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Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg: A Story of the “Oprah of Her Day”

Aviva Kempner

Before Lucy Ricardo, there was Molly Goldberg. The author interviews prize-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner, whose documentary brings to life the star, writer and producer of the first TV sitcom, “The Goldbergs.”

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner, in town to receive an award at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, has a lot to say. She tells stories about a photographer who complimented her about her earrings, muses on why her hotel room has a little jar of stones (“Are these supposed to center me? Because I’m in San Francisco?”), and when her brother Jonathan pops in she greets him enthusiastically. Most of all, she wants to talk about her latest documentary, Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, the story of television and radio pioneer Gertrude Berg, which she says would make a perfect date movie.

“Don’t go see The Hangover, go see Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” she says. “It’s a great uplifting story for young women.”

Kempner’s movie tells the story of Berg, called “the Oprah of her day,” who started the show, The Goldbergs, on the radio where it ran for 17 years, before making a successful transition to become the first TV sitcom. Berg was writer and producer on the show, as well as playing the loving mother of the Bronx family, Molly Goldberg.

The movie screens at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which runs from July 24 through August 10, and Kempner, who also made Partisans of Vilna, about Jewish resistance against the Nazis, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the story of a baseball player who fought anti-Semitism in the 30s and 40s, says she is thrilled to receive the festival’s Freedom of Expression Award.

“This festival is the grandmother of them all,” she says. “It inspired me to start one in D.C.” Nancy Fishman, the program director of the festival, says Kempner’s latest movie does an extraordinary job of showing how Berg came from entertaining children on rainy days at her father’s hotel in the Catskills to become one of the most powerful women in media. Kempner gets the audience to fall in love with her subjects, Fishman says.

“I would describe her as a matchmaker between audiences of today and Jewish heroes who have been forgotten,” Fishman says. Kempner found her latest subject when she walked into the show “Jews Entertaining America” at the Jewish Museum in New York and saw a recreation of the Goldberg’s living room.

Kemper says Berg broke down stereotypes with her portrayal of Molly Goldberg, who at the beginning of every show would lean out her window and chat with her neighbors across the airshaft.

Berg wrote 12,000 scripts for the show as well as producing it, Kempner says.

“Listen, to get up every day, write the show, get her husband to type it for her, go oversee every detail of production, and then seamlessly go and play Molly—how many people could do that?” she asks. “What she accomplished on a day to day basis is amazing.”

The show went on air just a month after the stock market crash in 1929. In the movie, NPR’s Susan Stamberg tells a story about Franklin Delano Roosevelt saying it wasn’t him who got people through the Depression, but the Goldbergs; television producer Norman Lear says that the show’s warm portrait of a Jewish family saved his sanity during the times of Hitler; and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recalls that growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, her whole family listened to the show.

Kempner, who went to law school, but didn’t pass the bar, was particularly excited to talk to Ginsburg, who she says is a hero to her. “After I interviewed her I went home and emailed everyone I know from law school and said ‘Aviva finally made it to the Supreme Court Lawyers’ Lounge,’” Kempner says.

The film includes how Berg stood up to the show’s sponsor, General Foods, when they wanted her to get rid of her co-star, union organizer Philip Loeb, who was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. Berg told the executives she would use every platform available to her (and there were quite a few) to tell her audience not to buy General Foods products. The studio backed down, but then cancelled the show a few months later, in spite of it being one of the most popular ones on TV. Loeb ended up committing suicide, which was memorialized in the movie, The Front.

Kempner, who remembers her father yelling at the TV during the McCarthy hearings, said she found out about Berg’s support of Loeb while researching the film, the way she found out about Greenberg’s welcoming fellow baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first African American in the major leagues, when she was working on that film.

“That’s the pay off,” she says. “All my films have great third acts.”

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