She wrote, produced and starred in her own television situation comedy. She won the first Emmy for Best Actress in a comedy series. She was one of early TV’s pioneers, a feminist before feminism became fashionable or was even a word.
And her name was not Lucille Ball.
In fact, her name was Gertrude Berg. Doesn’t ring a bell? We’re not surprised.
Despite all of her amazing efforts in television and, earlier, radio, Gertrude Berg has remained a lost woman, unknown to generations of TV watchers.
But if Aviva Kempner has anything to do with it, this will change. Kempner is the writer and director of the new documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, an absorbing and entertaining survey of Berg’s astonishing career that is getting into theaters just now.
As the producer of 1986’s acclaimed Partisans of Vilna, about the partisan movement in Lithuania during World War II, and as writer/director/producer of 1998’s wonderful The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, Kempner is no stranger to Jewish-related subjects that cry for—and deserve—further examination, and take a long time and great expense to examine fully.
For example, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg took six years to make and cost around $1 million. Three-quarters of Kempner’s funding was directed to licensing the multitude of film clips used. The financing came through her non-profit Ciesla Foundation, but she claims that, like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire, “I depend on the kindness of strangers,” and admits she’s $150,000 in the hole for the film clips utilized in Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.
The film chronicles the tale of Berg, formerly Tilly Edelstein, a talented, independent ball of energy who learned about theater at a Catskills resort owned by her father, and then developed a 15-minute radio program called The Rise of the Goldbergs which began on NBC in 1929. In a period of two years, her salary went from $75 a week to $2000 as the show’s popularity rose.
A look at the travails of a lower-middle-class Jewish family living in a Bronx tenement, The Rise of the Goldbergs mixed comedy and soap opera and featured Berg as Molly, the zaftig matriarch, sweet and meddlesome in equal doses, but whose strong will and smarts prevailed at the end of each episode. The show was not afraid to take on important subjects, either. During World War II, it tackled Nazism and Kristalnacht, as well as Jewish assimilation into the U.S.
Eventually, Berg led the Goldbergs to Broadway (1948’s Me and Molly) and to the big screen with a Paramount Studios movie (1950’s The Goldbergs, a/k/a Molly). There were was a comic strip and a clothing line, too. But it was during the 1949-1954 TV run of The Goldbergs that Berg became a nationally beloved figure. The recipient of incredible amounts of fan mail and a hefty salary, memorably interviewed by Edward R. Murrow, and all the while owning her series like Lucy and Desi.
But what relevance does this have to contemporary TV viewers, or anyone, for that matter?
“To the female audiences, they can see what a determined woman can do if you have talent and vision, even though it s still a man’s world of entertainment,” says the Washington, D.C.-based Kempner. “She showed incredible tenacity and drive, and was an incredible role model. The only person I can think of today who can do all of this is Tina Fey.”
Still, there are ideas conceived by Berg—who, at one time, was second only to Eleanor Roosevelt as the most popular woman in America—that Kempner thinks will be hard to equal, or even come close to. “Can you imagine writing 12,000 scripts?” asks Kempner, referring to the amount of radio and television shows Berg penned. “She would write from 6 to 9 in the morning, then go to the studio and make the show.”
But Kempner, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who says her parents have inspired her work, insists Gertrude Berg is also responsible for other impressive feats—of entertainment, social and political variety.
“She created the first domestic setting in an apartment building,” Kempner relates. “This is an idea that has worked throughout the decades—Think about it: Lucy, Friends, Seinfeld, The Honeymooners.”
Even more important, Kempner says, during the era of backlash against Jews and the rise of Nazism, The Goldbergs brought Jewish characters into the living rooms of America—and a popular Jewish female role model to boot.
According to Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, however, not everyone agrees that the show offered positive images of Jewish characters. In the documentary, actor Ed Asner offers a different opinion, recounting how the show made it difficult growing up Jewish in Kansas City, Kansas and interfered with his family “blending” with others in the neighborhood.
“I know Ed very well,” says Kempner. “That’s his take on it, by way of growing up in the Midwest, but I also know he’s a curmudgeon. People flocked to the movie Up earlier in the year where he played a curmudgeon. So, I told him let’s hope they come to my film, where he’s a curmudgeon, too.”
One of the most telling moments in Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg comes when TV series co-star Philip Loeb, who played family patriarch Jake Goldberg, was named as a Communist in 1951 during the McCarthy-era witch hunts. Berg fought long and hard to keep him on TV, but he ultimately resigned to save the show. Berg rewarded him with a healthy severance for his contributions, but the depressed Loeb took his own life four years later. As Kempner reveals in her film, the doomed character Zero Mostel played in Woody Allen’s 1976 blacklist dramedy The Front is based on Loeb. Further, Mostel, himself blacklisted during the era, once housed Loeb during hard times.
After the run of The Goldbergs ended, the documentary shows that Berg went on to win a Tony Award in 1959 for A Majority of One, but her subsequent bid to return to series TV, 1961’s The Gertrude Berg Show, a/k/a Mrs. G Goes to College, didn’t click. While she thereafter retired until passing away at age 67 in 1966, Gertrude Berg’s legacy was cemented, at least for earlier generations. And if Aviva Kempner has her way, younger people will now know of her efforts as well.
“She was an amazing woman,” Kempner says. “Lucille Ball was a physical comedian, while Gertrude Berg was more dialogue-oriented. This may have something to do with Lucy’s popularity, along with syndication. But before everyone else, Gertrude Berg had a media empire.”
Ten episodes of The Goldbergs are available on a two-disc DVD set.