Last Thursday night, I talked with independent filmmaker Aviva Kempner in her art-and memorabilia-filled rowhouse in northwest Washington about her new movie, "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg."
You don't know from Molly Goldberg? That's why Kempner made the documentary about Gertrude Berg, who created the Goldberg character and played her on radio, television, Broadway and in film between 1929 and 1955.
"I make films about under-known Jewish heros, and I emphasize under
," Kempner told me.
As Kempner's slogan for the movie puts it, the Emmy-award-winning Berg -- a forgotten feminist -- is simply "The Most Famous Woman in America You've Never Heard Of."
"She was the Oprah of her day," Kempner said, and like Oprah Winfrey, Berg was powerful and one of the richest women in the nation. Berg built a conglomerate based on her brand -- rare then, especially for a woman.
"Can you imagine Oprah being forgotten 60 years from now?" Kempner said, noting that Berg not only wrote, produced and acted in her show, "she also had a clothing line, a vaudeville act, a comic strip and a column, called 'Mama Talks.' Next to Eleanor Roosevelt, she was the most well-known woman in America."
The film has had a limited release in New York and Washington, and debuts in Los Angeles on July 24, with other cities to follow in the coming weeks and months. Berg's story is told through vintage clips and interviews with, among others, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actor Ed Asner, producer Norman Lear and NPR's Susan Stamberg.
"She was no shrinking violet," Ginsburg says in the film. She tells the story of how Justice Thurgood Marshall once called her "Mrs. Goldberg." Ginsburg didn't correct him. Molly was beloved, after all.
Kempner's home doubles as her production facility; five of her six upstairs bedrooms were converted to editing studios and work space. Her dining room table is covered with the rights and distribution documents for the film. As I was leaving, Kempner asked me for a ride to the Avalon Theater, a few blocks away, because she had a small bit of business to do before the Washington opening the next day, sort of a last schlep in the six-year, $900,000 quest to get the documentary on screen.
Though Hollywood moguls helped underwrite the film -- Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg's foundation, among many others -- there's no big promotion budget. Kempner had a flier she wanted to post at the Avalon, where seven neighborhood businesses were offering 10 percent discounts with a ticket stub from the film.
At the theater, an old-fashioned "saved" movie house with a wide screen, a worker climbs a ladder to place the big block letters spelling out "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" on the marquee. Below and to the right is the film's poster, featuring an image of the buxom Molly in her signature pose, leaning out the window of her apartment in the Bronx, as if about to yodel "yoo-hoo!" toward a neighbor's window.
"I could just sit and stare at this poster all day long" Kempner said. She asks the guy on the ladder, "Ya got a hyphen?"
Gertrude Berg was born Oct. 3, 1899, in New York and died there Sept. 14, 1966.
The young Gertrude Edelstein, as Kempner's film tells us, got her first taste of show business at the resort hotel her father ran in the Catskills. There, she met Lewis Berg, a chemical engineer who invented instant coffee. (In future years, Sanka would be a sponsor of the show.) They married and had two children.
Berg also gave birth to a character who became the mother of Jewish mothers, Molly Goldberg.
Berg's "The Rise of the Goldbergs" started as a 15-minute radio program in 1929, and in 1949 "The Goldbergs" (the name had been changed) became one of the nation's first television sitcoms.
"She woke up every morning . . . and wrote her scripts, and her husband typed them. [She] went to the set, did all kinds of producing and then seamlessly acted on the show. Pretty incredible," Kempner said.
The action was based in the Goldberg apartment in the Bronx, where windows faced windows across airshafts. Berg's scripts -- she wrote some 12,000 -- had Molly at the window in each episode summoning a neighbor (or vice versa) with the catchphrase "yoo-hoo."
Following "The Goldbergs," "the most successful sit-coms, 'Friends,' 'Seinfeld,' 'Honeymooners,' Lucille Ball, all have been set in the living room or in the apartment buildings where people walk in and out of each other's house," Kempner said.
What has always been remarkable to me was that viewers accepted the overt Jewishness of Molly Goldberg and her family. Yes, they were Americans, but Molly spoke with a Yiddish inflection, the mannerisms were ethnic, the family celebrated Passover, went to synagogue and at least one show alluded to the Holocaust.
(Said Berg as Molly in that episode, "Excuse me, will you please? I'm just so beside myself, I can't tell you. We just received a letter from relations we didn't hear from since before the war.
To people who grew up watching "The Nanny," "Rhoda," "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," consider that Berg paved the way for these Jewish characters.
The Goldbergs were a hit on radio in the Depression era, when there was an abundance of domestic anti-Semitism, manifested by restrictive real estate covenants, university quotas and overt discrimination. The Nazi Holocaust followed.
Berg was able "to pull off the most positive show about Jews," Kempner said, because the Goldbergs were "this warm, struggling family that people could identify with." As Kempner likes to say, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Molly."
The show eventually failed when the Goldbergs seemed to assimilate too much -- moving from the Bronx to a New York suburb.
The 92-minute film also tells how Berg had to deal with the blacklisting of Philip Loeb, who played her stage husband, Jake Goldberg. During the McCarthy era, Loeb, an actors' union organizer, was accused of being a Communist sympathizer. General Foods, Berg's main sponsor, wanted him fired. Berg fought for him, but to make a long story short, Loeb was replaced and he eventually committed suicide.
So why do we all know about Lucille Ball, a Berg contemporary, but Berg has been forgotten?
"I Love Lucy" lives in syndication -- seemingly on some cable channel, every hour, every day -- but most of Molly's shows were not preserved.
"So it is pretty incredible how you could be on the top and suffer from obscurity," said Kempner. "I think part of it was her TV series was never in syndication. Second of all, she was very detrimentally affected by the blacklist, lost some years on TV. And third of all, sometimes those who are the real pioneers, and I consider her the first writer of a domestic sitcom set in an apartment building, they get lost in the shuffle."
In Washington, Kempner is known as much for her campaign for District of Columbia voting rights as for her films, all Jewish-themed: "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," about the baseball star; the "Partisans of Vilna," about Jewish resistance to the Nazis; and "Today I Vote for My Joey," about the 2000 Florida ballot fiasco that cost Al Gore and Joe Lieberman the White House.
Kempner was born in Berlin after World War II and lived there until she was 3. She grew up in Detroit and moved to Washington after earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan.
"I've been called the Jewish Spike Lee, and I wear that title proudly," she said. "And I think my mission in life is to make films about Jewish heroes."
Her mother survived the war by passing as a Polish Catholic doing slave labor in Germany. Three of her grandparents and an aunt died in Auschwitz; an uncle survived the death camp. Her father was from Lithuania, moved to the U.S. and ended up back in Europe as a writer. Her father met her mother when he was covering a story about how a Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz (Kempner's uncle) was re-united with his sister -- her mother.
I asked Kempner how she landed the Ginsburg interview.
"I live in Washington D.C. And I go to embassy parties, and there is Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the French Embassy. And I went up to her and I said, 'I made the film the "Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," and she smiled and I thought, aww, I've gotten to second base. So then I said to her, 'Now I am making a film on Molly Goldberg.' She said, 'I loved the show,' and I said, 'Would you be willing to be interviewed?' and she said, 'That's fine.' ''
Related Kempner: "And I also told her, 'You know, I've done Greenberg, now I'm doing Goldberg. Maybe I should do Ginsburg; be like a Jewish law firm.' She laughed."