Friday, June 26, 2009


By D.E.Levine

Director: Aviva Kempner
Cast: Gertrude Berg, Phillip Loeb, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sara Chase, Norman Lear, Margaret Nagle, Roberta Wallach, Edward R. Murrow, Susan Stamberg et al.
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Country of Origin: United States
Lamguage: English
Genre: Documentary, Drama, Comedy

This is a fascinating and eye-opening documentary about the first powerful, talented female writer/producer in television.

Gertrude Berg, born in 1898 as Tilly Edelstein, was an entertainment powerhouse and won the first Best Actress Emmy Award for a television show.

The daughter of a Catskills resort owner, Berg honed her writing and producing skills by writing and directing sketches to occupy young guests on rainy days. She turned down her father's request to run a second hotel in Florida saying she wanted to do something on her own.

She met her husband Lewis Berg when she was 13 and married him when she was 18. He encouraged her pursuits in the theater after their Louisiana sugar plantation burned down and they returned to New York City.

A dynamo of energy and personality, this Jewish wife was a reigning influence on the radio during the 1930s and 1940s as the star, head writer and producer of the popular show "The Goldbergs".

The radio show premiered on November 20, 1929 on the CBS Blue Network. It ran on radio until 1950.

With the advent of television, Berg ran "The Goldbergs" as a sitcom on that medium from the 1949 to 1956. She still wrote the entire show in the morning and then went to the studio to star in and produce it in the evening.

Long before Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey were doing commercials for products on their shows, Gertrude Berg was the pitchwoman for her sponsors on both her radio and television shows.

Berg was so popular that she was ranked second only to Eleanor Roosevelt as the most respected woman in America.

The show itself was a curiosity because it dealt with the trials and tribulations of a Jewish immigrant family living in a tenement in New York City.

Gertrude Berg starred as the stereotypical Jewish mother Molly Goldberg complete with an Old World Yiddish accent and commentary aside to the audience. She routinely talked with her neighbors by putting her head out the window and calling "Yoo hoo" to them.

The success of the show was made more remarkable because of the anti-Semitism that existed in the pre-World War II United States and the rare display of Jewish-American pride after the war.

The show confronted ethnic bigotry in the late 1930s, discussed what was happening in Nazi Germany during the war years, and tackled what was going on in the United States at that time.

"The Goldbergs" spawned a comic strip, jigsaw puzzles, a movie and a cookbook. In addition to all of her other duties, Gertrude Berg published the cookbook, wrote a newspaper advice column and lent her name to a line of women's clothing. Everything she did was successful and she seemed to do everything.

Phillip Loeb, an active force in Actor's Equity played Jake Goldberg, the patriarch in "The Goldbergs". Despite his popularity and clout, in 1950 he was listed in the Red Channels publication which was essentially a show business blacklist.

Regardless of her popularity, with sponsors like General Foods threatening to drop the show, Berg refused to fire Loeb and went threatened to go public with the sponsor's threats.

Loeb, who resigned in 1950, was ruined and broken and committed suicide in 1955.

Her network, CBS, with which the show had been since 1929 radio days dropped the show shortly after the Loeb incident, replacing it with "I Love Lucy". One has to wonder if the show hadn't been dropped whether "Lucy" would have found a spot as quickly and been such a hit.

Eight months after being dropped by CBS, "The Goldbergs" reappeared on NBC where it remained until 1956.

The documentary is full of insightful clips from both the radio and television shows that capture the feeling and performances of "The Goldbergs".

When the show was dropped from television, Berg went on to successfully star on Broadway with noted actors such as Cedric Hardwicke, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford and Lee Grant.

Director Aviva Kempner has done a real service by producing this documentary and filling in an important part of American entertainment history. It appears that during her research even CBS wasn't aware of Gertrude Berg and "The Goldbergs" having been on their network for so many years.