American pop culture has nearly forgotten Gertrude Berg, but it’s easy to see how she became one of television’s first stars. Her groundbreaking situation comedy “The Goldbergs” began with Berg’s alter ego, Jewish matron Molly Goldberg, looking out the window of her Bronx apartment to chat with the audience (and praise sponsors such as Sanka). From the show’s first live episodes in early 1949, viewers probably felt like the gregarious matriarch was leaning through the screens of their new black-and-white TVs and into their living rooms.
Aviva Kempner’s gushy documentary Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, taken from the show’s catchphrase, aims to restore Berg to her rightful place alongside early TV entertainers such as Milton Berle. Like many of television’s first celebrities, Berg made the leap from radio. Audiences were introduced to her characters on her family show “The Rise of the Goldbergs,” which aired every weekday and spanned from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II. Yoo-Hoo estimates that Berg wrote 12,000 scripts throughout her career on radio and TV, and as an actress and canny merchandiser, became “the Oprah of her day.”
Yoo-Hoo’s most engrossing subplot concerns Phillip Loeb, a stage actor and labor activist who played Molly Goldberg’s husband until he was targeted by the blacklist and the TV show was canceled. Recasting Loeb, “The Goldbergs” returned to television a year and a half later, but “I Love Lucy” had inherited its original timeslot and Lucille Ball had become the queen of screen.
Kempner offered a similar tribute to a Jewish celebrity with The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, but the record-breaking first baseman proved a livelier subject than Berg, however worthy she may be. Clips of “The Goldbergs” are drab and come across as droll at best. Molly’s heavily accented malapropisms barely elicit chuckles: “Remember when you threw an eye at me for the first time?”
Off-screen, Berg seems solely defined by her workaholic nature and her wish to create a fictional family life that improved on her own childhood. The anecdotes from fans, family and scholars seldom contain much drama (although her biographer, Glen Smith, looks and sounds amusingly like Kenneth the Page of “30 Rock”). Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg will encourage audiences to appreciate Berg’s work, but may not inspire viewers to seek it out for themselves.