I went to see Aviva Kempner’s documentary film “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg” with limited expectations. I am not sure why this was, but I was looking forward to a pleasant, but probably not memorable, evening. I was wrong, and anyone interested in “The Goldbergs” or early television or McCarthy-ite Congressional blacklisting should see the movie, which was extremely well done. It opened last month in Washington and I know has been seen in festivals in various places. I am not sure what type of a general distribution it will have.
I am not going to go through the story line here; there have been several reviews which do that. Generally, it tells of a bright, but not educated woman, Tillie Edelstein/Gertrude Berg/Molly Goldberg, who was well ahead of her times, and who wanted to accomplish something noteworthy and did. A prodigious worker, she wrote and sold and starred in the show both on radio and television for over 20 years, often having to put together scripts for five shows a week.
The side story to my mind, however, is that of Philip Loeb, who played Molly’s husband Jake on the original CBS television version of the show, until he ran afoul of the Congressional black listers, and was forced off the show (in spite of Berg’s persistence in support of him) by the network and the sponsor, General Foods. Loeb was not a Communist (he was later actually cleared of the charge), but had been active in union affairs and thus was just as bad in the eyes of many.
Loeb did not recover from his ordeal, and in 1955, checked into the Taft Hotel in New York where he committed suicide. Loeb plays a featured role in “Yoo Hoo”, and Zero Mostel and his wife Kate play a smaller role, because Mostel and Loeb were best friends.
The day after I saw “Yoo Hoo”, I went to see “Zero Hour”, a one man show, written by and starring Jim Brochu as Zero Mostel. It opens the season at Theater J. “Zero Hour” has played in four other cities to good reviews and last night’s audience was very appreciate both during the show and after, where Brochu received a standing ovation. I wish that I enjoyed the show as much as most others seemed to, but I did not. Although I appreciated the apparent accuracy of the script (which tells the story of Mostel’s life and career), and although I will accept that Mostel was both a funny man and an angry man, I found the performance to be a bit to in my face, too bombastic, and not sufficiently reflective. Now this is just me, mind you; I am not speaking for the rest of the audience, who took to the character much more positively than I. (And I stayed for a talk-back with Brochu, artistic director Ari Roth and dramaturg Shirley Serotsky, which I thought was excellent, and helped me appreciate the show itself a bit more.)
Again, Philip Loeb was a major focus of the show, how much he did as an Actors Equity spokesman, his career, his friendship with the Mostels, his decline after the blacklisting, and his death.
I spent part of this morning looking at what there is about Loeb on the internet. It is surprisingly sparse. A Wikipedia entry is pretty basic. There are the New York Times articles about his travail on “The Goldbergs” and his death. A notice that his papers (which do not seem very extensive) are at the New York Public Library. And listings of his TV and stage performances on IMDB and IBDB.
But there is a story here that needs to be told, and that may not yet have had sufficient attention paid to it. A strong, if not stellar, acting career. A teacher of dramatic arts. A leading member of the Theatre Guild and Actors Equity Association. A supporter of rights for working actors, and of civil rights for all Americans. A victim of blacklisting. A husband. A father of a schizophrenic son. A man who could not, when all is said and done, hold it together.
A few personal notes. I remember The Goldbergs when I was quite young; I remember watching with my grandparents. But I don’t think I ever saw Philip Loeb. Loeb was on the show when it was on CBS. After he left, the show moved to NBC. In St. Louis, we did not get a CBS affiliate until 1954, so I assume that I only saw the NBC version, which would have been after Loeb’s dismissal.
Everyone seemed to love Philip Loeb, both for what he did and for the way he was, both works and personality. The same thing cannot be said for Zero Mostel, who was obviously quite feisty and did not suffer fools gladly. Mostel himself disliked a lot of peoplel Most were those who “named names” at the HUAC hearings in the early 50s. But those weren’t the only ones. Another was David Merrick, whom, in Zero Hour, he describes as something like “a brilliant man, but the biggest son of a bitch around”.
David Merrick was born in St. Louis, and attended Washington University there, where he was a classmate of my mother’s. He wasn’t David Merrick yet; that was the result of a name change. He was David Margulis. Margulis also happened to be my mother’s maiden name. She used to tell how for years people would ask her if she were related to David Margulis, perhaps his sister. My mother’s opinion of David Margulis was similar to Zero Mostel’s, and every time she had to repeat that she was not related to that guy whom nobody liked, she grew more and more upset.