You’d think in our media-savvy, information overload society that a story like this would be rote. We’d all know the legend of Tillie Edlestein, her years of struggle helping with her immigrant Jewish father’s Catskills hotel, her eventual leap into the limelight as creator, writer, and star of one of radio’s biggest hits, and the reasons why the Red Scare almost ruined her career. We’d acknowledge the fact that she was the first ever winner of an Emmy for Best Actress in a comedy, would recognize her place as the “inventor” of the situation comedy, and champion her ability to make highly ethnic issues mainstream, especially in a time of rampant Anti-Semitism. We also question her continuing mythos even today.
Yet ask your average media buff about Gertrude Berg (Tillie’s stage name), the various incarnations of her Goldberg’s persona and program (radio, TV, and film), and her nearly five decades of superstardom, and they will stare at you dumbfounded, wondering why you’re making this all up. Yet as part of the remarkable documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, director Aviva Kempner hopes to change all that. As the marketing tagline says, Berg was “the most famous person in America you’ve never heard of”, and this smart, sentimental film wants to alter that perception once and for all.
Part of the problem with Berg’s lingering legacy is that she made her name in that now dead artform known as serial radio. Five days a week, 15 minutes each day, the diva-dynamo created a homey comedy sketch of life in the marginally middle class neighborhoods of New York. Her characters were decidedly Jewish, but her stories focused less on religion and more on the pure family dynamics of the time. She had a wonderful ear for dialogue, even if some critics complained that she was making fun of, not having fun with, the very people she was championing and as the years went by, audiences grew weary of the woman’s combination of earnestness, ethnicity, and easy going humor. By the time the ’60s rolled around, she had been in the business for almost 50 years – and yet today, she’s a virtual unknown.
Yet thanks to Kempner’s clever combination of biography, historical perspective, and talking head appreciation, we begin to understand what made Berg so special. In a unique way, she was both larger than life and yet completely down to Earth. People recognized that her famed persona – Molly Goldberg – was an amalgam of the entire immigrant experience. When the nation was sinking deeper into Depression, the country-loving optimism of Berg’s character helped alleviate some of the country’s ills. Perhaps the most amazing fact about the Goldberg program, aside from its popularity, is its longevity. Throughout the ’30s and ’40s Berg was a near constant presence on the air. Not only did she do her show, but she was a successful shill for many of the main products of the time – and this during a time of growing (and often horrific) Anti-Semitism.
It’s interesting to see these famous and not so famous faces sing Berg’s praises. Everyone from noted actors and activists to a member of the Supreme Court discuss the impact the character and its creator had on their ethnic identity. Like she did with the equally compelling story The Life and Times of Hank Goldberg, director Kempner personalizes the political underpinnings of her narrative. When Berg is suddenly “blacklisted” because she continued to support co-star Philip Loeb after his run-in with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the unfairness of the position is supporting by the more modern judgments of those interviewed. There is no attempt to justify it. Berg simply soldiered on, regaining her import by sheer force a will. It is through anecdotes like this that we learn more about the impact the celebrity had on her own life and career than by a simple repetition of facts.
Of course, context is everything, but due to the era in which Berg performed, precious little of her material remains. We hear a few snippets from her radio shows and experience some old kinescopes of her sitcom. Perhaps the most intriguing bits come in the form of a failed Goldberg movie, as well as a filmed comedy in which a now remained “Mrs. G” decides to become a post-war college freshman. It is clear that, up until the swinging ’60s, Berg was still seen as a hot commercial commodity. The desire to squeeze her into an idea, to continue to provide the audience with exactly what they wanted shows how substantial The Goldbergs trademark was. In fact, many of the participants argue that the series and the character of Molly set the standard for Jewish mothers (both bad and good) for the entire 20th Century.
If Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg has a failing – and it’s really a minor quibble at best – it’s that there’s no attempt by Kempner or her subjects to fully explain why Berg’s star dimmed so quickly. Granted, she died just as the country was going through its own countercultural revolution, and the lack of archival acknowledgement couldn’t have helped. There is also the notion that contemporary comics like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and perhaps most importantly, Totie Fields, deconstructed a lot of what Berg established, tuning it into something to pity rather than celebrate. But when we think about pioneers from the past, when we discuss radio highlights (or in the case of Amos and Andy, notorious lowlights) or early TV icons, Berg is barely mentioned. Again, for many this movie will be the first time they have ever heard of her. And that’s a shame. No matter the accomplishments during her lifetime, Gertrude Berg remains an integral part of the modern media’s formation. Thankfully, we now have a permanent testament to how important – and irresistible – she was.