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Aviva Kempner's Woman of Principle: Gertrude Berg

Molly.jpgThe Dresser did it again. In daylight hours, she sneaked out to see a movie and to hear the director producer speak. Aviva Kempner's Yoohoo, Mrs. Goldberg saw its limited premiere July 10, 2009, and that included what the Dresser would call a rave review from The New York Times. However, the Dresser having heard the excitement about this film from friends of her Ladies Lottery Club, decided just before the film closed in Washington, DC, to see it. What particularly drew her to this one hour and 32-minute documentary about Gertrude Berg and the character she created--a large-hearted Jewish mama living with her family in a Bronx tenement--was how the actress-creator of this first-ever television sitcom called "The Goldbergs" stood up to the Joseph McCarthy-inspired anti-Communist witch hunt.

AS THE MARKET FELL, THE GOLDBERGS ROSE

The original 15-minute show started on radio one month after the 1929 stock market crash as "The Rise of the Goldbergs." While Gertrude Berg's program was about Jewish family life as interpreted by Molly Goldberg, who had that old world Yiddish way of speaking English, the show transcended its ethnicity and was popular among viewers of all religions and beliefs. Molly dispensed practical wisdom and was known for offering comfort, especially in the dark days of the Great Depression.

UP AGAINST THE RED CHANNEL

In 1949, the show moved to television and Molly's husband Jake was played by Philip Loeb, an actor who became active in the Theatre Guild and Actors Equity Association. According to Ms. Kempner's film, he supported rights for working actors and civil rights for all Americans. For example, he helped actors get pay for time they spent in rehearsals. Although he had never been a member of the Communist Party, he was accused before the House Committee on Un-American Activities by director Elia Kazan and actor Lee J. Cobb. By September 1950 in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, Loeb was named as a Communist sympathizer.

General Foods, the sponsor of "The Goldbergs," demanded that Loeb be fired. Gertrude Berg refused and General Foods backed off. But, several months later, the show was cancelled. Ever resourceful, Berg had heard that Cardinal Spellman was helping rectify these situations and asked for his support. However, his condition was that she convert to Catholicism, which was not tenable for a woman of such principles.

LUCY VERSUS MOLLY

By the time her show got back on the air in 1952 without Philip Loeb, Lucille Ball's "I Love Lucy" which premiered in October 1951, had taken over her viewers. So "The Goldbergs," a prime-time show with twenty years of unwavering public support, got pushed aside. Now, few people know about the show and its creator Gertrude Berg, who in 1949 had won the first Emmy for lead actress in a comedy show. What cinched the death of the show was when the venue moved from the tenement where Molly leaned out of the window and talked to all her neighbors to the sterile suburbs where Molly had to wait for people to knock on her door.

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Never giving up her acting career, she won a Tony in 1959 for her performance as best actress in A Majority of One. Berg also tried to make a TV come back in 1961 with another sitcom entitled "Mrs. G Goes to College." Other accomplishments include The Molly Goldberg Cookbook, a song that Patsy Cline included in her repertoire ("That Wonderful Someone"), and a best-selling memoir, Molly and Me. The Dresser finds it amusing that while Berg told Edward R. Murrow that she taught Molly Goldberg everything Molly knew, Berg was not known for her cooking. So "No," to you ladies who grooved on the Dresser's recent post of Julie & Julia, "The Molly Goldberg Cookbook is nothing like Mastering the Art of French Cooking." Well, on second thought, the Dresser thinks both books are heavy on butter and animal fat.MollyGoldbergBread.jpg

THE ROSTER OF WOMEN WITH PRINCIPLES

In the talkback session after the film ended, Aviva Kempner said she hurried the film for release, and this was prior to paying for all the permissions (any patrons with deep pockets listening in?), because people in her targeted audience are elderly and rapidly departing this life. However, she is hopeful of gaining a young audience and the Dresser thinks the angle for Kempner to promote is that Gertrude Berg was a woman of principle who did not back down or cave when the angry and scared white men of the 1950s caused her popular show to go off the air. Talking about women of principle, U. S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg appears in this film to talk about her experience of "The Goldbergs." Check the movie website for where to catch a screening of this film.

In Kathi Morrison-Taylor's poem "On Heritage Night at My Children's Elementary School," the poet narrator owns up to her family background in a way the speaks to the honesty that Gertrude Berg lived.

ON HERITAGE NIGHT AT MY CHILDREN'S
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

I show up with brownies, nothing exotic or ethnic
or spicy, no soul food, fried rice, or plantains.
In a Betty Crocker pyramid, I display my dark, sugary fix
awkwardly, pretending a wholesome, American heritage,

while inside, I am the dilute white of my father's alcoholic amnesia,
a translucent fog as homogenous as a mild cold.
I show up with brownies out of a box, whisked with oil,
eggs and water, the color of brandy in his morning coffee,

dense and slightly under-baked. I set them on a table in the gym
wondering what others will think of me, wondering
what I think of them. In an addict's kingdom that's how you think,
sizing up others, who like you, may hear heritage and know

Jack Daniels, gin, or a six-pack could as easily appear as this array
of international casseroles. In a United Nations' stew of young families,
screw my historic English, Swedish, Scottish, French blood lines.
Our parents teach us what to do, or not to do, in my case.

Kathi Morrison-Taylor
from By the Nest

Copyright © 2009 Kathi Morrison-Taylor

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 23, 2009 1:42 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Verge Ensemble: The Pleasure of Listening.

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