Gertrude Berg may be the most interesting, complex, prolific and culturally significant American woman most people have never heard of.
A broadcast pioneer, Berg was a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated business. The creator and star of The Goldbergs, a hit radio show that debuted in 1929, Berg made a triumphant transition to the new medium of television, turning her program into the first character-driven sitcom in 1949. She was the first woman in broadcasting to sign a million-dollar contract with a sponsor.
In the role of sweet-tempered Molly Goldberg, she celebrated the Jewish experience, winning millions of gentile fans at a time when discrimination was commonplace. She parlayed her character into a media empire of short stories, advice columns, stage plays, a feature film and even a cookbook. She won an Emmy and a Tony award. She was Oprah, Lucille Ball and Martha Stewart rolled into one plump package. Yet today she’s unknown to most folks below retirement age.
Aviva Kempner’s documentary Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is a delightful introduction to Berg, who began writing and performing skits at her father’s resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains, then studied drama at Columbia University.
When her program debuted on NBC radio, no one could have imagined that her sentimental vision of lower-class assimilation would have a 20-year run. The elder Goldbergs all spoke with rich Yiddish accents, while the children sounded like the offspring of Ozzie and Harriet. Integration into mainstream American culture was a continual theme.
At the height of her fame, Berg was the second most admired woman in the United States after Eleanor Roosevelt. She was popular enough to stare down sponsors who wanted her to dump costar Philip Loeb, named as a communist during the Red Scare years. She stood up for her convictions at personal cost, however, as sponsors deserted the show. The Goldbergs began to lose steam, and an ill-advised relocation of the family to a white-bread suburb in the 1950 season was its death knell.
Kempner’s even-handed film celebrates Berg’s achievements, but acknowledges her foibles. Berg was not really jovial Molly Goldberg. She never lived on the Lower East Side and had to learn her character’s shtetl accent. On her broadcasts she was a peacemaker, bringing people together. In her professional dealings, she could be a bully.
But as onscreen commenters Ed Asner, Norman Lear and Ruth Bader Ginsberg note, she was a phenomenon, and one we should all be aware of.
With: Gertrude Berg, Lewis Berg, Ed Asner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Norman Lear
Director-producer: Aviva Kempner
An International Film Circuit release. No objectionable material.
Running time: 92 minutes. In Miami-Dade: Sunset Place, Intercoastal; in Broward: Sunrise; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.