As I looked around the small indie theater at the start of Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, I was somewhat surprised to realize that my friends and I were the youngest attendees – by far (and we aint exactly spring chickens). By film’s end, I understood why. We were probably the only ones who didn’t know beforehand who Mrs. Goldberg was… and that’s a crying shame.
The documentary is a long-overdue salute to broadcasting pioneer Gertrude “Tillie” Berg, who created, wrote and starred in America’s first family sitcom, The Goldbergs. The show – which started on radio in 1929 and moved to the small screen in 1949 – featured a Jewish-American family living in the Bronx. Berg, who played beloved matriarch Molly Goldberg, received the very first Best Actress Emmy. But there’s a whole lot more to her story. And I’m glad that documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) brings it to our attention.
Berg was considered the Oprah of her day. When she featured a product on her show, sales would skyrocket. Everybody loved Molly Goldberg. And the fact that she and her family was Jewish did not diminish the show’s mainstream popularity, despite the turbulent times they were living through. The Goldbergs were positive role models for any family of any ethnicity.
But McCarthyism ultimately doomed the show. In 1950, Berg was told to fire her co-star, Philip Loeb, an active union organizer who was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. While Berg tried to fight the good fight and hold on to Loeb, another show moved into their time slot… a new little show called I Love Lucy. It was the beginning of the end for The Goldbergs.
Gertrude Berg’s story is told through a mix of archival footage and recent interviews with the likes of Gary David Goldberg (creator of Family Ties), NPR correspondent Susan Stamberg, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Ed Asner, and several Berg family members and historians. This is by no means a flawless documentary. It lacks a consistent narrative voice that could have driven the story in a more compelling and emotional way. But it’s a story that is worthy of our attention and appreciation none-the-less. So next time you catch a rerun of I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Home Improvement, or even The Simpsons (the list goes on and on)… you may want to shout, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg… thank you!”