his multi-faceted rise as a performer, Milton Berle first appeared
on television in a 1929 experimental broadcast in Chicago, when
he emceed a closed-circuit telecast before 129 people. In the commercial
TV era, he appeared in 1947 on DuMont station WABD (in Wanamaker's
New York City department store) as an auctioneer to raise money
for The Heart Fund. In the following year he would come to television
in a far more prominent manner, and through the new medium become
a national icon. He would become known as "Mr. Television," the
first star the medium could call its own. Skyrocketing to national
prominence in the late 1940s, he was also the first TV personality
to suffer over-exposure and burn-out.
had begun his professional career at age five, working in motion
pictures at Biograph Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey He appeared
as the child on Marie Dressler's lap in Charlie Chaplin's Tillie's
Punctured Romance (1914), was tossed from a train by Pearl White
in The Perils of Pauline (1914), and appeared in films with
stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mabel Normand, and Marion Davies--in
all about 50 films, but appearing in no comedy roles. Berle's first
stage role was in Shubert's 1920 revival of Floradora in
Atlantic City, which eventually moved to Broadway. Soon after, a
vaudeville sketch with Jack Duffy launched his career as a comedian.
Signed as a replacement for Jack Haley at the Palace, Berle was
a smash hit and was held over 10 weeks. He then headlined in top
nightclubs and theaters across the country, returning to Broadway
in 1932 to star in Earl Carroll's Vanities, the first of
several musical shows in which he appeared.
reputation for stealing material from other comedians was already
part of his persona by this time, engineered in part as a publicity
ploy; Walter Winchell labeled him "The Thief of Bad Gags." Berle
debuted on radio in 1934, and during the 1940's hosted several shows,
the last of which was the comedy-variety show The Texaco Star
Theater. He remained on radio (including the radio version of
Texaco) until 1948-49, and was also very successful as a writer
of Tin Pan Alley fare. His many songs include "Sam, You Made the
Pants Too Long."
8 June 1948 Berle reprised his role from radio, serving as host
for the premiere episode of the TV version of The Texaco Star
Theater. But the show as yet had no set format, and rotated
several emcees during the summer of 1948. Originally signed to a
4-week contract, Berle was finally named permanent host for the
season premiere that fall. He and the show were an immediate smash,
with ratings as high as 80 the first season. Ad-libbing at the end
of a 1949 episode, Berle called himself "Uncle Miltie," endearing
himself to kids and creating a permanent moniker. The show received
a 1949 Emmy for "Best Kinescope Show" (the Television Academy was
then a West Coast entity, in the era before coast-to-coast link-up),
and Berle won as "Most Outstanding Kinescoped Personality." For
the next eight years the nation seemingly shut down on Tuesday evenings
during Berle's timeslot. The name changed in 1953 to the Buick-Berle
Show, and from 1954 to The Milton Berle Show.
These shows were pitched at an aggressive level, anything-for-a-laugh,
which perfectly suited Berle's comic style and profile. This also
tended to make his programs very visual. Slapstick routines, outrageous
costumes (Berle often appeared in drag), and various ludicrous skits
became trademarks of his television humor. Audiences across the
country wanted to see what Berle would do next, and he quite obviously
thrived on this anticipation. From his malaprop greetings (e.g.,
"Hello, ladies and germs") to the frenetic, relentless pacing of
his jokes and rejoinders, and even in his reputation for stealing
and recycling material, Berle presented himself as one part buffoon
and one part consummate, professional entertainer--a kind of veteran
of the Borscht Belt trenches. Yet even within his shows' sanctioned
exhibitionism, some of Berle's behavior could cross the line from
affability to effrontery. At its worst, the underlying tone of the
Berle programs can appear to be one of contempt should the audience
not respond approvingly. In some cases, this led to a surprising
degree of self-consciousness about TV itself--Texaco's original
commercial spokesman, Sid Stone, would sometimes hawk his products
until driven from the stage by a cop. But the uneven balance of
excess and decorum proved wildly successful.
such broad and noisy comedy, but also multiple guest stars and (for
the time) lavish variety show production values, Berle's shows are
credited with spurring the sale of TV sets nationwide, especially
to working class homes. When he first went on the air, less than
500,000 sets had been sold nationwide; when he left The Milton
Berle Show in 1956, after nearly 500 live shows, that number
had increased to nearly 30 million. Berle was signed to an unprecedented
$6 million, 30-year exclusive contract with NBC in 1951, guaranteed
$200,000 per year in addition to the salaries from his sponsors.
Renegotiated in 1966, his annual payments were reduced to $120,000,
though Berle could work on other networks.
his Tuesday night run ended in 1956, Berle hosted three subsequent
series and made many appearances on other comedy and variety shows.
He has received numerous tributes as a television pioneer. In dramatic
roles, he received an Emmy nomination for "Doyle Against the House,"
an episode of The Dick Powell Show (1961), and was notable
in his role as a blind aircrash survivor in the first ABC Movie
of the Week, Seven in Darkness (1969). He has guest-starred
on many television series, including The Big Valley. Doyen
of the famous comedians' fraternity, the Friars Club, Berle also
sporadically appears on stage. Recently, he was an energetic interview
guest for shock-DJ Howard Stern on the E Channel. But it is the
early Berle shows that remain the expression of Mr. Television,
the expression of a medium that had not yet set its boundaries in
such rigid fashion. In those earlier moments huge portions of the
nation could settle themselves before the screen, welcome their
outrageous "Uncle" into the living room, leave him behind for a
week, and know he would return once again when asked.
Fatso Marco (1948-1952)
Ruth Gilbert (1952-1955)
Bobby Sherwood (1952-1953)
Arnold Stang (1953-1955)
Jack Collins (1953-1955)
Milton Frome (1953-1955)
Irving Benson (1966-1967)
Victor Young (1955-1956)
Billy May (1958-1959)
Mitchell Ayres (1966-1967)
Ed Cashman, Milton Berle, Edward Sobol, Arthur Knorp, Ford Henry,
William O. Harbach, Nick Vanoff, Bill Dana
June 1948-June 1956 Tuesday
8:00-9:00 October 1958-May 1959 Wednesday
9:00-9:30 ABC September 1966-January 1967
Milton, with Haskel Frankel. Milton Berle: An Autobiography.
New York: Delacorte, 1974.
Alfred. "The Good Old Days of Mr. Television." Holiday (New
York), February 1958.
Child Wonder." Time (New York), 16 May 1949. "Milton Berle: Television's
Whirling Dervish." Newsweek (New York), 16 May 1949.
Robert. "The Strange Career of Milton Berle." The Saturday Evening
Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 March 1949.