedies and dramas – no variety shows, quiz shows, mini-series, made-for-TV movies, or talk shows – and is limited to network television. In other words, just the shows that everyone had access to. The commentary is purely subjective. The list is by no means complete, and at the end you’ll find some of the shows that didn’t make the cut, mostly for reasons of length.
The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950-1958) and The Jack Benny Program (1950-1965). Although George Burns and Jack Benny were Jewish, and both played fictionalized versions of themselves, neither of their alter egos was ever identified as such. Their ethnicity had no bearing on their shows.
Car 54, Where Are You? (1961-1963) One of the funniest and most underappreciated shows in TV history, Car 54 was created by Nat Hiken, who was accused of being a Communist in the Red Channels pamphlet. He took out an ad in Variety denouncing Communism, and his career was back on track. Car 54 took place in the Bronx, in the fictional 53 rd Precinct, and focused on the misadventures of two cops, the Irish Francis Muldoon, played by Fred Gwynne, and the non-denominational Gunther Toody, played by Joe E. Ross. Like Ross, most of the regular supporting players were Jewish, although they were never identified as such. But the show did not shy away from ethnicity. The precinct and the neighborhood reflected the makeup of the Bronx – Jewish, Italian, Irish, Hispanic, and black. Ossie Davis and Nipsey Russell had recurring roles as police officers. And Molly Picon made three hilarious appearances as Mrs. Rachel Bronson who, in one episode teaches Toody and Muldoon the Yiddish song “Oyfn Pripetshik,” and sings it with them. 
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) Carl Reiner wrote 13 episodes of a program called Head of the Family, based on his experience as a writer on Your Show of Shows, and in 1960 starred in a pilot for CBS. The network wasn’t interested. But his agent sent the scripts to producer Sheldon Leonard, who was convinced he could sell the series to CBS providing major changes were made – namely, a new cast. With Reiner as star, the network found Head of the Family to be “too Jewish.” The show was entirely recast, and The Dick Van Dyke Show was born. Reiner became the sitcom’s producer, head writer, and star of “The Alan Brady Show” – the show within the show – so despite Van Dyke’s very midwestern appeal, The Dick Van Dyke Show never lost its Jewish sensibility. One of the co-writers of “The Alan Brady Show” was the Jewish Buddy Sorrell, played by the Jewish Morey Amsterdam, who had his long-delayed bar mitzvah in the series’ final season. Another episode is about a song Rob wrote when he was in the army called “Bupkis” – Yiddish for “nothing.” Reiner has said that the show would not have become a classic if he’d remained the star – not because he’s Jewish, but because he was nowhere near as talented as Van Dyke. Reiner was undoubtedly correct. The pilot can be seen on YouTube, and it’s dreadful.  

Star Trek (1966-1969) There’s nothing Jewish, per se, about Star Trek , except for the show’s stars, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. But if Nimoy had not been Jewish, we would not have the familiar Vulcan “live long and prosper” salute. Nimoy created the gesture for the opening episode of the second season, when Spock returns to his home planet. He felt he needed a Vulcan equivalent of a handshake, and thought back to the V-shaped gesture made by Cohanim (considered the priestly descendants of Aaron) when blessing the congregation.    

The Odd Couple (1970-1975) Oscar Madison and Felix Unger weren’t Jewish. Except they were. Oscar and Felix, as conceived by Neil Simon for the play and subsequent film that inspired the TV series (with which he was not involved), were based on two Jewish guys; the playwright’s brother Danny, and Roy Gerber, a Hollywood agent. Danny was the neat one and Roy was the slob. Simon never described either Felix or Oscar as Jewish, but the rhythms of their speech were clearly New York-Jewish; that’s how Simon wrote. When Jack Klugman (Oscar) and Tony Randall (Felix) portrayed the characters on television, their ethnicity seemed even more apparent.
Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973) Television’s first leading Jewish character since The Goldbergs was Bernie Steinberg (David Birney), a cab driver who falls in love with and marries Irish Catholic Bridget Fitzgerald (Meredith Baxter). This modern-day Abie’s Irish Rose wound up No. 5 in the ratings, but came under sustained attack by the Jewish community and became the highest rated show ever to be canceled after one season. The protests largely centered around the program’s very premise, but handled more deftly a show about intermarriage, even if controversial, might have been an interesting exploration of the challenges of marriage between a Jew and a Catholic especially at that time, when it was becoming more common. For me, what made the show so objectionable was that the Jewish characters were reduced to stereotypes and caricatures. Bridget’s family was wealthy. Her parents dressed elegantly and lived in a tastefully furnished apartment. Her brother was a very tolerant priest. Bernie was lower class. His family lived in an unprepossessing apartment above their deli, were loud, and had bad table manners. His mother was overbearing. For an industry that had shunned leading Jewish characters for so long, the show was tone-deaf. But Jewish intermarriage would quickly become a TV staple.  
Rhoda (1974-1978) Audiences were introduced to Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern in 1970 on the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Quick witted, outspoken, self-deprecating, funny, sarcastic, insecure, endearing, and self-conscious about being slightly overweight, the brash, Jewish transplant from New York and the midwestern, just-about perfect Mary Richards established one of the great television friendships. Rhoda’s Jewishness was, for the most part, handled matter-of-factly: her Jewish identity was simply part of who she was. (Her mother, Ida, played by Nancy Walker, was another story: the overbearing, guilt-inflicting stereotype that became even more exaggerated when Rhoda got her own show.) Well before the spinoff, Harper (who was not Jewish but often played Jewish roles) had slimmed down and become as glamorous as Mary. So, when the more self-assured, put-together Rhoda moved back to New York from Minneapolis for her new series, her sister, Brenda, played by Julie Kavner, became the schlumpy sidekick with low self-esteem. After a while it began to rankle; most of the Jewish characters, male and female, who popped up now and then as guests all seemed to fit certain negative stereotypes. Most famously, Rhoda married (and later divorced) a non-Jew, Joe Gerard (David Groh). Considering that Rhoda’s Jewishness was hardly explored on the show, and her interfaith marriage was never examined, there was no reason why Joe couldn’t have been Jewish. But it seems like Rhoda purposely played down the character’s ethnicity. Apparently, CBS had reservations about Rhoda’s Jewishness when she first appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that when the character got her own show, her Jewish identity would be muted. Or, to look at it more insidiously, once she became more alluring, the less she was perceived as Jewish.   

Barney Miller (1975-1982) Hal Linden said in an interview for the Archive of American Television that Danny Arnold, the show’s producer, wanted him to star in Barney Miller in order to give the character, a police captain, “a sense of Talmudic justice.” Linden asked him if that meant Barney was Jewish, and Arnold said yes. But ABC didn’t want Linden. According to Arnold, whenever the executives suggested actors for the role, they named “clean-cut [and] Aryan-looking” guys. But Arnold got his way, and gave the character the last name Miller because it was ethnically neutral. He said that Barney was never publicly identified as Jewish, but apparently there was one Christmas episode in which the character spilled the beans. Still, the fact that the show consciously tried to avoid touching on the character’s religion underscores TV’s aversion to strong, leading Jewish characters at the time, as the precinct was deliberately made up of a cross-section of ethnicities including Officer Levitt – the whiny, Jewish cop.

Taxi (1978-1983) Alex Reiger, the grownup of the garage played by Judd Hirsch, was Jewish. It was mentioned in a handful of episodes, but never a big deal. It wasn’t a cause for angst or reflection (as would be the case on numerous shows going forward). He was a guy who happened to be Jewish in the same way that Tony Danza’s Tony Banta was Italian, and Christopher Lloyd’s Jim Ignatowski was Polish. He was simply another ethnic American.

L.A. Law (1986-1994) Stuart Markowitz, played by Michael Tucker, often wore his Judaism as if it were a burden. His character courted and married the lovely Ann Kelsey (Jill Eikenberry), who was a few inches taller than he and a gentile. They may have seemed like an unlikely couple – the critic for The Washington Post expressed incredulity that Ann would be attracted to Stuart – but Tucker and Eikenberry were, and remain, married in real life. What was off-putting about Stuart is that he frequently came off as uncomfortable in his own skin. Among the other minorities on the show, Victor Sifuentes, played by Jimmy Smits, was a proud Latino, and Jonathan Rollins, played by Blair Underwood, was a proud black man. But Stuart whined and seemed to over-contemplate his Jewishness. It was a portrait of the Jew as the other, the outsider, and it was exacerbated by the anti-Semitism of his mother-in-law. Ultimately, he stands up to her with a rare display of temper. It could be argued that a) this made for good drama and b) it was important to show anti-Semitism and the character fighting back. But given the period that the show was done and the attitude toward leading Jewish characters, it was as if TV’s wariness about Jews in primetime was reflected in the scripts. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Tucker saw it differently: “Markowitz’s message is one of assimilation, which is pretty much my message. But neither does he hide from who he is, and we both become more religious than we thought we were when confronted by the other side.”
thirtysomething (1987-1991) With Ken Olin as Michael Steadman, thirtysomething was the first primetime show in history to feature a conventionally handsome leading man as a conventionally handsome Jewish leading man (and, yes, Olin is Jewish). Michael was also a very assimilated Jew, married to a gentile, but in the show’s first episode, as he is about to walk in for his wedding ceremony, he’s shown putting on a yarmulke. ABC executives were vehemently opposed to that moment. The show included several episodes that seriously examined intermarriage and what it means to be a Jew, although the navel-gazing and self-flagellation could become irritating. Olin believed, as he told the Los Angeles Times, that it made the character deeper. “The self-exploration into his commitment to Judaism is what makes him complex . . . not just the fact that he’s Jewish. He struggles with a lot of other self-doubts too, but it does seem unique and dramatic to see a leading man wearing a yarmulke . . . . Likewise, the difference in religion is just one source of conflict in our marriage but it’s one a lot of people can relate to.”  
The Wonder Years (1988-1993) In this nostalgic, coming-of-age series, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) is best friends with Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano), who is Jewish. Paul is a stereotype – he’s smart, nerdy, wears glasses (as do his parents and sister), and is allergic to everything – yet he is never a caricature. He’s a three-dimensional kid who just happens to be Jewish (as both Saviano and Savage are). One of the series’ most moving episodes concerns Paul’s bar mitzvah and Kevin’s jealousy. The show devotes a few minutes to Paul being called to the Torah and reading in Hebrew; a rare instance, to that point, of a Jewish ceremony rendered realistically on primetime TV.  
Seinfeld (1989-1998) The show may have been about nothing, but it was truly something to see a performer with an unambiguously Jewish name starring in a self-titled primetime program. Jerry Seinfeld’s ethnicity was simply one aspect of the character, and it was treated matter-of-factly. The real Jerry Seinfeld has always appeared to be comfortable in his Jewish skin, which enabled him to joke about his ethnicity on the show in ways that were sometimes wildly funny (the episodes at his parents’ retirement community in South Florida) and sometimes mean-spirited or in questionable taste (the bris and the mohel who performs it, the shmendrik rabbi). But mean-spiritedness was a characteristic of the show; the four leading characters were rather dislikeable people, and Seinfeld was an equal opportunity offender in ways that were generally hilarious. The show soared to No. 1 – proving that non-Jews were receptive to Jewish characters – and yet Seinfeld almost didn’t get on the air. Brandon Tartikoff, the Jewish president of NBC, thought the show was “too Jewish” and didn’t want to go forward with it. It was a non-Jewish executive who gave the go-ahead for a few episodes. Jason Alexander once told me in an interview that the “too Jewish” label was the reason his character was given the Italian surname Costanza. It fooled no one. 
Law & Order (1990-2010) For the first decade of the show, the district attorney was played by Steven Hill, an Orthodox Jew whose character self-identified on the show as Jewish. He was inspired by New York’s former DA, Robert Morgenthau. When Hill left the show in 2000, it was said that his character had accepted a position to work with the Holocaust Project. In case you’ve forgotten, Hill’s character was named Adam Schiff.

Northern Exposure (1990-1995) Rob Morrow played Dr. Joel Fleischman, who fulfills the terms of his student loan by practicing medicine in Alaska, where he is assigned to the very small town of Cicely. While the program was good at explaining various aspects of the religion, Fleischman was another in a line of ambivalent Jews who fall for a gentile woman. In the end, however, he grew more self-aware and left her to return to New York, where he belonged.
Brooklyn Bridge (1991-1993) This warm, insightful, funny show was the first about an intact Jewish family since The Goldbergs. Based in part on the childhood of its creator, Gary David Goldberg, the show depicted a lower middle-class family and explored what it meant to be a Jew and an American in 1950s Brooklyn. Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham in Happy Days) was extraordinary as Sophie Berger, the immigrant grandmother who lived with Grandpa Jules (Louis Zorich) downstairs from their daughter, Phyllis, son-in-law, George (Amy Aquino and Peter Friedman), and grandsons Alan and Nathaniel (Danny Gerard and Mathew Siegel). One of the storylines throughout the run of the show was the relationship between 14-year-old Alan and Irish Catholic Katie Monahan (Jenny Lewis), which was met with disapproval from both their families. Goldberg presented the perspective of Katie’s family with equal sensitivity, and one of the series’ most memorable episodes was a dinner for the families, arranged by their kids, at a Chinese restaurant. Brooklyn Bridge had the full support of CBS – despite the network’s boneheaded move of airing the first season on Friday nights, when religious Jews couldn’t watch. The program received great critical acclaim, but its ratings were awful. Even so, the praise for the show and CBS’ belief in it were so great that the network renewed it for another season. It expired after 33 episodes, but remains the most vivid depiction of Jewish family life ever seen in a television series.  

Mad About You (1992-1999) One of numerous series in which the neurotic Jewish guy (Paul Buchman played by Paul Reiser) marries the lovely gentile (Jamie Stemple Buchman, played by Helen Hunt). Amazingly, never once in 162 episodes were the differences in their backgrounds ever discussed. For two people who talked incessantly about everything, it seemed dishonest.
The Nanny (1993-1999) Oy vey! What to say about The Nanny. I admit the show often made me laugh. It also made me cringe, and sometimes made me angry. It was certainly novel to have a beautiful Jewish woman (Fran Drescher) play a lead character (Fran Fine) whose Jewishness was very much a part of her persona. Drescher is funny and likeable. But Fran Fine was also loud – in her speech and her appearance – nasal, allergic to work, uneducated, materialistic, and manipulative where Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), the non-Jewish object of her affection, was concerned. Her mother, Sylvia Fine (Renee Taylor), was louder, gaudier, uncouth, almost always inappropriate, and downright tacky. The show reached its nadir when Sylvia brought a bacon sandwich into a synagogue. On the one hand, it’s progress of some kind that not only was Fran in love with Sheffield, but that this handsome, wealthy, erudite Englishman found her equally desirable. On the other hand, the grossly exaggerated Jewish stereotypes were debasing.

Will & Grace (1998-2006/rebooted in 2017) This breakthrough show about the bff relationship between gay lawyer Will Truman (Erick McCormack) and straight interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing) depicts a Jewish woman who is smart, neurotic in a familiar New York way, and relatable. Messing told a Jewish publication a few months ago that it was important to her to make Grace real. “We were finding a source of comedy that is very specific to her. Let’s talk about her being Jewish, going to Camp Ramah, her bat mitzvah.” In many ways, the show signaled that television was changing, becoming more inclusive. “ Will & Grace became known for representing marginalized people, mainly those in the LGBTQ community. That was at the forefront of our discussions: How can we represent in a more progressive way?"

Other shows with Jewish characters in leading roles or major supporting roles include The Facts of Life (1979-1988), in which a Jewish girl and a black girl were best friends; Chicken Soup (1989), Jewish man and gentile woman; Anything But Love (1989-1992), Jewish man and gentile woman; Dharma and Greg (1997-2002), Jewish woman and gentile man; Hill Street Blues (1981-1987), Bruce Weitz as a tough detective; Cheers and Frasier (1982-2003), Lilith Sternin, who married and divorced Frasier (Bebe Neuwirth); Murphy Brown (1988-1998), featuring the neurotic producer Miles Silverberg (Grant Shaud); Picket Fences (1992-1996), Fyvush Finkel as a character that was borderline offensive; The Practice (1997-2004), attorney Eleanor Frutt (Camryn Manheim); The West Wing (1999-2006), Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) and Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff); and Friends (1994-2004), possibly Ross, possibly Monica, possibly Rachel – it’s complicated.  
Eric Coble’s Swagger, a play commissioned by PBD for its One Humanity Tour, recently completed its third annual fall tour to Palm Beach County middle schools. Sixth graders in 21 schools – a total of 8,500 students – had the opportunity to see the play, which aims to contribute to the development of informed, thoughtful, and compassionate citizens, with an emphasis on empathy. The tour has been seen by 19,600 students since it was launched in 2017.

Swagger is about an incident involving three characters: Jordan, an eighth-grade student; Daniel, a police officer; and Leela, a small business owner. Their lives intersect in a fateful scene captured on video, and Coble affords each of them the opportunity to share their perspective on what took place.  
Responses from the students illustrate the power of theatre to affect lives. ZJ from Pahokee Middle School wrote, “My favorite part was when officer Daniel was chasing Jordan. My least favorite part was when Jordan had to go to the hospital when he got a head injury. Jordan was my favorite character. Yes, the play changed my thoughts about empathy because I felt bad for Jordan.”

Kaylee at Osceola Creek Middle School said, “ Swagger was amazing. I love that it taught empathy. With Leela, Daniel, and Jordan I realized it was equally everybody’s fault. If I hadn’t learned empathy, I would have thought it was the officer’s fault. I wish you could come again. You were great.”

Gabrielle from Osceola Creek added, “I really enjoyed the show, and how you guys really showed the meaning of empathy. The meaning of empathy is to be in someone’s shoes.”
New Free Series: Drama (in the) works
Monday Evenings, Beginning January 13, 2020
PBD is excited to announce the launch of Drama(in the)works, a new series from The Dramaworkshop that offers weekly readings of evolving plays and involves the audience in the process of determining which works will be included in the 2021 New Year/New Plays Festival. Each reading will be followed by a talkback, and the audience’s feedback will be part of the assessment when Producing Artistic Director William Hayes selects the roster of plays to receive readings on PBD’s mainstage as part of the third annual Festival next season. Drama(in the)works takes place every Monday from January 13 – May 18, 2020 at 7pm in the Diane & Mark Perlberg Studio.

“PBD is committed to discovering and developing stimulating new work, and we think that involving an audience at a fairly early stage of the process can be very beneficial,” says Bruce Linser, manager of The Dramaworkshop. “Plays are meant to be spoken out loud to a roomful of people. The response from the audience, whether it’s laughter or silence or restlessness or enthusiasm, is informative. It has an impact. Without the audience, it’s tougher to determine how well a play is working. So, theatre enthusiasts will not only be helping PBD, but they’ll have a rare opportunity to participate in a show’s growth and, consequently, help us shape our 2021 Festival.”

Readings are free to the public, but seating is limited and reservations are required. Please contact the box office at 561.514.4042 ext. 2.
January 10 - 12, 2020
Participate in the excitement of bringing new work to life.
Five fascinating, evolving plays will receive readings by some of South Florida’s finest actors. The Festival provides playwrights with the invaluable opportunity to hear their words performed in front of a live audience, which is instrumental to the development and growth of a play. Audiences not only share in the excitement of seeing something brand new, but have the chance to offer feedback to the playwrights.
Executive Producers
Diane and Mark Perlberg
Penny Bank
Associate Producers
Sandra and Bernie Meyer
Catch a rising star!
A Star is Born Gala celebrates the next generation of artists
by showcasing gifted, young talent.
We’ll highlight the many PBD education initiatives that nurture creativity, inspire artistic potential, build confidence, and encourage self-expression. Please join us to learn how our robust education programs significantly impact students throughout the county, igniting their imaginations and making theatre a part of their lives.

For ticket information, please contact the box office at 561.514.4042 ext. 2.
Marilyn Meyerhoff and Sam Feldman
Honorary Chairs
Marsha and Stephen Rabb