Art Exhibits, Film Showcases Life & Work of Rube Goldberg

For most of us, the name Rube Goldberg invokes comedic images and cartoons of a chain reaction machine that perform a simple task in an indirect or overcomplicated way. Remember when Pee-Wee Herman used his breakfast machine to make eggs and toast? Or, when Sesame Street’s Grover built a machine to get balls into a bucket? Perhaps you have seen Goldberg’s classic comic panels that appeared in hundreds of newspapers in the first half of the 20th century.

But for Geoff George, a St. Paul native, these images represent the grandfather that he never knew. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg died when George was only 9 years old, but that has not stopped him and his family members from creating a legacy for him that has inspired STEM teachers and students around the world.

Now, Geoff George’s film and its complementary exhibits are his labors of love for a grandfather he never really knew, creating a legacy that encompasses the multiple aspects of his grandfather’s long career.

George’s film, The Two Lives of Rube Goldberg, will have its premiere at the Minnesota JCC’s Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival on Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. The film reveals the Goldberg/George family’s patriarch first by describing his life as a cartoonist and artist. His “rebirth” is shown in the second part of the film.

Expanding on Goldberg’s life and work, the JCC’s Sabes Center will host an exhibit, Simplicity Made Complex: The Life and Legacy of Rube Goldberg. In addition, a kinetic sculpture, inspired by Rube Goldberg’s famous machines, by local artist Robin Schwartzman will be on display. Concurrently, at the JCC’s Capp Center in St. Paul, the exhibit Complexity Made Simple: The Political Cartoons of Rube Goldberg will take an inverse view of Goldberg’s work, focusing on his political cartooning and ability to distill a complex geopolitical landscape into a single image, a pursuit for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Political Cartooning in 1947. Artwork by Rube’s son, Thomas George, will also be on display in the hallway exhibition areas of both JCCs.

The official repository of Rube Goldberg’s cartoons is at the University of California, Berkeley. Toward the end of his life, he took up sculpture. Some are in the local exhibits, but many have become part of the permanent collections of major museums across the country. His cartoons were recognized as an important part of American culture when the Smithsonian Institution presented a retrospective of Goldberg’s work in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s. Goldberg was one of the founders of the National Cartoonists Society and served as its first president. The annual Reuben Award was designed by Rube Goldberg himself.

During Rube Goldberg’s life, winners of Purdue University’s Rube Goldberg contraption contests became occasional features of late-night television programs. The contest went on hiatus for many years, but in 1980, Purdue University revived the competition, and the concept took wings: one of Rube’s sons, recognizing how such contests could memorialize Rube’s name and inspiration, started a company to set rules and standards for competitions consistent with Rube’s own artistic goals. The company is now run by Geoff George and his cousins.

“Rube Goldberg has been reborn as an educator,” Geoff George explains. “His contraptions teach students the process by which machines are built.” Rube Goldberg machine contests are now held worldwide and feature prominently in the film. Videos of contraptions are easily available on the internet and can provide viewers with hours of fascinating entertainment. George continued, “the ironic thing is that none of his contraptions were ever actually built in his lifetime. That’s the legacy: having Rube Goldberg contraptions built by young people today.” 

The Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival will be held virtually from October 16-31. 

This article is sponsored content from the Minnesota JCC as part of TC Jewfolk’s Partnership program. For more information, check out our media kit.

This article is based on an article by Doris Rubenstein that was originally published in the October 2021 issue of the American Jewish World.