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Before we loved Lucy, Gertrude Berg was TV's first funny lady

People may be stunned to learn that Lucille Ball didn't invent the sitcom or win the first Emmy as best actress, and she wasn't America's first favorite mom.

Those benchmarks were accomplished by an overlooked television legend named Gertrude Berg, chief writer and star of The Goldbergs, which debuted in 1949, two years before the viewing public loved Lucy.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner brings Berg's illustrious career out of the shadows with Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, a revelatory documentary opening Wednesday at Tampa Theatre.

Kempner, 62, specializes in profiling Jewish-American cultural icons, including Hank Greenberg (The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg), the Detroit Tigers slugger who, like Jackie Robinson, overcame bigoted barriers in pro sports. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg — the title was each episode's opening line — tells another story long overdue.

Kempner fielded five questions from her New York home, where she's working on a special edition DVD of the Greenberg biography. The first question to her was a no-brainer:

How has a trailblazer like Gertrude Berg gone unheralded all these years?

Well, the show was never syndicated, and they were really hurt by the (Hollywood) blacklist. But oftentimes, pioneers just aren't given credit. The movie appears to be making a difference, though. Our tagline is: "The most famous woman in America you've never heard of." That's no longer true.

Did Berg ever face the kind of anti-Semitism that hounded Greenberg during his career?

I couldn't find any evidence of that (occurring) to her. She was living in the milieu of New York, was accepted by the entertainment business and just forged ahead. It's just amazing that she had this powerful Jewish show at a time of great domestic anti-Semitism and the destruction of European Jewry. It's almost as if she was in an entertainment bubble.

Did anything you learned about Berg surprise you?

I didn't know about her mother being mentally ill. It's incredible that Gertrude could craft such a positive mother role for television when she didn't have it herself. To me, that's heroic. I want to be inspired in life, and certain people have always inspired me. My mother, for example, surviving the Holocaust by passing as a Polish Catholic. Gertrude Berg is a just a different kind of Jewish hero.

However, your next project isn't about a Jewish hero but American Indian activist Larry Casuse.

He's not Jewish, but he is a hero, and he's tribal, which is something in common. Casuse was a Navajo activist in the early 1970s, around the time of Wounded Knee. He was fighting to end the exploitation of Navajos in Gallup, N.M., and got so frustrated after all the avenues he tried (had) failed that he kidnapped the mayor. I'm also working on documentaries about Samuel Gompers, the union leader, and Julius Rosenthal, who partnered with Booker T. Washington to build almost 5,000 schools in the rural South.

With Greenberg and now Berg, your films declare there's more to modern Jewish history than the Holocaust, which filmmakers typically rely upon.

You hit it right on the button. My MO is to make films about under-known Jewish heroes and to break stereotypes. My movies have done that.

I've told stories about Jews fighting back (during the Holocaust), when people think they went to slaughter like lambs. Another stereotype is that all Jewish men are nebbishes, nerds like Woody Allen. I mean, Hank Greenberg was my hero growing up — a strong, powerful male. And Jewish women are very loving mothers and grandmothers, not the overbearing, nagging type that we often see depicted on the screen, as in Taking Woodstock. The mother in that movie was a money-grubbing, cruel woman. I just hated that.

Unfortunately, a lot of (those depictions) come from Jewish filmmakers who I don't think have a good sense of pride about their people. They don't think it's important to have a sense of identity or vision there. Our enemies make enough fun of us. We don't need to add to them.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

if you go

You-Hoo,

Mrs. Goldberg

The film opens Wednesday at Tampa Theatre.

Read Steve Persall's review Thursday in Weekend or at entertainment.tampabay.com.

Before we loved Lucy, Gertrude Berg was TV's first funny lady 10/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 24, 2009 4:31am]
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