Documentary chronicles life of TV pioneer

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is a delightful film about TV pioneer Gertrude Berg, an elegant, affluent New Yorker who wrote and starred in the first family sitcom, The Goldbergs, about a working-class Jewish family in the Bronx. The documentary is lively and entertaining, and a great introduction to a groundbreaking talent who deserves to be remembered.

The film is directed by Aviva Kempner, whose award winning work includes The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. As we learn in this film, Gertrude Berg was called “the first lady of television” before Lucille Ball and was the “Oprah” of her day. Still, when one of the interview subjects in this documentary took the idea of doing a film on Berg’s life to executives at CBS, the network that ran her popular TV show, those executives did not know who she was. This documentary should help remedy that sad, unjust situation.

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Through interviews with notables such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and actor Ed Asner, as well as family, friends and co-workers, we get to know Berg and her creation, the Goldbergs. The name was derived from Berg’s married name and her mother’s maiden name. The documentary uses the tagline that started the story rolling at the beginning of every episode, when one of Bronx housewife Molly Goldberg’s neighbors would lean out her window to gossip or chat with Molly.

Berg herself was a well-to-do New Yorker with a taste for clothes and fine furniture, who married a chemical engineer that invented instant coffee. Her characters were inspired by families she saw in the neighborhoods of New York as well as by her parents’ immigrant experiences.

The film uses footage from the TV show, with Berg in her role as lovable Molly Goldberg, as well as from Berg’s TV interview by the legendary Edward R. Murrow. It also skillfully mixes in movie clips from Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and The Jazz Singer, as well as archival historical footage.

The documentary tells the tale of not only Berg the person and her much-beloved radio and TV show, but of the changing times. The radio version of the show debuted around the time of the 1929 stock market crash, which ended the freewheeling times of the Roaring Twenties and ushered in the Great Depression. The wildly popular radio show about a working class Jewish family was a hit throughout the 1930s, even as the Nazis rose to power in Europe and anti-Semitic elements arose in the U.S.

The show leaped to TV as the new medium was born. But as the nation changed in the post-war years, with the Red Scare and move to suburbia, things changed for the Goldbergs and Berg as well.

Although the show’s sunny family life and comedy proved immediately popular with TV audiences, Berg’s progressive views and commitment to authenticity were also an important aspect of her show. As the film shows us, Berg re-shaped the image of the Jewish mother from a long-suffering, babushka-wearing figure from the Old Country to a warm-hearted but modern American. The show combined humor with social message, an Americana theme and proud presentation of Jewish life.

The film explores Berg’s own family story as well. Born Tilly Edelstein in New York City in 1898, Berg grew up with immigrant parents from “The Old Country,” though what country that was was not entirely clear to her.

All in all, this thoroughly enjoyable and informative film is a must-see for anyone interested in history or pop culture, as well as the story of a unique, immensely talented woman whose name and work we should all know.

Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg opens Friday, August 28, at Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

‘Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg’

Not rated

Running time: 1:32

Opens: Friday, Aug. 28