Before Lucy, There Was Molly

By Springer, Maxine | Moment, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Before Lucy, There Was Molly


Springer, Maxine, Moment


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. …

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