The Early Days of Television

The cover of When Women Invented Television is set against a yellow background with black and white pictures of Betty White, Hazel Scott, Irna Phillips, and Gertrude Berg.

By Peter N.

Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg! 

In Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s When Women Invented Television, she talks about the early days of television and the rise of popular TV programs that defined what America was watching for decades to come. But four women in particular were TV powerhouses who foretold the coming of modern-day television personalities we have come to love, such as Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah, and sitcoms such as The Golden Girls. They were among the first of television’s pioneers during the transition from radio to television as America’s most popular medium of entertainment. 

There once was a woman by the name of Gertrude Berg, and what a woman she was! She was the creator behind the much-lauded radio show The Rise of the Goldbergs, an NBC radio show showcasing the lives of a Jewish family living in the Bronx and cared for by their matriarch Molly Goldberg, as played by Gertrude Berg. After years of high ratings on radio, she worked tirelessly to bring her show to a fledgling new medium called television, and when she succeeded there was no stopping her. At its peak, The Goldbergs was dominating the airwaves, and much if not all the credit goes to the woman behind it all, Molly Goldberg…I mean, Gertrude Berg. She was creator, writer, and star behind her hit show and nothing could stop her. What she accomplished in a time when patriarchal views and traditional family values were taking hold is nothing short of astounding.  

It’s Time to Say Hello Again… 

Ah, Betty White. What can I say about Betty White that hasn’t already been said countless times? Sadly, at the time of this post, she will have gone to that great TV studio in the sky to join her husband, Allen Ludden. Betty White was made for television. From her early days on KLAC hosting with Al Jarvis for 5.5 hours a day, to being the main lead on the sitcom Life with Elizabeth, to hosting her own talk show, The Betty White Show, she was unstoppable. Her infectious smile, dimples, and radiant personality won over countless millions, and at one time she was having to turn jobs away because she was working too much! She loved to work and one could say that show business was the love of her life. She fought against prejudice against her during the early days of television as a single woman not trying to settle down and have a family. Through it all, she would continue to be invited into the living rooms of her legion of fans for years to come.  

The Guiding Light 

Irna Phillips was the guiding (pun intended) force behind The Guiding Light, the longest running soap opera on television. Its earliest incarnation was as a popular radio show, which is why Irna Phillips knew that it would be just what television needed. Working tirelessly for years along with raising two adopted children and doing the best that she could possibly do, she finally was able to bring her show to TV. She was not only a single mother of two children when it was believed families should have a mother and a father, but with the success of The Guiding Light, she became the figurative mother of the soap opera genre in a time when that genre was still very much maligned. Her works have reverberated through daytime television through her own shows as well as mentoring Agnes Dixon, creator of many other long-running soap operas. This was a woman who tried not to let anything stand in the way of bringing her creation to life. 

The Hazel Scott Show 

In a time when racial segregation was still running rampant, Hazel Scott managed to become one of the first African American people to headline their own show on network television. Already an accomplished musician and used to playing to large crowds, she brought her talent to The Hazel Scott Show to great reception and ratings. Her television career was cut short when she was targeted by the infamous publication Red Channels, which listed suspected communists in various areas of entertainment. She bravely defended herself, but she could not recover her TV career. However, she persevered and returned to her roots as a musician and touring. Her TV stint was brief but powerful all the same.  

These four women were astonishing and it was a pleasure to read about their accomplishments, their legacy, and the effects they’ve had on popular culture. One can only imagine what they could have done had they not been impeded by the politics of their era.

When Women Invented Television is available in print and as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby.  

Peter is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and is continually grateful to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz not only for pioneering methods of television production that enabled generations to experience the brilliance of early television, but also for taking the chance on a small sci-fi show that still endures 50 years later.  

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