Tuesday-at-8... A half-century ago when television was in its infancy, that hour meant one thing: it was time for Milton Berle.
Berle's weekly comedy hour, The Texaco Star Theater, telecast "live" 39 weeks a year from NBC's studios in New York, was the new medium's first great phenomenon. It premiered in June, 1948, and shot to the top of the ratings charts. It was the only regularly- scheduled program not pre-empted the evening of November 2, 1948, for coverage of the hotly contested Truman-Dewey Presidential Election. So popular was the star that he was quickly nicknamed both "Mr. Television" and "Uncle Miltie," the latter because he had become an unofficial member of everyone's family.
Milton Berle, everyone's favorite relative, died March 27, 2002, at his home in Los Angeles. He was 93.
Berle was a longtime personal and professional friend of Lucille Ball, their association dating back to 1937 when both were young contract players at RKO. Lucy was just getting her first meaningful role -- that of an aspiring young actress -- in the studio's production of "Stage Door." Milton was being showcased in "New Faces of 1937." The two reportedly dated a few times, but Lucy later confessed that a romance was impossible because Milton's mother, Sarah, was always around.
Sarah Glantz Berlinger was, indeed, the quintessential "stage mother," a frustrated wannabe-actress herself who lived vicariously through the career of her son. And what a career it was!
Berle was born Mendel Berlinger in Harlem, NY, on July 12, 1908. He began his career at age 5 when he won a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, and he appeared with Chaplin and Marie Dressler in "Tillie's Punctured Romance." He went on to become a highly regarded child actor of the silent era, appearing in roughly 50 movies with such stars as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Marion Davies and Mabel Normand.
In 1916 he was enrolled in the Professional Children's School, and in 1920, at age 12, he made his stage debut in "Floradora" in Atlantic City. Four weeks later the show moved to Broadway. He spent the next 12 years in vaudeville, making his first appearance in "Melody of Youth" at the Nixon Grand Theatre in Philadelphia. He appeared in New York City at the famed Palace Theatre in 1921 as half of the "Kennedy and Berle" comedy team. As a single, he toured the various vaudeville circuits with his own company, and appeared on bills that included the likes of Bing Crosby and Eddy Duchin.
Back on Broadway, he appeared in "Earl Carroll Vanities" in 1932, and in "Saluta!" in 1934. When Hollywood beckoned, he made the aforementioned "New Faces of 1937" and "Radio City Revels" for RKO, followed by "Sun Valley Serenade," "Whispering Ghosts" and "Rise and Shine" at 20th Century-Fox.
The one movie he wanted, however, went to somebody else. It was a comedy called "Having Wonderful Time," produced by Pan Berman at RKO in 1938, based on a smash-hit Broadway play concerning life and love in the Catskills. Berle knew he was perfect for the part of the comedic social director -- he would virtually be playing himself! Berman, however, decided to make the very-Jewish Broadway comedy more white-bread American, and cast a young Red Skelton in the part. (Also in the film: Ginger Rogers, Doug Fairbanks, Jr. -- and Lucy.) Berle, however, may have had the last laugh: the film bombed!
On radio, Berle performed regularly on The Rudy Vallee Hour between 1934-36, and made guest appearances on nearly every major comedy-variety program thereafter. He starred in his own Milton Berle Show for CBS Radio in 1943 and for NBC Radio in 1944-45, followed by Philip Morris Playhouse on CBS in 1947-48.
By then, of course, television was on the horizon, and Berle took the idea for a new hour-long comedy-and-vaudeville hour to Philip Morris president, Alfred Lyon, and to Milton Biow, who headed the Biow advertising agency that handled the PM account. Neither of the men expressed much enthusiasm for either the show or the new video medium -- and they wound up cancelling the Berle radio show as well. A few weeks later, Texaco not only signed him to star in their radio program, but announced plans for a new weekly TV show. They invited Berle to headline the first one -- on June 6, 1948. A handful of other entertainers each hosted subsequent episodes throughout the summer, but none compared with Berle. He was signed to be the program's permanent host -- and officially became the star of the show on September 21, 1948.
Happily -- for Lucy fans, at any rate -- Biow and Lyons both quickly saw the error of their ways, and by 1951 openly embraced the new television medium: Philip Morris was the first sponsor of I Love Lucy. By then, of course, Milton Berle had become TV's first superstar.
Berle ruled Tuesday nights in America, dominating the new medium in a way no one else ever has, and becoming perhaps the most famous man in America in those years. Life magazine reported that in 1947 there were 17 television stations in the United States broadcasting to 136,000 sets. As a consequence of Berle's success by the end of 1948 there were more than 50 stations and 700,000 sets.
At one point, his show's Hooper rating (Nielsen was not yet in the business) was 80.7 -- 28.9 points ahead of its nearest competition.
"Crazy things began to happen all over the country," Berle recalled in his autobiography. Nightclubs changed their closing to Tuesday nights from Monday because of the popularity of the Berle show. Restaurants were empty for the hour that he was on the air, and business in movie houses and theatres plummeted. "In Detroit, an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05," Berle wrote. "It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the 'Texaco Star Theatre' before going to the bathroom."
Berle's forte was appearing in outrageous costumes -- often times in drag... His brand of comedy was no less-subtle, normally the broadest slapstick possible. Such physical high-jinks were very visual -- and an audience accustomed to pictureless radio comedy found it delightful.
Berle's success gained him access to many of the biggest names in show business. Among those who made guest appearances are Frank Sinatra and Tallulah Bankhead (photo, left), Ted Lewis, Lauritz Melchior, Basil Rathbone, the Nicholas Brothers, Martha Raye and Phil Silvers.
Perhaps more importantly, it both legitimized television in the eyes of already established comedians, and opened the doors for those just getting started. Within two years of Berle's premiere, the TV schedules were crowded with the programs of Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Eddie Cantor, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Alan Young, Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Jackie Gleason, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and countless more.
Berle worked like a Trojan during those early years, overseeing virtually every aspect production. It bothered him almost from the start that the show had to be done "live," with only a shadowy kinescope recording to serve as a permanent record. (A kinescope was rather crude film made by a camera focused on a TV screen.) Video tape had not yet been invented. In the summer of 1950, he made the rounds at the big studios in Hollywood, and tried to make a deal to have at least some of his programs produced on film. MGM... 20th Century-Fox... Columbia Pictures... they all turned him down. They considered television to be the enemy, the new fangled device that was keeping people from going to the movies. (Desi Arnaz would encounter similar resistance a year later when he tried to find a studio home for I Love Lucy.)
NBC offered Berle little solace -- the network liked his shows just the way they were: the "live" aspect added a certain edge, an excitement, an immediacy that could not be duplicated on film. To placate him, they offered him a then-unheard-of $3 million "lifetime" contract -- an agreement underwhich he would be paid $100,000 a year for 30 years in exchange for his exclusive services, whether he worked or not. At least for a while, it seemed like a fantastic deal!
Texaco continued its sponsorship of the Berle show until 1953, when Buick stepped in and the title was changed to The Buick-Berle Show. Then from 1954-56 it was simply The Milton Berle Show, and it alternated with the shows of Martha Raye, Bob Hope and Steve Allen.
Berle's format changed slightly over the years -- but basically Berle was always Berle, and that meant sight-gags and boisterous humor. By 1956, however, a now-more-sophisticated viewing public had grown weary of such shenanigans, and Berle's ratings plummeted. He took two years off, then tried again as host of the Kraft Music Hall during the 1958-59 season. He was more restrained this time -- there was no slapstick and no outrageous costumes -- and he functioned more as a host than as the central focus of the show. Ratings were respectable, but neither Kraft or Berle was interested in a second season. He turned instead to specials.
Lucy and Desi, by then, had converted their I Love Lucy series into the monthly Lucille Ball - Desi Arnaz Show specials -- and wanted Berle to guest-star in their first show of the 1959-60 season. Berle had to get NBC's blessing (the Arnazes were on CBS), and the network agreed with the stipulation that Lucy and Desi appear on Berle's November special in return.
"Milton Berle Hides Out at the Ricardos" aired Friday evening, September 25, 1959 -- the first regularly-scheduled Lucy-Desi comedy not to air on a Monday night. In the story, Lucy disobeys her husband and tries to talk Berle into appearing at her PTA benefit. He agrees, provided he first finishes a book he's writing. To accomplish this, he will need peace and quiet -- something sorely missing from his New York office. Again unbeknownst to Ricky, Lucy offers Berle the use of the Ricardo home... The most-famous scene in the show occurs when Ricky discovers that "some man" has been visiting his wife every day -- and barges in to surprise them. Berle quickly disguises himself -- once again in full drag -- as Lucy and Ethel's dear friend "Mildred," and attempts to leave unscathed. (See color photo, top).
The NBC trade-off, which aired Sunday, November 1, was not nearly as funny, but had its moments. It, too, was a "book" show, with Ricky and Lucy now encountering Berle at a casino in Las Vegas. Ricky warns Lucy to "stay away from Milton Berle," but she is soon "messing in" where she is not wanted. First, she ruins Berle's chances of winning big at the slot machines, then "butts in" to solve a romantic problem in his private life. Her scheming gets them both involved with a group of gangsters, from whom they try to hide disguised as a bride-and-groom in a nearby wedding chapel. It was all looniness -- not nearly as well scripted as a normal "Lucy" show -- but still provided wonderful moments between two of TV's comic geniuses.
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