DIED: March 27, 2002 • Beverly Hills, California
Milton Berle was the first superstar of the television age. His variety show (a program that features many different types of entertainment), Texaco Star Theater, was a huge hit in the late 1940s and early 1950s, attracting up to 75 percent of American TV audiences each week. Berle's brand of outrageous physical humor took full advantage of the visual element that television made possible. In the earliest years of TV, friends and neighbors gathered around their sets to watch him wear ridiculous costumes, tell bad jokes, and appear on stage with trained animals and jugglers. Although the popularity of Texaco Star Theater helped promote the tremendous growth of television, Berle's appeal faded as the new technology developed beyond its novelty stage.
"I learned quickly that I couldn't do anything small, because the studio audience couldn't see it, and if the studio audience didn't laugh, chances were the home audience wouldn't either."
A boyhood in show business
Born Milton Berlinger on July 12, 1908, in New York City, Berle spent virtually his entire life in show business. When he was only five years old, his mother began entering him in amateur talent contests. Soon after, Berle began appearing in silent movies, such as The Perils of Pauline and Charlie Chaplin's Tillie's Punctured Romance. Berle's mother, though not in show business herself, was determined to see her son succeed and get noticed. "My name got shortened," Berle explained to the Chicago Tribune, "because Mother figured that way it could be displayed in bigger letters on a marquee [the lighted overhead display sign on the front of a theater]."
Berle started to make a name for himself as a performer in vaudeville. Vaudeville was a circuit of theaters around the country that featured a variety of live entertainment, such as comedians, musical acts, skits, jugglers, and just about anything else that could be performed on a stage. In 1920, the twelve-year-old Berle teamed with Elizabeth Kennedy to create a youthful comedy act called Kennedy and Berle. By the following year, the act was appearing in vaudeville's most prestigious theaters.
Traveling around the country and performing in vaudeville shows was not an easy life for the young performers, as Berle recalled in his autobiography: "On the Orpheum Circuit, one of the best, you did two shows a day, seven days a week. You finished one theater on Sunday and you packed and traveled to get to the next theater in time for the Monday opening. A typical Orpheum route would be Minneapolis to Winnipeg to Calgary to Vancouver. From there you went to Seattle and Portland and then to San Francisco, where you played two dates. First you played the Orpheum, which was the big-time house, and then you moved to the Golden Gate, which was murder because you did continuous performances."
When he grew too tall to continue performing in the child act with Kennedy, Berle struck out on his own. A gifted joke teller, he abandoned any formal education and began honing his stage act. By 1924, at the age of sixteen, he was earning $600 per week, which was a lot of money in the 1920s. Through the remainder of the decade, Berle's success in vaudeville only increased.
In the early 1930s, the growing popularity of movies began to take its toll on vaudeville, and audiences for live entertainment started to decline. Hoping to repeat his stage success in the movies, Berle went to Hollywood. Though he appeared in a handful of movies over the next ten years—including Gags to Riches, RKO's New Faces of 1937, Rise and Shine, and Whispering Ghosts—his film career did not flourish. Berle's emphasis on physical humor and visual comedy also failed to translate to radio, where vaudeville stars such as Jack Benny (1894–1974) and Bob Hope (1903–2003) found success. Instead, Berle took his act to nightclubs, where he earned as much as $10,000 per week after World War II (1939–45).
Taking his act to television
In 1948, Berle was hired to host a radio show sponsored by the Texaco Oil Company called Texaco Star Theater. Within a few months, the sponsor decided to transfer the show to the brand new medium of television. Berle auditioned before the TV cameras along with two other comedians, and he was eventually selected to continue in his role as host. Texaco Star Theater made its television debut on the NBC network on September 21, 1948. The show was an immediate hit. In fact, it was so popular among viewers that NBC actually delayed broadcasting the results of the November 1948 presidential election until after the end of the program.
Despite his instant success, Berle soon realized that he had a lot to learn about television. "Since there were no monitors on which the audience could watch the show," he wrote in his autobiography, "they had to do as well as they could by looking around the cameras, which blocked their view of the stage. I learned quickly that I couldn't do anything small, because the studio audience couldn't see it, and if the studio audience didn't laugh, chances were the home audience wouldn't either."
During the five years that Berle's show appeared on the air, the number of American homes that contained television sets grew from 500,000 to nearly 20 million. Some historians attribute the rapid growth of television to the popularity of Texaco Star Theater. "The early history of television and the story of Berle's show are close to being one and the same thing," David Halberstam wrote in The Fifties. "Those who didn't have television sets visited those who did. The very success of Berle's show accelerated the sale of television sets; those Americans who did not yet own sets would return home after watching him at their neighbors' houses and decide that, yes, it was finally time to buy a television." Berle's impact on the early sales of TV sets helped him earn the nickname Mr. Television.
Fearing Berle would leave for a rival network, in 1951 NBC signed the popular comic to a thirty-year contract that paid him $200,000 a year, whether he appeared on TV or not. As more people bought televisions, however, more programs came on the air, which meant that Berle faced increased competition. When the ratings for his show began to decline, NBC imposed a more rigid format, which did not allow Berle to be as outrageous or freewheeling as he had been in earlier years. Texaco dropped its sponsorship in 1953, and Buick took over. The Buick-Berle Show only lasted until June 1955, though, before Berle was fired. Television's first superstar thus became the first casualty of the changing tastes of television audiences.
Berle accepted responsibility for the failure of his show. "I had violated one of my basic rules of work," he explained in his autobiography. "For years I had told new young comics that they decide on their own personal image before they work, and that they must never violate that image in the public's mind…. But when I cooperated … and turned the aggressive, pushy 'Milton Berle' into a passive straight man for the 'Buick' format, I had broken my image and hurt myself."
Variety Show Host Ed Sullivan
Ed Sullivan served as the host of one of the most popular and longest-running entertainment programs in television history, The Ed Sullivan Show. Airing more than one thousand episodes on the CBS network between 1948 and 1971, it showcased a wide variety of entertainment—from opera singers, ballet dancers, and classical violinists to rock 'n roll bands, comedians, and trained animals.
Edward Vincent Sullivan was born on September 28, 1901, in the Harlem section of New York City. When he was a boy, his family moved to the distant suburb of Port Chester, New York. At Port Chester High School, Sullivan was a good student, especially in English, and an excellent athlete.
After graduating from high school in 1917, Sullivan got a job writing about high-school sporting events for a local newspaper, the Port Chester Daily Item. This job turned out to be the first of many that Sullivan would hold in the field of journalism. He went on to cover sports, entertainment, and gossip for a number of New York City newspapers, including the New York Daily News.
Sullivan enjoyed going to nightclubs around the city, where he often came in contact with well-known athletes and actors. During the 1930s, the young newspaper writer began organizing and hosting events to raise money for charity. He convinced many big-name entertainers to appear at these events. In 1937 Sullivan moved to Hollywood, California, hoping to expand his career to include writing and acting in films. His efforts received very poor reviews, however, and he returned to New York three years later.
Back in New York, Sullivan continued writing for newspapers and hosting charity benefits. In 1947 he served as the host of an event called the Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden. This event was broadcast on television, which was just starting out at that time. An executive at the CBS television network saw the show and asked Sullivan to host a new TV program called Toast of the Town. The network wanted the show to compete against Texaco Star Theater, a popular variety show on the NBC network that was hosted by the comedian Milton Berle.
Toast of the Town premiered on June 20, 1948, and soon became a huge hit with viewers. Although Sullivan appeared somewhat stiff and awkward on stage—and mostly stood around with his hands in his pockets—the show benefited from his remarkable ability to recognize and promote talent. He featured many young artists who went on to rank among the biggest names in American music, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles. He also featured a number of African American entertainers, such as jazz musician Louis Armstrong and comedian Richard Pryor, at a time when few blacks appeared on TV.
Sullivan served as the executive editor of the program from the beginning. In this role, he decided what acts to feature and how many minutes of air time each one would receive. CBS recognized his importance in 1955, when it changed the name of the program to The Ed Sullivan Show.
The appeal of the program began to fade in the mid-1960s, when many viewers felt that it failed to keep up with changing times and musical tastes. CBS finally canceled The Ed Sullivan Show in 1971. By this time, Sullivan had introduced more than 10,000 performers to American television audiences. Sullivan appeared in a couple of TV specials after his show ended. He died of cancer on October 13, 1974, in New York City.
Settling for guest appearances
After his show went off the air, Berle and his wife moved to California. Since he was contractually tied to NBC, he was unable to work for other TV networks. Berle appeared in three more short-lived series for NBC over the next few years: The Milton Berle Show in 1956; Kraft Music Hall in 1958; and a game show called Jackpot Bowling in 1961. In 1965, Berle and NBC changed his contract to allow Berle to work for other networks, and his yearly salary was cut to $120,000. In 1966, he appeared in another Milton Berle Show for the ABC network, but the series lasted less than one year. For the next thirty-five years, Mr. Television would make only occasional guest appearances on the medium that made him a star.
When his television career stalled, Berle returned to the nightclub circuit and played some of the biggest stages in Las Vegas. He also appeared in a number of movies, such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; The Oscar; Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows; and Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose. Capitalizing on the fact that he was known for stealing other people's jokes, Berle published a number of joke books over the years. In 1974 he published Milton Berle: An Autobiography, which provided an intimate account of his life in show business.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Berle returned to television to make a series of guest appearances on shows geared toward much younger viewers. In 1985, for instance, Berle appeared in an episode of Amazing Stories, a science-fiction series produced by Steven Spielberg. The episode centered on aliens from outer space who intercept American television signals and travel to Earth in order to meet 1950s TV stars, such as Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, and Milton Berle. Berle, speaking gibberish, turns out to be the only person who can communicate with the aliens. Berle also appeared in episodes of the popular teen-oriented programs The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring Will Smith, and Beverly Hills, 90210.
Berle received many awards and honors toward the end of his long show-business career. In 1984, for instance, he was the first person inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and in 1992, he was the first person inducted into the Comedy Hall of Fame. Berle died in his sleep on March 27, 2002, at the age of 93. He was married four times and had two adopted children and two stepchildren.
For More Information
Berle, Milton, with Haskel Frankel. Milton Berle: An Autobiography. New York: Delacourte, 1974.
Bowles, Jerry. A Thousand Sundays: The Story of the Ed Sullivan Show. New York: Putnam, 1980.
Halberstam, David. The Fifties. New York: Villard, 1993.
Brownfield, Paul. "Milton Berle 1908–2002: Legendary Comedic Trouper Dies." Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2002.
Grossman, Ron. "Gags to Riches." Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1991.
Reed, J. D. "Favorite Uncle: Schticking Together Old Radio and Vaudeville Bits—and Purloining Gags from Everyone—Milton Berle Became Television's First Superstar." People, April 15, 2002.
Smith, J. Y. "Milton Berle, 'Mr. Television,' Dies at 93: Comic Sparked American Love Affair with Small Screen." Washington Post, March 28, 2002.
Van Gelder, Lawrence. "Milton Berle, TV's First Star as 'Uncle Miltie,' Dies at 93." New York Times, March 28, 2002.
"Berle, Milton." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/B/htmlB/berlemilton/berlemilton.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Schaeffer, Eric."Ed Sullivan." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/S/htmlS/sullivaned/sullivaned.htm (accessed on June 19, 2006).
American comedian Milton Berle (born 1908), known as "Mr. Television," has given the world a rich entertainment legacy stretching from the days of vaudeville to radio and television.
Few actors and entertainers have contributed as much to as many facets-or entire eras-of show business as Milton Berle. In a life that has filled most of the twentieth century and a career that has spanned over 80 years, Berle applied his enormous energy and talent to every area of show business except burlesque. Never afraid of change, he took professional risks that other stars avoided. Acknowledging his accomplishments is to chronicle the evolution of entertainment, particularly comedy in twentieth century America. His career began as a child actor in silent movies and plays on the stage, and proceeded to vaudeville and night clubs where he developed an original style that made his name in comedy. Known as "Mr. Television," Berle is credited for bringing entertainment into the living rooms of America, and doing more than any other single person to make television the medium of choice. By the 1930s his star status was well established, but the advent of television and his launch of Texaco Star Theater in 1948, TV's first hit show, catapulted him into show business history and onto the covers of Time and Newsweek magazines. By 1949, Berle was embedded into the minds of several generations, and well on his way to becoming a household name as "Uncle Miltie." He received one of the first Emmy Awards ever given for starring in NBC's Texaco Star Theater (1948), was the first person to be inducted to the Television Hall of Fame (1984), the first inductee into the Comedy Hall of Fame (1992), and the first to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Television Academy (1996).
Even as a young child, Berle was a natural entertainer. Moses and Sarah Berlinger welcomed their fourth child on July 12, 1908, and by the age of six he was winning Charlie Chaplin contests. The talent that didn't come naturally was cultivated by his mother, who became his most ardent supporter. Thanks to her efforts, he had had bit parts in over 50 silent films before he was eight, appearing with many stars of the time including Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin.
When the movie business moved west, Berle's mother found work for him in vaudeville kiddie acts-partly out of necessity, and partly to encourage him. Health problems kept his father from working full time in the painting business, and Berle contributed to the family's finances. Berle remembered those early years in a 1996 interview with Broadcasting & Cable magazine: "She was the backbone of my career. She forged me and worked on me like a son of a gun. Every place I ever appeared-whether it was vaudeville, theaters, nightclubs or TV-she was in the audience being a one-woman flack for me." In fact, her loud laugh and applause at strategic points in the act became part of the act itself.
At the age of 12, Berle made his debut on the legitimate stage in Floradora, and by 16 he was a veteran of vaudeville. According to an interview with John Hughes for the Orange County Register, he also had an eye for the good life, and smoked his first cigar in 1920 at the tender age of 12. It wasn't long before he started his own vaudeville group and became master of ceremonies. By his own admission, he was "a smart ass kid, insulting audiences with one liners, such as 'I never liked you and I always will."' However flip he was on stage, there was never a question about his dedication to perfecting the art of comedy. While other boys his age were collecting baseball cards and thinking about girls, Berle was collecting joke books and honing his craft. But he also pirated other comedians' material so shamelessly that he was called the "Thief of Badgags," according to Mr. Showbiz.
Berle worked tirelessly at becoming a master of timing. Some called him a scholar of comedy. He was known as a brash young comic, with a very physical style of humor that included dressing in drag-a trademark "shtick" that stayed with him throughout his career.
In a 1994 documentary produced by the Arts & Entertainment network, Berle talked about patterning himself after one of the great comics of his day, Ted Healy. "He was flattered that I imitated him, and took me aside and said, 'There's no such thing as an old joke. If you haven't heard it before, it's new."' Thus, Berle felt justified in using other comedians' material, believing that all jokes are public domain.
The mother-son duo was a hit on the vaudeville circuit, with Berle on stage and mom in the audience prompting laughter when she felt a lull. Success followed him wherever he plied his craft: on Broadway as a popular master of ceremonies introducing variety acts, in night clubs around the country with stand up routines, in starring roles with the Ziegfeld Follies, and in Hollywood motion pictures in the 1930s and 1940s. Radio was the least successful of all his ventures. Although he performed on radio, he never enjoyed the same success there. His style was too visual-the raised eyebrow, turned head, a wink, a tap of the ever-present cigar ("cigaahhhhh" as Berle would say)-to be conveyed entirely through voice and innuendo.
Berle's career came first, and his personal life suffered as a result. His first marriage to a show girl, Joyce Matthews was stormy. They married in 1941, divorced, remarried, and divorced again in 1947. Berle was obsessed with getting bigger audiences, and compared himself to other comedians who were attracting big audiences on radio. Apparently, money was not enough, as it was widely known that Berle was one of the most highly paid comedians in the business. He was always ready to try something new, and in 1948 went to Chicago to do one of the first experimental television programs.
The King of Television
With the advent of television, the entertainment world underwent a seismic change, which presented a great opportunity for those willing to take a chance. Berle, along with a few other comedians, took turns hosting the Texaco Star Theater during its debut. This show was fast, funny, visual, and live-the perfect showcase for Berle's style of comedy. According to Variety, "The fifties is known as the Golden Age of Television in large part because of the variety shows which dominated the early part of the decade…. They were just vaudeville on TV." Berle became television's first big star, leading NBC to dub him "Mr. Television."
He got into every aspect of the show, writing, producing, and directing. He could be a tough taskmaster, but his perfectionist tendencies paid off—ratings of Texaco Star Theater and Kraft Music Hall soared so high that NBC signed him to a 30-year "lifetime" contract in 1951, which paid $100,000 a year, whether he worked or not. Many in the industry credited Berle with television's success because he was able to attract major sponsors. Some even felt he was responsible for selling television sets. Within one season the number of sets in the country increased from 500,000 to one million.
Berle had the country's attention-young and old alike-which is how he inadvertently acquired another nickname, "Uncle Miltie." In an interview with Hollywood Online, he explained how he acquired the dubious title: "I received a lot of complaints from parents who wrote and told me that their kids wouldn't go to sleep until our show was over. So I went on the air and told all the children watching to 'listen to their Uncle Miltie and go to bed right after the show.' The next day I was in a parade in Boston and a couple of workmen in hard hats yelled, 'Hi, Uncle Miltie.' I had no idea when I first used it that the name would stick."
Over the years Berle was romantically linked to several of Hollywood's leading ladies, including Lucille Ball and Veronica Lake. The love of his life, however, was Hollywood publicist Ruth Cosgrove, whom he married in 1953. They were devoted to each other for almost 40 years, until she died of cancer.
Berle was the first star to take a risk on TV, but his success led to strong competition. By the mid-fifties, the public's tastes had changed, preferring musical comedies and westerns to variety shows. As television audiences grew, Berle's ratings began to decline, and in 1956 the show was canceled. Berle then concentrated on dramatic acting, appearing in scores of films and made for TV movies, including It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963); The Oscar (1965); Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (1968); and Seven in Darkness (1970).
In an interview for Hollywood Online, Berle described what it takes to succeed as a performer, especially as a comedian: "You have to be a good actor. There's a difference between being a comic and a comedian. A comic is a guy who says funny things and a comedian is a guy who says things funny, and he has a style and point of view that will last much longer."
Berle's acting career continued well into the 1990s. He remarried; and, with his third wife, Lorna Adams, launched a magazine named Milton. A tribute to indulgence, the magazine's motto is: "We Drink. We Smoke. We Gamble," and includes articles such as "How to Play Craps Without Looking Like a Dork."
Comedy's Elder Statesman
Often called a living legend, Berle's career has spanned most of the twentieth century. Along the way he has collected over six million jokes and has been loved by several generations. He has also repaid his mother's gift of mentoring by coaching and helping others get started in the business.
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BERLE, MILTON (formerly Mendel Berlinger ; 1908–2002), U.S. comedian, known as "Mr. Television" and "Uncle Miltie." Born in New York, Berle played in nightclubs, films, and Broadway shows, including the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943. From 1948 to 1956 he did a weekly variety show on television in modern slapstick style. In the 1960s he also appeared in serious parts, including a role in the film The Loved One.
Berle's career began when he was five years old and spanned more than 80 years on stage, film, radio, and television. At the age of five, Berle won a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. And as a child he appeared in the silent films ThePerils of Pauline and Tillie's Punctured Romance. He moved up through the vaudeville circuit, finding his niche in the role of a brash comic known for stealing the material of fellow comedians. In 1931, he played the Palace Theater in New York, becoming the youngest master of ceremonies on Broadway. He also wrote some 400 published songs. But it was on television in the 1940s and 1950s that he made his most enduring mark. The Texaco Star Theater, featuring Berle and guest stars in what would become legendary comic skits, debuted in 1948 and caught on with the public almost immediately. It became a Tuesday night fixture in homes across America and was credited with helping sell millions of first-time tv sets to a nation just getting acquainted with the new medium. Known for his trademark cigars and for occasionally donning women's clothes to get a laugh, Berle, who hosted the show, was a mainstay on network television for nearly two decades. Even before his television success, he was reportedly one of the highest-paid comedians in show business. But Texaco Star Theater cemented Berle's fame. nbc gave him a "lifetime contract" of 30 years in 1951, paying him $200,000 a year. In 1954 the show, replete with singers, comedians, acrobats, and comedy skits, was renamed The Milton Berle Show.
In 1965, Berle renegotiated his 30-year contract with nbc, allowing him to appear on any network. He later made guest appearances in dramas as well as comedy programs. In addition to television, Berle's career in later years included film, nightclubs, and benefit shows. He was the subject of nearly every show business tribute and award, including tv specials devoted to his contributions and legacy in broadcasting. He won an Emmy award in 1949 for Most Outstanding Kinescope Personality and received another Emmy in 1979 for Lifetime Achievement. He was one of the first members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, and for more than a decade he was president of the Friars Club. In 1984 he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame, and he was the first entertainer to be inducted into the International Comedy Hall of Fame (1991). In 1996 he was awarded the American Comedy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Berle also wrote a number of books: Laughingly Yours (1939); Out of My Trunk (an autobiography, 1945); Earthquake (1959); Milton Berle: An Autobiography (with Haskel Frankel, 1974); B.S. I Love You: Sixty Funny Years with the Famous and the Infamous (a collection of stories and anecdotes, 1987); Milton Berle's Private Joke File (1989); and More of the Best of Milton Berle's Private Joke File (1993).
S. Allen, The Funny Men (1956); D. Glut and J. Harmon, The Great Television Heroes (1975); W. Berle and B. Lewis, My Father Uncle Miltie (1999); J. Forray, I Laughed Until I Cried: My Life with Milton Berle, Broadway, Hollywood, and Beyond (2002).
[Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]