Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
When I was growing up in Mt. Vernon my parents would rarely come into the city just to see a movie. Going into the city was for theatre, museums, the Lower East Side and Katz’s. Movies could always be seen in the suburbs. So I was very curious recently when my mother announced that she would be coming into the city on Friday July 10 for the opening day of a documentary about someone named Molly Goldberg. It turns out Molly Goldberg was not even a real person but a character that my mother grew up listening to on the radio. I decided to tag along.
We live in a 500 channels plus, satellite, “Twittered,” “Face Booked,” “cell-phoned,” up-to-the-second, super-connected world. From this perspective it is hard to imagine that there was once a time when a chubby, motherly, Jewish woman, with a Yiddish accent, living with her family in a Bronx apartment, became the first sit-com star. Her creator, Gertrude Berg, was the Oprah Winfrey of her day, with a popularity and wealth rivaling that of Eleanor Roosevelt. The new documentary “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” by director Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times Of Hank Greenburg,”1998) is an engrossing, comprehensive, educational and thoroughly enjoyable portrait of Berg and her radio sit-com that became a TV sit-com and a national sensation that cut across ethnic boundaries, “The Rise of the Goldbergs.”
“The Rise of the Goldbergs” made its radio debut in 1929, on NBC, one week after the stock market crash, Black Tuesday. In a “wasp” world “The Rise of the Goldbergs” introduced America to an immigrant family in the Bronx with Molly Goldberg (played by Berg) at its center. The show was an immediate success. At a time when national unemployment was at 25% Molly Goldberg brought comfort to people by showing them that they could live on very little. For European Jews coming out of the Holocaust without families the “Goldbergs” was a surrogate family. Even FDR is quoted as saying “I’m not the one who got us out of the Depression, the Goldbergs did.”
In an astonishing feat Berg wrote over 12,000 “Goldbergs” scripts. In a typical day she would perform in two broadcasts (one for each coast) and then write the next day’s script. Her material came from observing people on the Lower East Side and from summers spent managing a Catskills hotel.
“Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” features a collection of disparate, interesting interviewees that include former “Goldbergs” cast members, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Berg’s relatives, TV producer Norman Lear, actor Ed Asner, NPR’s Susan Stamberg, “Goldbergs” fans and many others. In a smart editorial move Kempner supplements the interviews and narration with generous amounts of B roll footage: clips from the TV show, sound bites from the radio show, clips from sit-coms influenced by the “Goldbergs,” (which include “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners” and “Seinfeld”) movie clips and newsreel footage. The clips and sound bites illustrate the points being discussed while not detracting from those being interviewed and keep the documentary from becoming a collection of “talking heads.” The result is a fast paced, fascinating portrait of a nearly forgotten woman, way ahead of her time, who captured a nation’s imagination while achieving astounding success writing and acting in radio, TV and theatre, not to mention having her own line of dresses!
“Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is now playing at the Quad and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
“Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” director Aviva Kempner, 2009,
International Film Circuit, 92 minutes, not rated