Milton Berle (1908–2002)

It seems certain that television sets would have become ubiquitous in American homes even if the comedian Milton Berle had not dominated the medium when he became the permanent host of the Texaco Star Theater on NBC in the fall of 1948. The question is whether the rate of growth would have seen the same sharp rise without him.

His show became an immediate sensation on Tuesday nights from 8:00 to 9:00 P.M., with ratings as high as 80 and winning two Emmy awards in its first year. When Berle was on, movie attendance and restaurant patrons dropped significantly. In some cities, even nightclubs closed on Tuesday nights instead of the usual Monday. Berle received the nickname “Mr. Television.”

The popularity of Berle and his show is widely credited with being a principal force in the surge of TV set sales during eight years of the program’s existence. The number of sets sold grew from 500,000 in 1948 to 30 million in 1956. In the early years, when ownership was enjoyed by only a few families in an area, neighbors often gathered in that home on Tuesday evenings, and those without sets felt the need to possess their own to watch “Uncle Miltie” Berle and other programs they were missing.

Although television reception had been available in homes since the late 1930s, with CBS and NBC both operating as networks at the start of 1941, programs and the sets to receive them were rare until after World War II ended in 1945. Post-war affluence created enthusiasm for innovation and devices to reward the years of wartime deprivations. Moving pictures in the living room became one of the most desired.

Cost, however, was a barrier. In 1948, a 10-inch tabletop model sold for $325, a 12-inch $445, while a 10-inch Admiral console model was $449, a 20-inch Du Mont model $2,495. That year the median family income in the United States was $3,200. Therefore, buying a typical television set could consume from 10 to 14 percent of the pretax amount most people earned. As a comparison, the U.S. median income in 2008 was $52,000, with a $400 flat-screen HDTV consuming only 0.0076 percent. A TV set taking 10 percent of income would be $5,200.

Milton Berle, one of the most popular comedians in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, specialized in physical comedy, sight gags, and outlandish costumes.

Milton Berle, one of the most popular comedians in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, specialized in physical comedy, sight gags, and outlandish costumes. His successful weekly variety show topped the TV ratings for several seasons and earned him the nickname “Mr. Television.” (Library of Congress)

The purchase of a television set in the late 1940s was a major investment, with fewer than 6,000 American homes in 1945, up to six million in 1950 out of a population of 152 million. Ownership quickly grew beyond a luxury of the affluent. At the beginning of 1948, only 0.4 percent of homes had sets, but by 1954 55.7 percent did, and in 1959, 83.2 percent. Despite cost, TV became a must-have, equal to that of an automobile.

Of course, Berle diverted audiences only for one hour each week, even if he was the number one attraction. Eight years may be considered a long run for many TV comedy shows, the same span as the long-running Seinfeld in the 1990s. Berle’s show became one of the first on television to be complemented by a merchandising side-line that offered Uncle Miltie T-shirts, comic books, and chewing gum.

What was the source of Berle’s overwhelming appeal? It may be the great contrast with radio, an auditory medium, in the living room. Much of early television programming did not know how to take advantage of the new medium’s possibilities in pacing and activity. Berle featured manic slapstick and outlandish costumes. With each new show, audiences awaited the garb he would appear wearing. After an opening in which singers dressed as Texaco service station attendants performed a theme song and introduced Berle with “And now, ladies and gentlemen... America’s number one television star... MILTON BERLE!,” adding words that hinted at Berle’s appearance on that night. The stage curtains would part to reveal Berle in flamboyant getups, often in drag, makeup, and wobbly high heels. The studio audience screamed.

Still in costume, sometimes removing his wig, Berle would move to the front of the stage and do a stand-up routine of one-liners and audience insults. In essence, his routines through the show mixed vaudeville humor and burlesque slapstick, ad-libbing, mockery of the written script, and ostentatious hamming. While unique for the new medium of TV, Berle’s act was a throwback to an older tradition.

Born as Mendel Berlinger in Harlem, New York, on July 12, 1908, he lived to the age of 94, dying on March 27, 2002. His performing career began when he was just five and won a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. The prize included an appearance in Tillie’s Punctured Romance with Chaplin and Marie Dressler. Then he went on to become a successful child actor, with roles in 50 movies, including films that starred Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.

After studying acting at the Professional Children’s School in 1916, Berle began a 12-year Broadway career at the age of 12. His theater roles attracted interest from Hollywood studios, where he appeared in films for RKO and 20th Century Fox. Also in the 1930s, he began performing on radio, regularly on The Rudy Vallee Hour in 1934–1936 and in many guest appearances. In the 1940s, he had his own program, The Milton Berle Show on CBS in 1943 and NBC in 1944–1945, then a place on the Philip Morris Playhouse in CBS in 1947–1948. He deliberately cultivated a reputation for stealing material from other comedians and made that persona part of his routines.

When Berle brought an idea for a one-hour TV show to Phillip Morris’s president and its advertising agency, they turned him down and canceled his radio program. Undaunted, he approached Texaco and was signed for radio with plans for a weekly TV program.

Apparently, Berle’s personal life was dominated by his mother, Sarah, a frustrated actress who managed his career as well. She pushed him as a child to become a star and remained a controlling force for decades, dying in 1954. Berle was married four times, twice to Joyce Mathews (1941 and 1947), to Ruth Cosgrove Rosenthal from 1953 until her death in 1989, and in 1991 at the age of 83 to Lorna Adams, a much younger fashion designer. He had three children and one stepchild. In 1998, Berle received a diagnosis of colon cancer and lived another four years.

Berle’s television show became The Berle-Buick Show in 1953 when Texaco stopped its sponsorship and finally just The Milton Berle Show in 1955 until it ended a year later. By then Berle’s ratings had fallen significantly to competitors like Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. That and the growing costs of producing variety shows put Berle out of favor. His attempted comebacks failed, in part because television had become more refined and inhospitable to Berle’s manic zaniness. His fans did not accept his intentional shift to a new, more sedate persona.

Mark Williams, writing for the Museum of Broadcast Communications, captures both the strengths and limitations of Berle’s “aggressive, anything-for-a-laugh” style:

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.

At the height of his popularity, Berle negotiated a 30-year contract with NBC at $200,000 a year for exclusive appearances on that network. In 1965, he renegotiated the contract to permit him to perform on any network, his annual payments reduced to $120,000. In addition to occasional TV specials, he had parts in movies and stage plays, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Although Berle had almost another half century of celebrity, his time had passed, and he was acknowledged more as an important figure of the past than for ongoing contributions to the humor of his time. He reminded people of what had once been considered very funny—blatant behavior that was unruly and undisciplined when audiences wanted subtlety, even when the actions were slapstick.

Berle’s skits with a range of guest stars were deliberately chaotic, the situations and characterizations superficial, the scripts dispensable, the written lines giving way to asides and ad-libs, the acting intentionally rudimentary. The new shows that displaced Berle offered performances that stayed in character with comic plots based on the idiosyncrasies of those characters, for example, Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, which Buick sponsored in 1955–1956 after dropping Berle.

While The Honeymooners did not rely on physical comedy as much as gestures and facial expressions, another program that overlapped the time period of Berle’s did and reveals the differences of his use with that which came to prevail. I Love Lucy, with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, ran from 1951 to 1960 with different titles in its final years. For four of those years, it was the United States’ most watched TV program and remained as number one in Nielsen ratings when it ended its run. In 2002, TV Guide ranked it the second greatest show till that time, behind Seinfeld and ahead of The Honeymooners. Lucy the character was often physically active, including the famous shows in which she stomped in a vat of grapes and frantically tried to keep up with an assembly line. But it was always Lucy facing a dilemma prepared for by the script and in keeping with her comic identity. That was humor for the future of television.

Another classic TV performer shared Berle’s formula of a series of brief skits but played them with a very different approach—Sid Caesar, who with Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris, led weekly hour-and-a-half-long Saturday night programs called Your Show of Shows from 1950 to 1954. It benefited from a cadre of writers that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart, as well as the acting ability of the cast. Caesar’s skits, unlike Berle’s, depended on the creation of eccentric but believable people in situations that adhered to a unique reality rather than existing as excuses for Berle and his guest stars to run wild.

While the comedy of Berle pulled audiences into the appeal of television, it is that of Lucille Ball, Gleason, and Caesar, which quickly followed, that survived and that may be seen in shows like MASH, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and so many more of the comedies that have thrived throughout television history.

Still, it is Berle who deserves the credit for being the original behind the rapid growth of TV set sales that allowed the others to be seen in the living rooms of the United States.

—Walter Cummins


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