Filmmaker finds next project in story of TV star


Award-winning documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner believes strongly in using her considerable filmmaking talent to tell the story of heroic but under-recognized Jews.

Kempner made the critically acclaimed, Peabody Award-winning The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. He was the Jewish Detroit Tigers superstar who nearly broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, but always remained loyal to his Jewish roots. She also produced the award-winning Partisans of Vilna, about Jewish Resistance against the Nazis; the film’s Yiddish soundtrack was nominated for an Emmy Award. And now Kempner has a major work in progress, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, about Gertrude Berg, described as “America’s favorite radio and early television personality.”

Kempner was in St. Louis last week to talk about her latest project at a gathering at Central Reform Congregation. The event, which was attended by 75 people, was organized by St. Louisan Karen Kalish who became friends with Kempner when she lived in Washington, D.C., where Kempner resides.

“My good friend…is sharing her work in progress, which just won best short audience prize at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival. It chronicles the life of Gertrude Berg,” Kalish said in introductory remarks. “Aviva has made an enormous commitment to preserving and chronicling our cultural past through her filmmaking.” Kalish noted that Kempner founded the Jewish Film Festival in Washington, D.C.

In Kempner’s presentation, which included selected film clips for Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, she said the film is intended to be “a humorous and eye-opening documentary of television pioneer Gertrude Berg.” Berg was the creator, principal writer and star (as Molly Goldberg) of The Goldbergs, a popular radio show for 17 years, which became television’s first character-driven sitcom in 1949. Kempner added that Berg received the first Best Actress Emmy in history “and paved the way for women in the entertainment industry.”

Along with vintage film clips from the TV version of The Goldbergs, Kempner’s interviews include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who describes herself as a fan of the show, actor Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant), producers Norman Lear (All in the Family), Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties) and NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg.

In the interview with Lear, he recalls that as a child he had listened to the pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin, and had become frightened. But listening to the radio version of The Goldbergs, which was about a Jewish Brooklyn immigrant family living with apparent security in the United States, his fears were calmed.

“Gertrude Berg became a cultural icon against the backdrop of the 20th century’s most difficult years for American Jews,” Kempner said. Berg’s radio show, The Goldbergs, which she created, wrote and starred in, premiered a week after the stock market crash of 1929. The show rose in popularity at the same time Hitler rose to power in Germany.”

Kempner noted that Berg “weathered yet another minefield of American history, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist, which had a devastating effect on the entertainment industry in general and her show in particular.” Many in the audience who fondly recalled The Goldbergs from their childhood, were shocked to learn that Philip Loeb, who portrayed Berg’s on-screen husband Jake Goldberg in the show, had been blacklisted because he was an Actors Equity union organizer. Even though Loeb was not a member of the Communist Party, his leftist leanings were enough to cause the show to reach a settlement with the actor, despite Berg’s strong efforts to keep him in the show. Later, Loeb would commit suicide at the Taft Hotel in New York City.

Kempner’s filmmaking style is marked with her use of scenes from “classic movies along with archival footage to tell a story.” Included in Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg are scenes from the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant and Al Jolson’s version of The Jazz Singer. There are also wonderful scenes from the television version of The World of Sholom Aleichem as well as other sitcoms inspired by Berg.

Kempner pointed out that on annual lists of the Most Admired Women in America, Gertrude Berg for years was second only to Eleanor Roosevelt, and in terms of annual income, she was actually ahead of the former First Lady.

Following the closing of the TV version of The Goldbergs in 1956, Berg enjoyed a successful acting career on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for her role opposite Sir Cedrick Hardwick in A Majority of One. She also continued to make numerous guest appearances on TV shows and various charitable and public events. She died in 1966.

Kempner said Berg’s family had cooperated fully with the film project, and had given her access to the full inventory of family photographs, memorabilia and other archival materials.

Kempner recently learned that she will be the recipient of the Freedom of Expression Award, given by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the largest and oldest Jewish Film Festival in America. The award recognizes the contributions her films have made in creating positive images of Jewish heroes.