A Toast to Mr. Television

Milton Berle was born Milton Berlinger on July 12, 1908 in Harlem, New York City.  Named “Mr. Television” for the impact he made on that medium in its early days, Berle’s career spanned the 20th Century and he had successes in every medium of entertainment.  Perhaps, Mr. Show Business as he was also sometimes called is a better fit.

”If a person can be born for something, I guess I was born for show business,”

Berle
Trying to hold onto stacks of joke notebooks

Selected Career Highlights:

Milton Berlinger began his career in 1913 at the age of five when his mother entered him in a Charlie Chaplin contest.  He won a tin cup and the show business bug bit.

According to the official Milton Berle page and the playbills of the shows he appeared in he made his screen debut being thrown from a speeding train by Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1914).  That would’ve been close to where I live, by the way in Fort Lee, NJ.  Anyway, I reviewed several chapters of the popular serial and didn’t find Berle anywhere.  If you happen to know which chapter and scene I’d love to know what it is.

Perils

Throughout the 1910s Milton made uncredited appearances in a slew of silent movies (mostly shorts) while also performing on vaudeville.  His first credited role (as Milton Berlinger) was in  Edward L. Hemmer‘s Birthright in 1920.  That same year he made a brief appearance in Fred Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro and his Broadway debut in the Shubert revival of “Floradora.”  He was 8 years old.

  • Boy

Milton Berlinger changed his last name to Berle in 1921 when he teamed with Sandra Kennedy to make “Kennedy and Berle” for the show “Broadway Bound.”  By 1924 16-year-old Milton was working the vaudeville circuit as a solo Master of Ceremonies patterning his act after the popular, Ted Healy.

In January 1932 Berle became the youngest ever Master of Ceremonies at New York’s Palace Theater, the apex of Vaudeville.  Held over for 8 weeks, Berle was the talk of the town soon appearing in popular Broadway’ shows to glowing reviews.  The Berle act was perfected and adored by fans and show biz professionals alike.  Without a miss in the years that followed, Milton Berle was earning a staggering $25,000 a week in the 1930s.

In October 1936 Berle went to Hollywood to screen test for Samuel Goldwyn, but ended up signing with RKO where he made two musical comedies, Leigh Jason’s New Faces of 1937 and Radio City Revels (1938).

1937

1938

In September 1939 Milton Berle opened at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway in George Abbott’s, “See My Lawyer,” which ran through April 1940.

Berle continued to make movies steadily through the 1940s mostly musical comedies that didn’t capture the magic he seemed to have on stage.  He got a chance to do something a bit different in 1943 opposite Joan Bennett in Otto Preminger’s Margin for Error and did a decent job with material that didn’t suit him.

Margin

By the time he made Margin for Error, Milton was popular in movies and a huge success on the Broadway stage.  His biggest achievement to date came that same year when he became the first star to receive top billing over the Ziegfeld Follies in the “Follies of 1943.” That show also enjoyed the longest run of any edition of the Follies.

Since 1929 Milton Berle was also a staple on radio with regular appearances in several popular, variety shows of repute.  His 1929 debut was on “The Fleishmann’s Yeast Hour” starring Rudy Vallee (aka “The Rudy Vallee Hour”).   Despite his steady radio work, however, Berle’s radio career left something to be desired as he would later say, “For a guy who never made it big on radio, I was always on.”  That didn’t mean that he gave up trying to conquer the airwaves.  In 1947 Milton declined lucrative nightclub appearances to host “The Milton Berle Show” in hopes of changing his luck.  (Radioarchives)

Sponsored by Phillip Morris, “The Milton Berle Show” aired on NBC radio on Tuesday nights from March 11, 1947 until April 13, 1948.  I’ve listened to as many of these episodes as I could get my hands on and love them.  I don’t understand why it would’ve lasted only a year.  Berle is as funny as he’s ever been and the rest of the cast is terrific.  Regulars on “The Milton Berle Show” were Arnold Stang, Pert KeltonMary Schipp, Jack Albertson, Arthur Q. Bryan, Ed Begley, vocalist Dick Forney, announcer Frank Gallop with The Ray Bloch Orchestra providing the music.

radio

Berle followed “The Milton Berle Show” with “The Texaco Star Theater” on ABC radio,  He brought Stang, Kelton, Gallop, and writers Hiken and Ruben with him from the previous series and added the then-unknown scriptwriting brothers, Danny and Neil Simon.

Texaco Radio

Milton’s second go at a radio series didn’t fare better than the first, however.  “The Texaco Star Theatre” also lasted only one season.  The difference was that now it didn’t matter.  By the time this show was cancelled Milton Berle was knocking ’em dead on tv!

In 1929, the same year Milton made his radio debut on the Vallee show he first appeared on television in an experimental broadcast in Chicago before 129 people.  He next appeared on the small screen in 1947 on the DuMont network as an auctioneer to raise money for The Heart Fund. (Broadcast Comm.) It was on June 1, 1948 that Berle did a test show for Texaco.  The sponsor liked what it saw and decided to move forward with a live show starring Milton Berle to debut the following week as a summer entry.  The June 8th broadcast was a smash hit.  On September 21, 1948, live from studio 6B in the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center Milton Berle officially debuted as the star of TV’s version of “Texaco Star Theater.”  Within two months after its debut, “Texaco Star Theatre” was so popular that it was the only show not canceled to make way for presidential election coverage on the night that Harry S. Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey.

Texaco44-single-BGv2

For the next eight years the country virtually shut down on Tuesday nights during “Texaco Star Theater” with about 94% of households with televisions tuned in to watch Milton Berle.  The extent of the show’s popularity is explained in “Milton Berle An Autobiography” (Delacorte, 1974).  ”Crazy things started happening all over the country,  Nightclubs changed their closing to Tuesday nights from Monday. Restaurants were empty for the hour the show was on the air and business in movie houses and theaters 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,” Mr. Berle wrote. ”It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the ‘Texaco Star Theater’ before going to the bathroom.”  “Texaco Star Theatre” was also credited for the huge spike in TV sales in working class homes across the country.

During one show Berle jokingly addressed the kids in the audience telling them to listen to their Uncle Miltie.  From then on he was everybody’s Uncle Miltie.

Texaco

 

“Texaco Star Theatre” ads plus a “thank you” from a guest:

 

“Texaco Star Theatre” became “The Buick-Berle Show” in 1953 and “The Milton Berle Show” in 1954.  The show’s title didn’t matter though it was Milton Berle whose name became synonymous with television.  I prefer Berle on radio, but I’ve watched episodes of “Texaco Star Theatre” often as well.  The show is not as refined, for lack of a better word, than my preferred “Your Show of Shows,” with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure.  Milton would usually start the show with a stand-up routine in his unique, manic style and what followed included skits, guest musical numbers and plenty of on-air time for the sponsor.

Berle TV

As television expanded in the mid-1950s the show lost steam.  Milton Berle’s NYC-style comedy seemed to connect less with people in the heartland.  His popularity diminished and by 1955 Berle was dropped from the show.  But he didn’t abandon television or show business.  On the contrary.  Berle hosted three subsequent series, television specials, acted in TV and theatrical movies, packed Vegas showrooms and guest starred on many popular programs for another four decades.  And we’re talking serious variety too.  He appeared in everything from “F-Troop” to “The Big Valley” to “I Dream of Jeannie” to “Mannix” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” to “Beverly Hills, 90210.”   My favorite of the TV guest spots is his recurring role as super villain, Louie, the Lilac on “Batman.”  He did it all.

Louie

In 1984 Milton Berle was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and in 1991 he became the first entertainer inducted into the International Comedy Hall of Fame.

Here are some more images I think you’ll enjoy…

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“I live to laugh, and I laugh to live.” – Milton Berle (July 12, 1908 – March 27, 2002)

Berle

9 thoughts

  1. Thanks for the article!
    There seems to be some questionable information, or at least a typo, on the official Milton Berle site.There is simply no way that he entered a “Charlie Chaplin contest” in 1913. Chaplin made his first appearance as the Little Tramp in February, 1914, and hardly anyone in the US had heard of him before that. Even in the UK, he was at best a minor Vaudeville figure, not someone that would inspire an imitation contest. Such a thing would be highly unlikely until at least mid-1914. Not your fault, of course, you were trusting what seemed a reliable source, but they messed up on this one.

    1. Great point! I actually checked some of the later details they listed bc they seemed suspect, but missed checking this one. I also read his autobiography some ago & don’t remember that.

      1. Yes, I spotted that on “The Silent Era,” and they’re usually pretty careful with facts, so I accept that one as verified. The Chaplin one just doesn’t work unless the date is off.

        1. I searched, as I always do, for these types of things. The Chaplin is noted in the NYTimes obituary for Berle, on biography, in radio archives and on the official site, but didn’t check his autobiography, but that seals it as far as I’m concerned. Although your point on the timing is a good one. Let’s do the math. Berle won the contest at age 5. He turned 5 in July 1913, The contest could have been any time after July 1913 up to July 1914 & I believe Chaplin’s early shorts were released early in 1914. So it’s possible he’d already seen Chaplin.

          1. I suspect part of the problem might be the phrase “Charlie Chaplin contest.” What could have happened is that he won a costume contest, while dressed as Chaplin. That seems more likely for 1914 than someone holding a “Charlie Chaplin contest.” All it takes is one writer making a lazy statement and all these other sources following it without question. (And, yes, Chaplin’s Keystone shorts were already being seen as early as March 1914. On the other hand, the real “Chaplin craze” didn’t get going until 1915 or 16).

          2. Yeah. Likely Berle called it that after the fact. In any case, interesting to consider how it might’ve happened. If memory serves the “contest” was in upstate NY.

          3. The other possibility, as strange as it sounds, is that he actually saw Chaplin perform live with the Fred Karno company in 1913, and there was some kind of contest in connection with that event. It’s a bit hard to imagine that being called a “Charlie Chaplin contest,” though

    2. OK. Just confirmed in his autobiography: Milton won the Chaplin contest in Mount Vernon. What was just as good in his mother’s eyes, he won. ”When I took the contest, she saw a door opening, and she was determined to get her whole family through to where it was safe and warm,” Mr. Berle wrote. Now confused about the timing myself.

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