You can’t just pronounce the movie’s the title with a normal inflection. You have to sing it. Pretend you are leaning out the window. You are living in a tenement building in New York City. It is 1950. And you are a middle aged Jewish woman, an immigrant with a slight Yiddish accent. You want to show your neighbor your new hat. Now try: Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.
And there she is, leaning her plump bosom out her window, smiling, ready to admire your hat and show you hers. It’s Molly Goldberg, the most famous and beloved woman in America. Well, next to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Gertrude Berg, who created and played Molly Goldberg first on radio and then on TV, is richer than Eleanor, whom she adores. In real life, Gertrude Berg is the Oprah of her day. Not only a gifted actress, comedienne and writer, she’s a shrewd business woman who has built a merchandizing empire and has mastered the art of salesmanship, writing her own ad copy for her show’s sponsors. She has published a cookbook, created a clothing line for housewives, and writes an advice column. Unlike Molly, Gertrude lives on Park Avenue, speaks without an accent and dresses to the nines. She won the first best actress Emmy and her TV show was made into a film, “Molly.”
What strikes me most today is that Berg’s fame, fortune and enormous popularity all stem from her portrayal of Molly, a simple Jewish housewife ably navigating the perils of domestic life in the land of opportunity with warmth and wit. This big-hearted matriarch was explicitly Jewish, and yet captured the hearts of America, beginning with her first radio broadcast in 1929.
In 1949, despite her status and public adulation, Berg had to beg and plead to move her wildly popular show to the new medium of television. Her show was an instant hit, paving the way for domestic sit-coms such as “All in the Family” that came after it. “I Love Lucy,” in fact, slipped onto the air while “The Goldbergs” was off the air during the political turmoil of the McCarthy era.
As the documentary about this remarkable woman and her appealing screen persona makes clear, Gertrude Berg invented the sitcom. Since I am collecting Jewish inventions in preparation for a talk I’ll be giving at the launch of MoVeRs: Jewish Mavericks, Visionaries and Rebels on Oct. 22 at CU, I was thrilled to discover the sitcom goes in our column, along with Woodstock, a fact I discovered a few weeks ago at “Taking Woodstock.” (The two main producers, the two main backers, the man on whose farm the concert took place, and the young man with the permits who made it happen were all Jewish.)
We made the trek to Denver with friends on opening night to see “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” then went out for kabobs at one of the many Middle Eastern restaurants around the Chez Artiste. It’s doubtful the documentary will play in Boulder theaters, but Menorah will show it when it comes out on DVD. And you can find more information at http://www.mollygoldbergfilm.org
In the meantime, check out director Aviva Kempner’s two excellent previous documentaries, “The Partisans of Vilna” and “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (available at the Boulder JCC video library).