How did Gertrude Berg, once among the most famous and most powerful women in America, become so forgotten in a few short decades? This is a question that fascinates. Dozens of other shows from the golden age of radio remain well known, and many television programs from the dawn of the small screen have etched their way into our cultural memory. And yet Berg, whose influence on radio and television is immeasurable, has faded from view. Generations have grown up never knowing the name.
Now comes “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” from documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who, following “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” is making a career out of championing forgotten pioneers in the American Jewish community. Kempner is not interested in why pop culture lost sight of Berg; instead she’s making a concerted effort to return Berg to the ranks of household names.
The title comes from the scripts of Berg’s wildly popular radio series “The Rise of the Goldbergs” (retitled in 1936 as, simply, “The Goldbergs”) and its later television incarnation, both focusing on a tight Bronx community, the sort of place where neighbors could beckon each other by yelling a “yoo-hoo!” out the window. Berg starred as Molly Greenberg, maternal head of a chaotic family that’s richer in love than wealth. Especially in the radio version, which employed a serial format, audiences became quite connected to the Greenbergs as their family grew. Notably, the mixture of unique cultural attitudes and universal “every family’s the same” messages made the show a hit with audiences regardless of ethnicity.
Both series dabbled in comedy and drama equally, although both qualify, more or less, as sitcoms; Kempner’s interviewees hail the television program for essentially creating the sitcom format as we still know it today. (Call it ahead of its time, too: the show used no studio audience, predating the modern laugh track-free multi-camera sitcom format.)
More radically, Berg was in charge of the whole thing, producing and writing every episode of the radio show. That’s five fifteen-minute scripts every week, all written the night before they went to air – an impressive feat even if you didn’t factor in the groundbreaking nature of having a Jewish woman in charge of more or less every aspect of one of the country’s most popular entertainment franchises.
Cookbooks and advice columns followed, leading Berg to be tagged “the Oprah of her day” by interviewee Susan Samberg. Which makes it a bit disappointing that, for a woman so powerful (her wealth and influence, the movie informs us, were rivaled only by Eleanor Roosevelt), there’s no effort made to examine her life beyond her accomplishments. Her story becomes nothing more than a checklist of impressive achievements and interesting anecdotes; she’s darn near Saint Gertrude. Even when the timeline works its way to the 1950s and the Blacklist, Berg is shown as a champion (she boldly defended costar Philip Loeb from a network that wanted him gone) and a victim (even after caving in and allowing Loeb to be fired, the show didn’t last), but even here we hardly get to know Berg as a person. The closest we get to personal depth comes not from Berg but from Loeb, whose suicide is discussed in detail and helps humanize the documentary.
Berg’s professional story is worthy enough to be retold, although one wishes for something a little more emotionally compelling. “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” at times feels like little more than home movies narrated by enthusiastic relatives, or some fluff-filled DVD bonus feature packed with friendly faces offering glowing praise, or a quickie basic cable biography unable to take the time to go beyond the basic accomplishments. It’s both cozy and shallow, not unlike a sitcom itself.