Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg tells the remarkable story of a woman mostly unknown to television audiences today. Predating I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, The Goldbergs was the first sitcom and amazingly enough for its time, it was written and produced by a woman – not to mention, she also served as the star of the show.
Gertrude Berg played Molly Goldberg from her radio program to her television debut and along the way, she also managed to write over 12,000 scripts of the series and star in a movie adaptation. That Berg or her counterpart, Molly, are not as revered or celebrated as Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, and other stars of television’s early days is astonishing.Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg seeks to remedy this glaring omission and does a fine job of highlighting such a groundbreaking figure.
As a child, Berg helped out in her father’s Catskills hotel and during rainy days, she wrote skits and plays for the other children staying in the hotel to act out. Her early interest in writing and acting would be one unsupported by her family – whose tragic story served as a huge influence in Berg’s life. Fortunately, Berg’s husband Lewis encouraged her talent and urged her toward the opportunities to do what she loved.
One month after the 1929 stock market crash, Berg’s radio show The Rise of the Goldbergs premiered. Berg’s popularity was instant. Though she was sure she would be replaced by a more experienced actress, the network received over 100,000 letters and phone calls in support of Berg when she was too sick to perform for an episode, and from then on she was inextricably linked to Molly for the rest of her life.
One of the most astounding things about The Goldbergs is not only its trailblazing female lead, but also its portrayal of a middle class Jewish family. While Molly did have a slight accent and was prone to malapropisms, Berg reinvented the old world mother figure as a more modern and recognizable version for her times. She was not the self-sacrificing, sentimental, tragic figure viewers were more familiar with; rather she was funny, gregarious, and warm. There was no mistaking that Molly was a devoted mother and wife, but she also had a life outside of them and a personality that drew others in. The Goldbergs frequently interacted with neighbors and visitors, expanding their world and in many ways, extending their own family.
Berg’s commitment to her characters and the stories she wanted to tell was uncompromising. She insisted on hiring Yiddish actors and in 1933, as the Nazi movement was gaining momentum in Europe, she had a rabbi perform a Passover ceremony on the radio. She wanted to share the experiences and the people that she was most familiar and comfortable with and she was resolute in her desire for authenticity. She said: “When you create a character, it’s a little bit of everybody you’ve ever known, I think.” Clearly, Berg was an observant and canny enough writer to bring in all these elements from her own life and make them relatable to a larger American audience.
Unfortunately, The Goldbergs came under attack by the anti-Communist sentiments that were sweeping the country at the time and actor Phillip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband Jacob Goldberg, was accused of being a Communist. Berg was also named as a Communist sympathizer because of her support for Loeb. The saga of this investigation into Loeb and the show would go on to hurt the actors and the series beyond repair. It’s a sad piece of what is mostly a story of success and triumph, particularly as the accusations were unfounded and more about Loeb’s fight for actor’s rights.
Gertrude Berg’s popularity extended as far as her own comic strips, puzzles, and a line of housedresses, among other products. She created, in essence, a media empire. As NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg says, “She was the Oprah of her day” and in being so, her influence stretched far and wide. The Goldbergs served as a family that other families could relate to and in the midst of a depression and a war, they were a significant voice. The show emphasized the importance of love and relationships and the effect of that perspective was felt by countless listeners and viewers.
In the end, Berg’s Molly – whom she played for over 20 years – opened a window into a family that may have been unfamiliar to many, but was still identifiable. The Rise of the Goldbergs and The Goldbergs were milestones in radio and television and director Aviva Kempner has assembled a varied group of family members, actors, and media experts to emphasize just how revolutionary Berg was. There is no doubt that she was a pioneering figure and one who deserves a great deal of credit for her astonishing work ethic and true commitment to breaking stereotypical representations of minorities.
One of the more interesting moments in the documentary comes near the end when Chris Milanos Downey discusses how as someone from a Greek background, she felt such an affinity with the Goldbergs. The shared experiences of ethnic groups and minorities certainly functioned as a key to the series’ success. Perhaps one of Berg’s smartest moves was in the casting of the actors who played her children. They were typical American teenagers and the dynamic between generations was especially identifiable.
The DVD comes with over two hours of special features including commentary with Kempner; episodes of The Goldbergs; Berg’s appearances on Edward R. Murrow and Ed Sullivan; and deleted scenes and interviews. These extras offer a host of supplemental material that serve to emphasize just how innovative a figure Berg was. The interview segments are of particular interest as they offer a wonderful contrast between Molly and Berg, a much more worldly and sophisticated figure.