Thursday, October 8, 2009

Film feature: Documentary celebrates sitcom pioneer of 'The Goldbergs'

Gertrude Berg, creator of The Goldbergs.

By Hap Erstein

Aviva Kempner can pinpoint the moment she chose to make a film about radio and television pioneer Gertrude Berg, whose radio and television show The Goldbergs was a precursor of so many sitcoms, from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld.

“I went to the Jewish Museum in New York, for an exhibit called Jews Entertaining America,” the 62-year-old documentary filmmaker recalls. “I walked in and there was a whole recreation of The Goldbergs’ living room. I decided on the spot that this had to be my next film.”

That film, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which opens locally on Friday, comes after such well received non-fiction movies as Partisans of Vilna, on Jews who fought in the resistance against the Nazis, and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, an eye-opening biography of the first Jewish baseball player in the major leagues. They form a thematically linked series of what she calls “under-known stories of Jewish heroes."

Berg, the winner of the very first best actress Emmy Award in 1950, is barely recalled by today’s younger generation, says Kempner, because “most of Gertrude’s episodes were on kinescopes and never syndicated, where Lucille Ball forged the use of videotape.”

In part because of Kempner’s film and in part because of video technology, awareness of Berg is about to take a quantum leap. “Well, let me tell you the good news,” she chirps. “I don’t know if it will be by Chanukah, but UCLA is putting a package together of the show on DVD, whatever they have and have negotiated for. And they’ll be including an excerpt of my film."

She has no doubt that a contemporary audience will be fascinated by these 50-year-old programs. “My theory is that a lot of people back then lived with families, spoke with accents. And it was really a show about how to get through tough times, through the Depression, through World War II, and it was a damn good show,” she enthuses. “And that she, Gertrude, despite the loss of her brother and her mother being mentally ill, she crafted such a wonderful mother character which was not something modeled on her own home."

But ask her if The Goldbergs were a new show today whether it would get on the air, and Kempner pauses. “You know what, I don’t think so,” she says. “If you look at shows and movies of the past 10, 20 years, from Woody Allen on, the Jewish mother is an object of ridicule or caricature.”

She reconsiders the question and adds, “I think she might be able to get a show now, but I am sure we need one.”

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner.

Of all the things in her film, Kempner takes particular pride in the inclusion of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, talking about the influence that The Goldbergs had on her. How in the world did she persuade her to do it?

“I live in Washington. I get invited to the French Embassy a lot, and there she was,” says Kempner, relishing the story. “So I went up to her and I said, ‘I made The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.’ And she started smiling, so I thought, ‘God, I’m going to get to second base.’

“So then I said, ‘Now I’m doing Molly Goldberg’ and she really smiled. I thought, ‘Home run.’ She was very good about my filming her. I said to her, ‘I made a film about Greenberg, now Goldberg, Maybe I should do Ginsburg. It would be like a law firm. So she loved that."

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg is expanding slowly across the country and Kempner, who has still not paid for all the kinescope rights and laboratory bills, has been traveling the country with it as it opens in new markets.

“And like Hank, people are just loving it and kvelling,” she says. “They walk out and either of two things are said. One, thank you for bringing me back to a period I loved when I watched this with my family. And two, I had no idea about this woman. She really was the Oprah of her day.”

Like the old Levy’s Rye Bread ads, Kempner feels strongly that you do not have to be Jewish to enjoy Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg. But it helps.

“I think for American Jews, it’s so much a preview of what they were going through in the '30s, the '40s and '50s. I think it’s the most positive depiction of Jewish characters you’ve ever seen on the screen.”

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