The Golden Age on the Silver Screen: Aviva Kempner Brings TV Pioneer to Life
By Pamela Cohn
Editor's Note: Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg comes out on DVD August 24, through New Video/DocuRama. The following article was puiblished in conjucntion with the film's theatrical release in July 2009.
In Aviva Kempner's latest film, screenwriter Margaret Nagle recalls, "There was a list every year of the most respected women in America. Eleanor Roosevelt was first and Gertrude Berg would be second. There was also a list of the highest wage earners in America, and Gertrude Berg was first and Eleanor Roosevelt was second." And who, exactly, was Gertrude Berg, you might be asking?
Most people really have no idea of the impact this first-generation American Jewish woman had on the face of national television entertainment, literally connecting to millions of households across America sending "greetings from our family to your family" from the set of the Goldbergs' Manhattan apartment. Gertrude Berg was a force of nature--a media mogul, a brilliant screenwriter, the first woman to win an Emmy.
You could also describe Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg's director as a force of nature, for to make this feature-length documentary (or any of her other projects, for that matter), Kempner was as persistent and resourceful and determined as her subject ever was in her own work. She is on her way to realizing her dream of saluting this amazing woman and telling her story to as wide an audience as possible.
Gertrude Berg, born Tillie Edelstein in 1898 in Harlem, was the creator, principal writer and star of The Goldbergs, a popular radio show that ran for 17 years. The show became television's first domestic sitcom in 1949, making its star a national icon. This was at a time of severe economic depression (the radio show premiered a week after the stock market crash of 1929) and the TV show about a middle-class American Jewish family was becoming hugely popular as Hitler was rising to power over in Germany.
Also, by the time the TV show had reached its zenith in popularity, Senator Joseph McCarthy had cooked up his blacklist and The Goldbergs experienced the fallout from this devastating political movement first-hand when Berg's co-star, Philip Loeb, who played Jake Goldberg to Gertrude's Molly, was targeted by McCarthy. After holding strong, Berg, under intense pressure and threats from sponsors, finally settled with Loeb in 1952 and he left the show; sadly, he killed himself three years later, and the show was cancelled in 1956.
Among those interviewed in Kempner's beautifully realized film are actor Ed Asner, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, television producers Gary David Goldberg and Norman Lear, CBS anchor Andrea Roane and NPR commentator Susan Stamberg. As for Kempner, her goal for the past 30 years has been to make documentaries about little-known Jewish heroes and heroines, celebrating a positive legacy when so much negativity is part and parcel of Jewish history and culture. Another goal of Kempner's, of which she is adamant, is that of exhibiting her work in the cinema.
I spoke with the award-winning filmmaker by telephone about her latest work as she took a break from a post session at Du Art in Manhattan. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg took six years to make (a bit of an improvement over The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, which took her 13). We talked about the never-ending grind of raising money for documentary film projects and why she feels compelled to release her works theatrically.
Documentary: What really impressed me about this piece, among many things, is that really fine balance you strike between all the superb archival material you've gathered and your live interviews.
Aviva Kempner: Thank you. That's actually an MO of mine, something I strive for.
D: It can be a difficult balance to find, particularly when one doesn't have the wealth of material you've gathered and pieced together to tell the story of not only Gertrude Berg, but also the timbre and mood of a distinct period of time in America. You also had great access to some of her family members. How do you weight those things over the course of constructing a feature-length doc?
AK: I decided to do this film six years ago this month, which is seven years less than it took me to make Hank Greenberg. This, you understand, is all due to financial reasons. In fact, the Washington Post did a story on me last month called "Documentarian's Tenacity Pays Off in Fundraising," about how I raise money. I have a 501(c)(3) and, of course, I depend on "the kindness of strangers."
I work as a director first. I go for all the great shots that will fit in with the narrative. I don't like using narration. I wanted Gertrude Berg herself and her family and her biographer to tell her story. Then I find the footage. Even though it costs me thousands upon thousands of dollars, I firmly believe that using feature footage from that time is key. If you're talking about the suffering Jewish mother, then you have to use The Jazz Singer. If you're talking about struggling in the hotel business, you use Cocoanuts. If you're talking about the whole immigrant experience, you use Charlie Chaplin.
However, as a producer, I'm responsible for raising the money to pay for all this stuff; it's about $200,000 in rights and clearances. This is not fair use material; I'm using this footage to tell the story, so I have to cut deals left and right. I got Lucille Ball footage and Honeymooners footage gratis from CBS, which was really great, but everything else cost me. That Edward R. Murrow interview with Gertrude was key; I had to have that.
D: And you negotiate all of this yourself?
AK: Oh yes. I have a post-production coordinator that makes the initial contacts, then I go in for the kill. I raise the money for what I have to pay, and I'm still thousands in debt. I'm sitting here at Du Art, and thank goodness for Irwin Young [who heads the lab], who lets me pay off in time. Every independent filmmaker should have Irwin Young in his or her life.
D: Why is a cinema release so vital to you?
AK: Because I grew up loving the movies, going to the big Mercury Theater in Detroit, seeing things like Lawrence of Arabia on the screen. I love cinema. I make documentaries that, hopefully, are entertaining and moving, and I want to continue to make them to be seen, first and foremost, on a big screen, which is why I've always shot on 16 [mm] and blown it up, or why now I use the highest-end HD for the interviews. I know a lot of people just want to get their film out and have it be available on demand, or use other distribution scenarios that will get it out there quickly. I just don't believe in that. I believe in that collective movie experience. The natural audience for this is older people, and they'll go with their families. I think there's a strong appeal for a female audience as well.
Now this means I will probably lose something equivalent to about five years worth of salary. I also hired a distributor to book the film theatrically. [Hank Greenberg] played Film Forum in New York and all across the country. I've upped the ante, and this film will open on July 10 at Lincoln Plaza--I feel like a musician going to play at Carnegie Hall. There's also a theater I helped save in Washington called The Avalon where it'll play [opening July 17], and Landmark Theatres will exhibit it all around the rest of the country. It's something that takes careful planning.
I said to Wendy [Lidell of International Film Circuit, Inc.], Listen, my natural audience is dying every day; I've got to get it out there even before I've paid for it. I also need to exhibit this summer because it's great counter-programming for all the big action blockbusters that come out.
D: This month, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is honoring you with its Freedom of Expression Award.
AK: Yes, I'm the first female and the first American director to win this, and I am so honored. That festival inspired me to start one of my own in Washington 20 years ago. I respect their programming so much. It's more like a career award, at this point. But I still have my "bucket list" of films I need to do. You know, I could have done ten more films by now? It's all about the dollars and the struggle for every one of them. Norman Lear helped me raise first money, and then [Jeffrey] Katzenberg and the David Geffen Foundation came in with some. The Righteous Persons Foundation has been great. The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] was wonderful this time around.
D: It's a small pie, getting smaller and smaller.
AK: Well, I've just hired Melissa Silverstein to help with blogs and other non-traditional media outlets. I have a bunch of interns who are going to divide up the country by region and hit Twitter and Facebook. The website has to look and function a certain way. I want to use part of the outreach money I've received and go into old folks' homes with the film. It's like a political campaign. In fact, I've been hired to do grassroots work for other films.
D: Outreach coordination is fast becoming a key role in independent filmmaking. The life of a film needs enhancement, some kind of traction to keep it relevant and in the public eye for as long as possible. Without vociferous and constant audience building, you're kind of dead in the water.
AK: We're just trying to get out to as many people as we can get, aside from the usual suspects of the older Jewish audience. It's a challenge but a wonderful one. It was so interesting when I did the works-in-progress screenings for this film, and so many young people commented on the astounding fact that no one had ever heard of Gertrude Berg. Our tagline, aptly, is, "The most famous woman in America you've never heard of." But it's memory lane for a lot of the population, too, that goes beyond just the Jewish one. That's why I have people like Andrea Roane in the film; growing up, she was watching with her family in New Orleans. You don't have to be Jewish to love Molly, just as "historical" films don't have to be boring. They can be cinematic and exciting.
I think people need to take more risks getting their films out there commercially. You have to go raise the money to make the [film] prints, hire a good publicist, divide up the rights and do it yourself. You do need a booking agent and other reps like that. I can't do that on top of everything else I'm doing. But my fundraising never stops.
D: If you wouldn't mind sharing, what are some of the other projects that are on your "bucket list"?
AK: I've co-written a script on a Navajo activist I knew when I was in VISTA in the early '70s. I'm hoping to produce that with my co-writer. It's sort of the Wounded Knee story of New Mexico--again, an important story and a hero hardly anyone knows about. Not a Jewish one, however, but from a different tribe.
There's also a story I want to do on the Rosenwald Schools and the work of Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist who partnered with Booker T. Washington to build over 5,000 schools in the South. Another project I'm working on is about the great Samuel Gompers, the labor organizer.
D: An ambitious slate, to be sure. Thank you so much. I hope, by the end of the theatrical run this summer, many more people will know who Gertrude Berg was.
Click here to see the full theatrical booking schedule for Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, rolling out nationally this month.
Pamela Cohn is a New York-based independent media producer, documentary film consultant and freelance writer. She hosts a well-regarded blog on nonfiction filmmaking called Still in Motion.