Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009) — Interview with filmmaker Aviva Kempner
Written, Produced and Directed by Aviva Kempner
Run Time: 92 minutes
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is Aviva Kempner’s wonderfully engrossing documentary about the life of television pioneer Gertrude Berg, the creator, principal writer and star of The Goldbergs. Starting in 1929, it was an immensely popular radio show, and in 1949, The Goldbergs became television’s very first character-driven domestic sitcom.
Not only that, Gertrude Berg received the first “Best Actress” Emmy Award; she was polled the second most respected woman in the U.S., after Eleanor Roosevelt. Paving the way for women in the entertainment industry, Berg was the Lucille Ball and Oprah of her day. Berg wrote a best-selling cookbook and advice column and had her own clothing line. She was the first to use product placements in a television show.
The subtitle of the film, “The Most Famous Woman in America You’ve Never Heard Of” seemed slightly off to me at first, because when I was young kid in New York in the 1950s, Gertrude Berg was a household name. Everyone I knew who owned a TV never missed an episode of The Goldbergs.
Interestingly, at that time I didn’t question the fact that an American TV audience would enjoy watching the stories and struggles of a Jewish immigrant family and their neighbors in a Bronx apartment house. In a larger sense, of course, that wasn’t what The Goldbergs was about.
The Goldbergs was about family values, family struggles, social commentary, and humor. The stories centered on real, believable events and situations, with Molly Goldberg as the personification of the wise and caring Jewish mother, whose warmth and guidance solved all problems.
Unfortunately, Berg’s parents were the antithesis of Molly and Jake Goldberg. Gertrude’s older brother had died when Berg was very young. Her mother never adjusted to his loss. Subsequent to becoming acutely over-protective of her daughter, she was institutionalized. After that, Berg could not visit her mother; she never saw her again. Thus, as Kempner pointed out, Berg set out to create the warm loving mother figure that she had been denied in life.
Gertrude Berg’s father owned and operated a resort in the Catskills, called Fleischmanns. Gertrude’s first taste of show business was writing and staging skits to amuse the guests. Many skits were about a fictional family, later named the Goldbergs.
When The Goldbergs premiered on radio eighty years ago, Gertrude Berg was the writer and creator; she filled in for the role of Molly until another actor could be found. She was so loved in the role however, that when she was out for a week, the public demanded her return. And so, Berg became an actor as well as a writer. By the end of her career, she had written 12,000 scripts.
Unlike her character Molly, Gertrude Berg was not an uneducated immigrant who spoke Yiddish – accented English replete with malapropisms. Berg lived on Park Avenue, was happily married, according to Kemper, dressed elegantly and was politically active, especially when McCarthyism swept across America.
In 1950, The House on UnAmerican Activities published Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television. Gertrude’s costar, the popular Philip Loeb (husband, Jake Goldberg), was on the blacklist, because he was a committed union organizer for actors’ rights.
The sponsors pulled their support for the show. Gertrude was faced with a dilemma: find new sponsorship or fire Loeb. In answer to my question, Aviva Kempner said that Berg’s impetus was more to save the actor with whom she had a great friendship and strong stage chemistry, than to fight the unfairness of McCarthyism. Yet Berg took a strong stand, long refusing to fire Loeb. When her efforts proved fruitless, a distraught Berg settled with Loeb, who left the show in January 1952.
In 1955, unable to work and to support his schizophrenic son, Loeb committed suicide. His tragic death was memorialized by Loeb’s good friend Zero Mostel in Martin Ritt’s film, The Front (1976).
Although Gertrude’s reputation was hurt simply by being associated with Philip Loeb, The Goldbergs continued for several years, but it had lost its spark. Gertrude Berg’s career continued, however, on stage and television.
Filmmaker Aviva Kempner has given us a fascinating and well-documented account of Gertrude Berg’s life. Kempner explained that her goal is to make films that celebrate genius and present a positive Jewish (and in this case, female) image. She wants to make documentaries about less well-known Jewish heroes who counter negative stereotypes. In The Goldbergs, Kempner has achieved her goal. She was just awarded the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Award.
Kempner has made The Goldbergs, informative, entertaining, poignant, and for me, nostalgic. A piece of history has been saved.
Included in the film are interviews with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Ed Asner, producers Norman Lear (All in the Family) and Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties), and NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg, among others. Film footage includes short clips from much loved motion pictures, such as The Marx Brother’s The Cocoanuts, Martin Ritt’s The Front, Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant, as well as evocative footage from the Depression, World War II, and the Lower East Side.
©Emily S. Mendel 2009 All Rights Reserved
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