Quick — who was the first woman to appear in a network sitcom?
No, not Lucille Ball, but that would’ve been my guess.
Here’s a hint. She also won the first Emmy for Best Actress. I’ll even show you a picture.
Still no clue, I bet. Her name is Gertrude Berg. Wait, who?
Exactly. That’s why Aviva Kempner’s new documentary, Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, is so important.
Berg was sort of the Oprah of her era — and she paved the way for women in the entertainment industry. Her radio show, The Goldbergs, premiered the week after the 1929 stock market crash and every day for 17 years, Berg rose at 6 a.m., wrote that day’s script, then went to the studio to produce the show and perform her role, Molly Goldberg.
In 1949, Berg brought The Goldbergs to television, where it was the first character-driven domestic sitcom. (When the program went off the air in 1956, I Love Lucy took its time slot.) The show featured a Jewish family and mixed a healthy dose of social commentary in with its comedy. And people loved it.
Unfortunately, Berg’s costar on the series, Philip Loeb, appeared on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s blacklist of Communist sympathizers. Berg stood up to sponsor General Foods when it threatened to pull its support from The Goldbergs, but ultimately had to release Loeb in order to keep the show. The series never really regained its spark after that.
In Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, Kempner gives us a thorough account of Berg’s life through the use of archive footage and interviews that include Ruth Bader Ginsberg,
The documentary is fascinating, to be sure. But I was left still wondering why Berg is relatively unknown. I mean, this is a woman who was ranked second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in a national poll of the most admired women. She wrote an advice column, sold a line of housedresses and won a Tony for her stage work. She was a feminist before anyone used that term. Why did Berg’s accomplishments fade from memory? I wanted to know more.
Perhaps, though, that is the main accomplishment of Kempner’s documentary: making us want to know more. Gertrude Berg is doubtless one of many remarkable women we’ve never heard of. And we need to. Those are the women that give us the strength to be remarkable, too.
Are you interested in seeing Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg? Are you familiar with the work of Gertrude Berg?