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Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009)

YOO HOO! SPOILERS!

I’m a big fan of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” documentarian Aviva Kempner’s unabashed love letter to the 1930s Detroit Tigers’ slugger, so I thought “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” Ms. Kempner’s unabashed love letter to radio and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, “the Oprah of the 1930s,” would be right up my alley.

I left wondering if maybe Kempner wasn’t too close to a subject I knew too little about.

“The Goldbergs,” a daily 15-minute radio show created by Berg (nee Tilly Edelstein) from old skits she performed at her father’s Catskills Mountain resort in Fleischmanns, NY, debuted on NBC radio the week after the October 1929 stock market crash, and became one of the more popular shows of the 1930s. It concerned the comings and goings of a Jewish family—mother Molly (Berg), father Jake, children Sammy and Rosalie, and Uncle David—in a Lower East Side tenement, as they tried to both assimilate in America and not lose old world values.

Verisimilitude was big with Berg. She often visited the Lower East Side for ideas and dialogue, and out of this came Molly’s habit of calling up the airshafts to her neighbor: “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloo-oo-oom!” If Molly cooked eggs in her kitchen, Berg cooked eggs in the studio. During the Seder after Kristalnacht, a rock was thrown through the Goldbergs’ window. During World War II, families would reference boys who were off fighting or relatives left behind. The show became the second-most-popular show on the radio, after “Amos n’ Andy,” while Berg was voted the second-most-respected woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt.

At the same time, the doc reminds us of the anti-Semitic touchstones of the period: Kristalnacht, plus Father Coughlin, plus bund rallies in Madison Square Garden.

This shouldn’t be a disconnect—Rush Limbaugh has the most popular radio show in an America that elected Barack Obama—but it’s enough of one to raise questions. “The Goldbergs” was the second-most-popular show...in all of America? Including the South? What year or years? And what year or years was Berg voted the second-most-respected woman in America, and by whom?

Kempner shows us this square peg but doesn’t tell us how it fit into the round hole of 1930s America. She posits “The Goldbergs” as unique—the first family sitcom; the only ethnic show where someone of that ethnicity had creative control—but doesn’t tell us what it was unique against. I’m sorry, but I’m blank on 1930s radio. I’m not arguing “The Goldbergs” wasn’t unique. On the contrary, it feels astonishingly so. I just want a clearer backdrop. And I’d love to know more about its success outside New York. The talking heads, mostly Jewish, mostly female, give a ton of love but not much perspective. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, for example, says everyone she knew growing up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn listened to “The Goldbergs” but that hardly feels like news. How did it do in Wisconsin? That’s what I want to know.

Eventually, the show was cancelled, in 1945, but was reborn in the new medium, television, on January 17, 1949. Was it the first TV sitcom? The first domestic TV sitcom? Did Berg introduce the nosy neighbor? That’s what people who love the show imply. Do we believe them? Ehh. By surrounding us with fans of the show, Kempner is actually shortchanging the show.

The episodes themselves, which ran live, are fascinating to see. Each began with Molly (Berg again) talking directly to the camera as to a neighbor, welcoming us in. “Greetings from our family to your family,” she says. She pitches corporate sponsor Sanka, and, via window-conversation with her neighbors, introduces the episode’s conflict. Then we go indoors and watch it all unfold.

But a conflict about the show, about America, really, turned out to be more compelling than any conflict the show created.

Broadway actor and union activist Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband, Jake, was one of the 151 entertainers listed in “Red Channels,” the 1950 anti-communist tract about supposed communist influence in the industry, and in Sept. 1950, General Foods, which sponsored “The Goldbergs,” told Berg, “You have two days to get rid of Philip Loeb.” Berg resisted, and the doc makes much of this resistance. But a few months later CBS cancelled “The Goldbergs.” When it returned, a year and a half later and on a different network, there was a new actor playing Jake. When he didn’t work out, a third actor took over. Three years, later, as “The Goldbergs” wound up its run, being filmed now rather than performed live, and with the family assimilated in the Connecticut suburbs rather than struggling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Loeb took his own life in a New York hotel room. Twenty years later, he became the inspiration for Zero Mostel’s Hecky Brown in “The Front.”

These revelations are so stunning—to me anyway, a longtime fan of “The Front”—that they almost upend the documentary. One wonders: Should this have been the focus of the doc? Should “Red Channels”?

It doesn’t help that Berg, so innovative in the industry, hardly seems present in her own story. What do we learn about her? She dressed nice. Her father disapproved of her work and her mother wound up in a mental institution. She was a workaholic. But how she felt about Loeb? How she felt about anything? Who knows? There doesn’t seem to be much there there.

In terms of tone and structure, “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is similar to “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” but it shouldn’t be. There was no Philip Loeb to sour that story. And if Greenberg’s personality wasn’t exactly dazzling—if there wasn’t much there there, either—well, he was a ballplayer. He wasn’t supposed to have personality. Besides, you walked away from the doc with a sense that you knew him. Not so much with Berg.

Most important, Hank Greenberg is forever—people who know baseball will always know his name—but Gertrude Berg is not. That, in fact, is the doc’s raison d’etre. “The Most Famous Woman in America You've Never Heard Of,” reads the tagline. So why did Berg fade while contemporaries, such as Jack Benny and George Burns, did not? Were they funnier? More male? Less Jewish? It should be the doc’s main question yet it’s hardly asked at all.

Love letters are well and fine, but “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” could’ve used a little more letter, a little less love.

—October 18, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard