Berle, Milton (1908—)

views updated

Berle, Milton (1908—)

Milton Berle, a former vaudevillian, film actor, and radio comedian, was television's first real star. Credited with selling over a million television sets during his first years hosting the weekly Tuesday night NBC program Texaco Star Theatre, Berle became post war America's beloved "Uncle Miltie." Since Texaco Star Theatre first aired in 1948, only a year after the three major networks first began broadcasting programming on the new medium, much of Berle's urban audience was watching television in communal environs—in neighbors' homes, in taverns, and in community centers. A 1949 editorial in Variety magazine heralded the performer for his impact on the lives of city viewers: "When, single handedly, you can drive the taxis off the streets of New York between 8 and 9 on a Tuesday night; reconstruct neighborhood patterns so that stores shut down Tuesday nights instead of Wednesdays, and inject a showman-ship in programming so that video could compete favorably with the more established show biz media—then you rate the accolade of 'Mr. Television."'

Yet, the brash, aggressive, ethnic, and urban vaudeville style that made him such a incredible phenomenon during television's early years were, ironically, the very traits that lead to his professional decline in the mid-1950s. As television disseminated into suburban and rural areas, forever altering audience demographics, viewers turned away from Berle's broad and bawdy antics and towards the middle-class sensibilities of domestic sitcoms such as I Love Lucy andThe Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Nevertheless, his infusion of vaudeville-style humor would impact the form and functions of television comedy for decades.

Born in Harlem in 1908, Berle (whose birth name was Mendel Berlinger) was the second youngest of Moses and Sarah (later changed to Sandra) Berlinger's five children. His father, a shopkeeper, was often sick and unable to work. His mother tried to bring in money working as a store detective, but it was a very young Milton who became the real breadwinner of the family. After winning a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest at the age of five, Sarah became convinced that her son had an innate comedic talent. As his manager, she got him work in Biograph-produced silent films, performing alongside the likes of Pearl White (in the famous Perils of Pauline serial), Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. He then performed in a number of traveling vaudeville "kid acts" and made his first appearance on Broadway in a 1920 production of Floradora. For four years Berle was teamed with Elizabeth Kennedy in a highly successful boy-girl comedy act on the Keith-Albee circuit. But, after Kennedy left to their act to get married, Berle, who was sixteen, found he had grown too tall to continue performing in kid acts. It was at this point that he developed his city-slicker, wise-cracking, physically frenetic, adult stage personality. His new act included a bit of soft-shoe, some pratfalls, one-liners, impersonations of comedians such as Eddie Cantor, and, occasionally, a drag performance. By the late 1920s, he had become a vaudeville headliner and master of ceremonies, often breaking attendance records at venues such as the famous Palace Theatre in Manhattan.

As Berle garnered praise for his comic timing and style many of his fellow comedians complained loudly and bitterly about his penchant for "stealing" material. Berle countered such accusations with his firm belief that jokes were public property and by incorporating his reputation as the "Thief of Bad Gags" into his on-stage persona. But ironically, just as the comedian's star was rising in the early 1930s, vaudeville entered a slump from which it would never recover. While performing in nightclubs and in Broadway shows, Berle tried his hand in radio. Yet, unlike other former vaudevillians such as Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor who found national stardom on the medium, Berle was never a success on radio—even though he starred in over six different programs. This was due, in large part, to Berle's reliance on physical humor and visual cues instead of scripted jokes and funny scenarios.

After failing in radio, Berle attempted to parlay his visual talents into a movie career. Beginning with RKO's New Faces of 1937, the comedian completed nine features in six years. Yet, most of them were "B" pictures and none of them attracted significant numbers at the box office. Although film allowed Berle to employ the essential physical cues of his humor, the medium proved too constricting for him as there was no audience interaction nor was there any room for ad-libbing or spontaneous pratfalls, elements essential to his performance style. Instead of seeing the ways in which his comedy was simply unsuited to the aesthetic characteristics of radio and film, the comedian (as well as many radio and Hollywood executives) began to question his appeal to a mass audience. So, Berle returned to what he knew best—working in front of a live audience in nightclubs and legitimate theaters.

In the spring of 1948, Berle was approached by Kudner, Texaco's advertising agency, to appear as a rotating host on their new television program. Although the agency had tried out other top comedy names such as Henny Youngman, Morey Amsterdam, and Jack Carter during their trial spring and summer, it was Berle that was chosen as the permanent host of the program for the following fall. It was the comedian, not the producers, who crafted the format and content on the show, as, at least for the first year on air, Berle was the program's sole writer and controlled every aspect of the production including lighting and choreography. His program and persona were an immediate hit with a primarily urban audience accustomed to the limited offerings of wrestling, roller derbys, news, and quiz programs. The vaudeville-inspired format of Texaco Star Theatre, although popular on radio, had not yet made it onto television, and Berle's innovative and flamboyant style proved irresistible. His aggressive emphasis on the physical aspects of comedy, slick vaudeville routines, ability to ad-lib, expressive gestures, and quick tongue made him an enormous success in an industry looking to highlight visuality and immediacy. What came to be known as the "Berle craze" not only brought major profits to NBC and Texaco, it also set off a proliferation of similar variety shows on television. Berle was rewarded for this with an unprecedented 30 year contract with NBC guaranteeing him $200,000 a year.

Berle became infamous with post war audiences for his drag routines, impersonations, and his constant joking references to his mother. Berle's relationship with Sarah was a key element in his onand off-stage persona. Almost every article written about Berle during his years on television included at least one reference to the loving, but perhaps over-bearing, stage mother. Although reinforcing a long-standing cultural stereotype of the relationship between Jewish mothers and their sons, Berle's constant references to his mother helped domesticate his image. Often criticized for his inclusion of sexual innuendoes, ethnic jokes, and other material best suited to an adult nightclub audience, Berle, his sponsor, and NBC needed to ensure Texaco's appeal to a family audience. Although Sarah Berle helped remind the public of Berle's familial origins, his own troubled relationship with his first wife dancer Joyce Matthews threatened to taint his image as a wholesome family man. After adopting a child with Berle and then divorcing him twice, Matthews attempted suicide in the home of theatrical producer Billy Rose, her married lover. This scandal, along with rumors of Berle's own extramarital affairs, left him with a questionable reputation in an age when morality and duty to one's family was considered a man's utmost responsibility.

Just as his personal life was under scrutiny, so was his professional life. His popularity with audiences was beginning to wane in the early 1950s and a new style of comedy was on the horizon threatening to usurp his standing as television's most prominent face. In the fall of 1952, after the program's ratings began to drop and Berle was hospitalized for exhaustion, the producers of Texaco tried to revamp the program's format by placing Berle within a situational context and introducing a regular cast of characters. This move, however, did not save the show and Texaco dropped their sponsorship at the end of that season. Berle acquired a new sponsor and continued his program as The Buick-Berle Show for two more seasons until it to was taken off the air.

Although starring in The Milton Berle Show for one season in 1955 and appearing on various television programs and specials in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Berle never regained his once impenetrable hold on the American television audience. Eventually renegotiating his contract with NBC in 1965 to allow him to perform on other networks, Berle made quite a few guest appearances on both comedy and dramatic programs. In addition, he appeared in a number of films including The Muppet Movie in 1979 and Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose in 1984. Since then, he has been honored with numerous professional awards and in the late 1990s published his own magazine Milton with his third wife Lorna. Exploiting the nostalgia for the accouterments of a 1950s lifestyle, the magazine tried, with limited success, to revive Berle's persona for a new generation with the motto "we drink, we smoke, we gamble."

—Sue Murray

Further Reading:

Adair, Karen. The Great Clowns of American Television. New York, McFarland, 1988.

Berle, Milton. B.S. I Love You. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1987.

Berle, Milton with Haskel Frankel. Milton Berle: An Autobiography. New York, Delacourte, 1974.

"Highlights 48-49 Showmanagement Review: Television Awards."Variety, July 27, 1949, 35.

Rader, Dorothy. "The Hard Life, the Strong Loves of a Very Funny Man." Parade magazine, The Boston Globe. March 19, 1989, 6.

Wertheim, Frank. "The Rise and Fall of Milton Berle." American History/American Television. John O'Connor, editor. New York, Fredrick Ungar Publications, 1983, 55-77.