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Before Lucy, there was Molly.

Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg

Directed by Aviva Kempner

As a child growing up in the '90s, there were few things I enjoyed more than staying up late glued to Nickelodeon's "Nick at Nite." I always loved shows like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and I Love Lucy because they featured great female lead characters. So it came as a surprise to me to discover recently that there was a sitcom that preceded these shows starring a Jew--who also happened to be the first woman to win an Emmy.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner's (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg) new documentary commemorates the life and work of Gertrude Berg, creator of the popular character Molly Goldberg. The film takes us from the start of Berg's show business career, beginning, ironically, with a radio commercial for Christmas cookies--in Yiddish--to her development of a series about Molly, the sweet, meddling Yiddish-accented wife and mother of two who lived in a tenement in the Bronx with her family. Although she had not intended to, Berg became the voice of Molly, and The Goldbergs aired on the radio for 17 years beginning in 1929, jumping to television in 1949. Berg won the Emmy for best actress the following year, and the sitcom was nominated for Best Kinescope Show. At the peak of her career, she had her own clothing and merchandise lines, a newspaper advice column, and a Paramount Pictures movie based on her show, making her the first woman to build a media empire.

The Goldbergs appealed to Jews and non-Jews alike at a time when the immigrant experience was fresh. Although they celebrated their Jewishness, the family's going-ons were a guide to Americanization. In a subtle message of national pride, portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln always hung on the family's walls. Kempner interviews celebrities ranging from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to African-American CBS affiliate anchor Andrea Roane to artist Mindy Wiesel. Each fondly reflects on Molly's similarities to her grandmother or mother and explains the influence the show had on her life.

For me, it was interesting, too, to learn how the era of McCarthyism and the Red Scare led to the beginning of Berg' decline. In one of the most intriguing parts of Kemper's film, we learn the tragic story of Phillip Loeb, the actor who played Jake, Molly's sometimes exasperated but always loving television husband. Active in Actor's Equity, Loeb was blacklisted in Red Channels, a report accusing entertainers of communist ties. General Foods, the show's sponsor, pressured Berg to fire Loeb, but she refused. General Foods eventually pulled out, and the show went off the air for nearly two years while she searched in vain for a new sponsor. Finally she gave in and Loeb was replaced. His career in ruins, he committed suicide in 1955.

During the show's hiatus, a new queen of television, Lucille Ball, arose. I Love Lucy even took The Goldbergs' old time slot. (As a young woman, Ball had registered as a communist to please her grandfather, but she was able to stave off charges.) In the shadow of Ball's more mainstream antics, Molly Goldberg faded from the limelight, says David Marc, Syracuse University professor and author of Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. A character like Lucy "was much more popular and seemed more modern and up to date than this voice from the past, this heavily accented immigrant English," he says. "It was old, and TV even in its early days was making things old very quickly."

But this doesn't explain why I never saw reruns of The Goldbergs on Nick-at-Nite. It's because most of the episodes were performed live and captured by kinescope--meaning the camera filmed a show from a television monitor while the program was being aired. Kinescope quality is too poor for modern television. I saw I Love Lucy because it was the first major show to be filmed. As it turns out, Lucille Ball was behind the change to film, making her show one of the first to be available for eternal reruns.

Gertude Berg was an elegant, intelligent woman who spoke with no accent and didn't resemble her character. She spent much of the rest of her career trying on other roles, even winning a Tony in 1959 for her performance in A Majority of One, but she will always be remembered as Molly. Kempner's film brings to life an important Jewish writer and actress whose work, sadly, has essentially been lost to time. I can't share in the nostalgia, but I'm delighted to know her story at last.

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Author:Springer, Maxine
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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