Thursday, March 28, 2002

Milton Berle won America over to the tube

Groundbreaking vaudeville comic was NBC's original 'Must See TV'

By John Kiesewetter,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Long before Friends, Frasier, Cheers or Seinfeld, NBC's original “Must See TV” was Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater.

        The vaudeville comedian, who died at 93 Wednesday, was TV's first superstar.

        He didn't just attract people to TV. He prompted thousands of working-class families in the late 1940s and early '50s to go out and buy a television set, which was until then a luxury enjoyed by wealthier families.

[photo] Milton Berle talks about his life and career during an interview in April 2000.
(Associated Press photo)
        That's why he was Mr. Television, and among the inaugural inductees into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1984.

        “He sold more TV sets than any advertising campaign. People bought the newfangled thing just to see this crazy comedian everyone was talking about,” wrote Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh in The Complete Directory to Prime-Time Network and Cable TV Shows.

        From 1948 to 1956, his Tuesday night show was vaudeville on TV — a mix of monologues, musical numbers and sketches, with “Uncle Miltie” in some outlandish outfit. Often he wore a dress. The audience loved it.

Screen debut at 5

        It was what Mendel Berlinger, born in Harlem in 1908, had grown up with in New York. He made his screen debut at 5 with Charlie Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance, and appeared in 50 silent movies. He also said he was the original Buster Brown Shoe Boy model.

        By 1920, he made his Broadway debut in Floradora. He traveled the vaudeville circuit, and played Cincinnati's Keith Theatre in 1929. Two years later, he made vaudeville history by becoming the youngest emcee at New York's Palace Theatre. He later starred in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway for 82 weeks.

        Mr. Berle said he studied big stars like Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. Fellow comics for years would say that he did more than simply watch. By the time he burst onto the TV scene, Mr. Berle had a reputation for stealing other comics' routines.

        Fellow comedians referred to him as “The Thief of Badgags,” wrote Les Brown in his Encyclopedia of Television.

        Mr. Berle didn't deny the allegation when promoting his 1993 celebrity roast at Cincinnati's Music Hall.

        “I don't steal jokes. I just find them before they get lost,” he said. “Everybody has a hobby. Mine was compiling jokes. Some people save stamps. One of my hobbies was humor, collecting jokes.”

The first telethon

        Asked in 1993 about his biggest show business thrill, Mr. Berle said: “Being on the cover of Time and Newsweek the same week in 1949.”

        He noted that he started a TV tradition that still exists today: “I hosted the first telethon in 1949, with Bishop Fulton Sheen, for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund.''

        Mr. Berle was such a huge star that NBC, sometime in the 1950s or early '60, signed him to a long-term contract that ran through 1981, until age 73.

        Nearly a decade later, he was still going strong. Before his “80th Anniversary Roast” tour stopped here in 1993, he had appeared onthe Today show, Larry King Live, Geraldo, Matlock, Dick Cavett and the QVC shopping channel (selling his books, videotapes and computerized joke files).

        During his Cincinnati visit, he bemoaned the lack of live TV shows. He didn't like modern videotaped situation comedies, reshot to perfection and aired with sweetened laugh tracks.

        “There's something so wonderful about playing to a live TV audience — all the spontaneity, the improvisation, the mistakes, all the bloopers that happened live,” he said.

        An audience — that's the spark that lit Milton Berle's comic genius, and that made him “Must See TV” for the television's first generation.

        “I'm a ham,” he told former Enquirer TV critic Martin Hogan Jr. in a 1966 interview. “I need to entertain. To me, two people constitute an audience. I've got to make them laugh.”

        He did, for nearly 90 years.

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