Aviva Kempner’s “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” is an engrossing nostalgia bath – if you’re of a certain age.
If you’re younger, it’s a window into a bygone world that seems so much simpler and rife with possibilities: the early days of TV, when the medium minted its first superstars, including Liberace, Bishop Fulton Sheen – and Gertrude Berg.
Berg’s name rarely gets mentioned as a pioneer, yet as Kempner’s film shows, she can lay claim to having invented the situation-comedy with her popular show, “The Goldbergs.” In her time, she was a force to be reckoned with, writing, producing and starring in her own TV series at the dawn of that breakthrough medium. She won the first Emmy given for best actress.
Kempner traces Berg’s life as the daughter of an immigrant, writing and performing skits at her father’s Catskills resort, through her marriage to a successful British businessman, Lewis Berg. In the 1930s, she wrote and performed a successful radio show, “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” later shortened to “The Goldbergs.” When television dawned, she guilt-tripped William Paley (for whom she’d made so much money with her radio show) into giving her a chance to transform it for his nascent CBS television network – and produced one of his first big hits.
Kempner touches the bases in telling Goldberg’s story: her dominion as producer (and the artistic temperament that went with it); her willingness to stand up to the McCarthyites who targeted Philip Loeb, the actor who played her husband on the show, as a Communist sympathizer; the ability of the show to sell products that she endorsed in commercials that were part of the show.
The footage from “The Goldbergs” is intriguing, because Goldberg’s writing and performing seem human and even contemporary in its portrayal of the give-and-take of a Jewish middle-class family. Interestingly, Kempner never touches upon anti-Semitism; nor does anyone ever talk about the likelihood of a comparable show making it on to the air today. (I suspect that, if it couldn’t, it would have more to do with the four-square sensibility, than the Jewishness of the material.)
The filmmaking itself is occasionally a little confusing. Kempner has such famous faces as Norman Lear, Gary David Goldberg, NPR’s Susan Stamberg, and even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to talk about their memories of watching the show. But while she has Berg’s grandson and son-in-law, it would have been instructive to hear from her children (or to hear that, in fact, they are no longer living). Voice-over commentary occasionally remains unidentified, which can also be a problem.
Kempner, unfortunately, has the disadvantage of not having a lot of archival material of Berg herself, beyond a few photographs and clips from the show. So she makes do with generic footage of New York’s Lower East Side in the early years of the 20th century, dicing in scenes from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant,” for flavor. It feels a little thin at times.
Still, “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” offers a look at what might otherwise be a lost piece of cultural history. The stampede to the future can wait long enough for you to enjoy this backward glance at where it all started.