Feb. 12 2010 12:00 AM

How could "the Oprah of her day" have slipped into obscurity?

She ruled the radio airwaves for nearly 20 years and then
transitioned into television, where she became the first woman to win a best
actress Emmy. She designed a line of dresses, wrote a cookbook, toured in
vaudeville and starred on Broadway. In opinion polls in the 1930s, she was
second only to Eleanor Roosevelt as America’s most-admired woman.

And yet you may not recognize the name Gertrude Berg, the
multi-talented dynamo at the center of “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” director Aviva
Kempner’s fascinating documentary. Although she may well have been “the Oprah
of her day,” as screenwriter Margaret Nagle calls her, Berg is now little more
than the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.


So how did that happen? Apparently, she was a victim of
changing times, changing attitudes and the short-sightedness of TV executives
back in the medium’s early days.

Berg’s rise to fame began shortly after the stock market
crash in 1929, when she persuaded the NBC network to take a chance on “The
Goldbergs,” a serial about a Jewish family in the Bronx. Berg not only starred
as matriarch Molly Goldberg, she also wrote all the scripts (one of Kempner’s
sources estimates Berg turned out about 12,000 of them over the years). “The
Goldbergs” was full of heartwarming humor and reassuring messages, which were
exactly what audiences were looking for as the Depression settled in. Needless
to say, the show was a smash.

To give an indication of exactly how popular it was, Kempner
offers this anecdote. When Berg was sidelined with a sore throat and had to
take a break from the show, the NBC switchboard was shut down by calls from
fans and the network received 100,000 letters inquiring about when the show
would return to the air.

A Jewish mother to beat them all, Molly divided her time
between keeping the house in order, keeping her family in line and keeping up
with the gossip of her neighbors, most of whom would call her by leaning out
their windows and yelling, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” She solved everyone’s
problems as easily as she made matzo ball soup and she laced her earthy wisdom
with endearing malaprops. “Let me think — let me gather together my brains,”
Molly would say as she prepared to save the day once more.

While “The Goldbergs” was primarily a family comedy, Berg
didn’t entirely shy away from working in Jewish culture and world politics. At
one point, she brought in a rabbi to conduct a Seder on the air; after the
horrific Krystallnacht in Nazi Germany, in which Jewish-owned businesses and
homes were attacked, Berg wrote an episode in which the Goldbergs’ Passover
dinner was disrupted by a rock hurled through a window. In recordings of the
broadcasts, we hear Molly rage against dangers of “indifference” during World
War II. Other shows were peppered with references to relatives in Europe who
were forced to become refugees. Molly not only raised spirits, she raised
consciousness as well.

To get a multi-dimensional picture of her subject, Kempner
consults Berg fans ranging from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (who tells an
amusing story about being flattered when a colleague mistakenly referred to her
as “Mrs. Goldberg”) to the charming, well-spoken academic Glenn D. Smith, Jr.,
author of “Something on My Own,” a biography of Berg. National Public Radio
correspondent Susan Stamberg, one of the sources interviewed in the film, shares
a beloved if unsubstantiated quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “I
wasn’t the one who got us out of the Depression, it was the Goldbergs.”

Berg beat Lucille Ball to television by two years, but it’s
unlikely you’ve seen the TV version of “The Goldbergs.” Broadcast live from New
York, as most programs were in TV’s infancy, “The Goldbergs” was not thought of
as something worth preserving. The kinescopes that do exist — shot off a video
monitor to be sent out for broadcast in other time zones — are far from
pristine, although the clips Kempner shares do give a sense of what the show
must have been like. (Ball’s “I Love Lucy,” in contrast, was actually filmed
like a movie, which is why it’s still running in syndication half a century
after it went off the air.)

Although she created and embodied Molly, Berg was anything
but a challah-baking Bronx housewife. In clips from a televised interview with
Edward R. Murrow, we see the real-life Berg as a stylishly dressed matron whose
swanky Park Avenue pad was full of antique furniture. She speaks not in Molly’s
thick accent but in the refined tones of a lady of the manor. Yet Kempner
points out that Berg frequently roamed around the Lower East Side with a
notebook, collecting ideas and themes for “Goldbergs” scripts.

The two women had something in common: Molly was a workhorse
and Berg was a workaholic. Berg was also a perfectionist and a tenacious
fighter. When co-star Philip Loeb was named as a Communist sympathizer in Red
Channels magazine, sponsor General Foods decided it was getting a little too
hot in the Goldbergs’ kitchen and Berg was ordered to fire Loeb. She refused,
prompting a long tug-of-war with the network. There’s more than a twinge of
irony in the situation: “The Goldbergs,” which had often addressed the
political upheavals of the outside world, was eventually done in by them.

The controversy ended Loeb’s career and it didn’t do much
good for Berg’s, although she would go on to star in the Broadway comedy “A
Majority of One,” for which she won a Tony as best actress in 1959.

Movies remained the one arena Berg never really conquered,
probably because she was too busy with her other projects. How fitting then
that this enthralling, informative documentary will introduce this unjustly
forgotten figure to a new generation.

“Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” screens at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.
Feb. 12-14 at Wells Hall on the Michigan State University campus and at 7:30
p.m. Feb. 16-17 at Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbott Road in East Lansing. General
admission tickets are $7; $5 for seniors; $3 for students with ID. For more
information, visit www.elff.com.