Sunday, February 13, 2011

Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg!

Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg! takes those of us over the age of fifty back to the black and white days of television, when Gertrude Berg brought her well-loved radio show to CBS.

Berg was the Oprah of her day: the first woman to create, produce, write and star in her own vehicle, the first to win an Emmy for her efforts, and the first to lose a top-ten show for refusing to fire one of her cast members.

For those of you who are too young or didn’t have access to a TV back in the 1950s, I offer a little background. If Berg was, as I suggest, the Oprah of her day, she was also the Tina Feye of her generation: a woman who not only acted but wrote the episodes she appeared in, first on radio, and then TV.

A supreme business woman, Gertrude Berg barreled her way onto the small screen as Molly Goldberg – a Jewish immigrant who shared a cozy apartment with her husband Jake, two very American teenage children (Rosalie and Sammy), and Molly’s brother David, or “Uncle David” as he was most often called.

The Goldbergs lived happily in the Bronx, a working class, New York neighborhood where neighbors regularly raised their windows in order to converse with their friends across the alley (“Yoo-Hoo! Mrs. Goldberg!"), and everyday problems were gently and creatively solved in thirty minutes.

The documentary begins with Berg’s own story, which was a good bit darker –at least in her formative years, than the fictional one she would later create. We learn of her mother’s decent into mental illness, and her father’s inability to make a decent living or support his daughter’s dreams.

It wasn’t until she met and married Englishman Lewis Berg that her life took a happy turn. A staunch supporter of his young bride's ambitions, the chemical engineer moved the family to New York city, where his wife could hone her craft. by 1929 Gertrude had won a spot on the NBC radio network, with a daily show she dubbed The Rise of the Goldbergs.

The show quickly morphed into The Goldbergs, a 15-minute slice of newly-American pie. Like Levy’s Rye, you didn’t have to be Jewish to love it. An instant hit, it demanded nearly all of Berg’s time, as she went about the task of rehearsing and performing by day, and writing the next day’s episode by night, with just an hour or two break for dinner with her family.

The Goldbergs transitioned into television in 1949, moving to its Monday nighttime slot on CBS. It was the first situation comedy of the new medium, and would earn Berg an Emmy as the first woman to receive an Emmy for her work in a comedy series.

Like Arthur Godfrey, Gertrude Berg delivered the sponsor’s commercials as if they were part of the show. In her case, that meant resting Molly’s ample arms on her dining room windowsill and touting the virtues of Sanka Instant Coffee.

But Yoo Yoo Mrs. Goldberg is more than just another nostalgic look at television’s so-called “Golden Age”, with the documentary taking you down the dark and winding road of McCarthyism. At the height of the show's popularity, Philip Loeb -Jake to Gertrude's Molly, was labeled a communist sympathizer, blacklisted and forced to resign. Berg stood by him, but to no avail. In the end her loyalty would cost her dearly. Though it consistently won its time slot, and Sanka’s sponsorship translated into a 50% spike in sales, the show was cancelled, replaced by a new sit com featuring a thirty-something red head and her Cuban bandleader husband.

Depressed, and unable to get work of any kind, Philip Loeb would take his own life, and The Goldbergs would languish in nowhereland for nearly two years before being picked up by another network. But by then it’s time had come and gone.

Gratefully, a few old kinescopes have survived. You’ll find segments of some, (one of which features a young unknown by the name of Anne Bancroft), along with a terrifically clever episode built around the naming of a new baby, on the bonus disc. Other goodies include Berg’s appearance on Person to Person with Edward R. Morrow, a lengthy narrative on Ed Sullivan’s Christmas show, insights from some of Berg’s now-grown grand children, family photos, home movies and words of Molly-sparked wisdom from the likes of Norman Lear and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The package also includes a totally unrelated piece of film that the producer/writer Aviva Kempner felt compelled to include, and an embarrassing series of outtakes featuring Kempner’s family shouting “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” into the camera.

Despite this last piece of nonsense, if you can get past the original show’s crudely drawn graphics and outdated pace, you'll find a wealth of information and entertainment in this two-disc series. And while Yoo-Hoo Molly Goldberg isn't everyone's bowl of borscht, if you have an interest in the origins of the situation comedy, feminism, Jewish culture, New York in the 1950s or the infamous black list, you’ll find much to think about in this well-researched tribute.

As for the show itself, compared to today's slick pace quick cuts, and edgy humor, it will appear more-than-a-bit dated. But that's all right, at least, with me. Eli Mintz as Uncle David, and Gertrude Berg bring so much heart to each episode, you'll wonder how so many have forgotten them. This, along with the fact that the look, feel, and lessons learned in their home and as seen from Molly's window, are still magical, all these years later.

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