Gertrude Berg, aka Molly Goldberg, wrote more than 12,000 scripts during her career.
Photos courtesy mollygoldbergfilm.org
July 2, 2009
Before there was Lucille Ball, before there was Oprah, Gertrude Berg was the foremost female media personality in America.
You might be more familiar with her character’s name: Molly Goldberg.
From the beginnings of the Great Depression to the dark days of the communist witch hunts, Berg brought an unlikely family to the airwaves to entertain the country.
Writer/producer/director Aviva Kempner — whose documentary on Hank Greenberg, baseball’s first Jewish superstar, received great acclaim — has done it again with Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.
Kempner tells the story in the now-standard Burnsian manner, mixing still photos with archival footage (and sometimes odd and unnecessary choices in background sound, as when she inserts sound effects into silent film footage).The interviews with those who knew Berg well — including family members (perhaps too many), friends, actors who appeared on the show, and a few surprise speakers — are universally adoring.
Gertrude Berg, nee Edelstein, was bitten by the show biz bug at an early age, predicting that her name would appear on theater marquees some day. When her father bought a hotel in the Catskills, Berg began to develop her skills as a writer, creating skits to entertain the guests during rainy days. Even after marriage and the birth of her children, she wasn’t satisfied with being a housewife; she wanted to create a name for herself.
Her radio debut came in a Yiddish-language commercial for — of all things — Christmas cookies. Her original pitch for a Goldberg vehicle was not well received, but she persisted. The program, originally titled The Rise of the Goldbergs, debuted on the radio just one week after the stock market crash in 1929. Berg provided the voice for Molly, intending to do so only until another actress could be cast in the role. But after she missed a show because of a sore throat, adoring listeners chimed in clamoring for her return.
In an apocryphal story, President Franklin Roosevelt credited the program, which aired as 15-minute shows five days a week, for saving the country during the Depression.
The Goldbergs was the most popular radio and television show of its day, paving the way for the sitcoms that would follow.
The Goldbergs transcended race and religion. For many listeners, it was their introduction to life in a Jewish household. The themes were generally lighthearted, but Berg, who won an Emmy in 1950 for best actress, was not afraid to mix in some dramatic messages, such as the fight against tyranny prompted by the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. When the show moved to television in 1949, one story line dealt with a letter from family members who remained in Europe and had not been heard from since the Holocaust.
Despite the show’s popularity — there was no short supply of Goldberg memorabilia — not everything was storybook-like. Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, Jake, was a prominent force in Actors Equity and became the target of the House Un-American Activities Committee for having communist sympathies. One of the program sponsors demanded he be fired, but Berg refused, threatening instead to have her viewers boycott their products if they didn’t back down, which they did briefly. Nevertheless, CBS canceled the show. (A few years later, Loeb, unable to find work and with mounting financial and family problems, committed suicide.)
By the time Berg relented, The Goldbergs’ time slot was filled by I Love Lucy. It found a home on NBC, with the role of Jake played successively by two actors, but the show jumped the shark in its final season (1955) by moving to the suburbs. Ironically, realizing the American dream didn’t do much for the audience and The Goldbergs was canceled, for good this time.
Berg had difficulty finding work on television: She had been blacklisted for her association with Loeb. She finally found a plum role on the stage, winning a Tony Award for her performance in A Majority of One. And while she made several guest appearances on some of the popular variety shows of the day, a new show of her own was slow in coming. She finally got it in Mrs. G. Goes to College, in which she played a middle-aged matron returning to school; it lasted one season.
The film jumps from Mrs. G to Berg’s death six years later. It’s a jarring transition, as if the producers ran out of time, money, or both and had to wrap up the project.
Nevertheless, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is a fitting tribute to one of the legends not just of Jewish entertainment, but entertainment in general.
The film will be screened at the Clairidge Theater in Montclair beginning July 24. For more information, visit mollygoldbergfilm.org.