Yoo-hoo, Gertrude Berg!

A new doc honors a forgotten sitcom star from the early years of television
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That's some challah!

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Even ginormous pop phenomena disappear from the collective consciousness faster than seemed possible during their heyday. Still, it's surprising that The Goldbergs doesn't loom larger in television history or general cultural awareness.

Admittedly, the show's heyday came in TV's early years as a mass medium. In 1949, when it commenced as a CBS half-hour, there were about 1 million television sets in use here. By 1954, at its run's end, nearly three-quarters of U.S. households owned their own boob tube. One reason for that radical expansion was the vast popularity of I Love Lucy — which grabbed The Goldbergs' time slot and sitcom supremacy. Everybody still loves Lucy. But who remembers Mrs. Goldberg?

This year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival certainly does. Its 2009 Freedom of Expression Award goes to Aviva Kempner, director of Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which makes its local premiere at the fest prior to its theatrical release on Aug. 7. In addition to the doc, SFJFF is screening four Goldbergs episodes.

Even more than a largely forgotten popular institution, Yoo-Hoo commemorates the one-woman dynamo who created and sustained it. Known to millions as humble Molly Goldberg, in real life Gertrude Berg (née Tilly Edelstein) developed performing ambitions and organizational chops from an early age, deploying both in her career despite an engineer husband's ample means (he invented instant coffee) and a father's harsh disapproval.

She pitched what became The Rise of the Goldbergs — after a first series about shopgirls was yanked for being too protofeminist — in 1929, the 15-minute radio show making its debut just after the Wall Street crash that triggered the Great Depression. Its portrait of a working-class immigrant Jewish family, idealizing Berg's own, seemed dubious in appeal at first to the higher-ups. Yet soon it trailed only Amos 'n' Andy in national popularity, managing that without Amos 'n' Andy's degrading minority stereotyping. The Goldbergs were humorous, but not clowns — a warm, stable, relatable clan who looked out for each other and their close-knit community.

The center of both, it seemed, was Molly herself, whose homely homebody demeanor (not to mention the ESL malapropisms that embarrassed some assimilationist Jewish listeners) belied the breadth of progressive, non-saccharine wisdoms she doled out to one and all. She had her ditzy moments, but was nevertheless a very modern matriarch — quite unlike Lucy Ricardo, domestic ninny par excellence.

Berg masterminded this long-term success not just as star and head writer, but producer, mogul, and hard-driving perfectionist. She also had a clothing line, penned books, toured the vaudeville circuit and acted on Broadway. At one point she was named "Most Respected Woman in America" — following Eleanor Roosevelt, though in income their positions were reversed.

Despite all this, The Goldbergs died something of a slow, ignoble death. In 1951, actor Philip "Mr. Goldberg" Loeb was named as one among many "Communist influences" in the entertainment field by right-wing ideologues. The network wanted him out — and when Berg balked, a Top Three show was suddenly canceled for lack of commercial sponsorship. It returned later, the role recast — I Love Lucy launching in the interim — but some alchemy was lost. Blackballed and disconsolate, Loeb shot himself in 1955.

Berg soldiered on, driven as ever, until her death in 1966. The Goldbergs disappeared from syndication, then from memory. It would be decades before demonstrably Jewish characters (as opposed to gentile-fied Jewish performers) would again be so prominent on television. It's worth noting that 60-plus years after Molly G.

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