Gertrude Berg: the most famous woman in America that no one knew. Documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner has taken on a true labor love in telling the remarkable story of a first generation Jewish woman who pioneered not one but two fledgling entertainment industries – radio and television – but no one remembers her, until now, in “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”
Berg, nee Tilly Edelstein, burst onto the early radio scene when she was hired, with no broadcast experience, to create a new kind of program that aired at the start of the Great Depression, “The Rise of the Goldbergs.” The program, about a working-class Jewish family in New York, was an instant hit. Gertrude agreed to take the role of Molly Goldberg until a suitable replacement was found, planning to only work behind the microphone after that. Not long into the show’s run, Berg fell ill and a stand-in took her place, resulting in hundreds of thousands of letters and phone calls complaining of the new star’s absence. From then on, the character of a kindhearted, benevolent and passionate Jewish mother was hers.
“The Goldbergs,” as the show came to be called, ran for 26 years in its various forms from radio to television to, even, feature film. The program influenced not only the broadcast industry but also America herself at a time when the world was struggling with the financial and social ruin created by the Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reported to say, “It wasn’t I who got us out of the Depression, it was ‘The Goldbergs.’”
After 17 years at the top of the radio biz, Gertrude Berg decided to bring her fictional family to the small screen. “The Goldberg’s” became the very first TV sitcom to air and it had a huge influence on such legendary programs as “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy.” Berg was the first recipient, ever, of an Emmy for Best Actress and she fought the witch hunting Hollywood Blacklist after her show appeared on the list. To any eye, Gertrude Berg was a remarkable, intelligent and talented person deserving all of the praise she so deserves.
Aviva Kempner, who made a distinguished splash with her “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” about the first Jewish professional baseball superstar, ups the ante with an incredibly detailed and constructed documentary work. The auteur has taken a diverse amount of material – old recordings of the original programs on radio and TV, an interview by Edward R. Morrow, talking head commentary, an excerpt from a cookie dough commercial broadcast in Yiddish and much more – and molded it into a never boring experience that is fascinating and entertaining from beginning to end.
Anyone who considers themselves an aficionado of radio and early television will be turned on their ear by this remarkable story of a woman who helped build the media industry from the beginning. That Gertrude Berg does not hold a prominent place in American TV history is a shame. I hope Kempner’s fine examination of the unknown celebrity corrects that. I give it an A.
Although Aviva Kempner breaks no new ground in the documentary format, his traditionally constructed work features an astonishing subject and Kempner leaves no stone unturned in giving layers of dimension to Gertrude Berg, who could almost be described as the Eisenstein of sitcom television production. A truly amazing woman broke incredible ground and the fact that she will be a new discovery for many marks "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" as one of the best documentaries of the year in a year crowded with them. The film is highly entertaining too. How could it not be when it features a Jewish woman who left a successful and important post in the family restort business at the age of *fifteen* to strike out on her own, got her first job shilling Christmas cookies in Yiddish and eventually remade the image of the Jewish mother for modern times. A
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