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.
Further Reading on Milton Berle
Broadcasting & Cable, October 28, 1996.
Folio, March 4, 1998.
Media Week, May 12, 1997.
Orange County Register, January, 23, 1997.
People Weekly, October 27, 1997.
Hollywood Online, http://chat.hollywood.com (February 19, 1998).
"Milton Berle," Mr. Showbiz, http://www.mrshowbiz.com (February 19, 1998).
Variety: The Golden Age of Television, http://www.fiftiesweb.com (February 19, 1998).
"Milton Berle," Arts & Entertainment (documentary), September 4, 1997.
The History of Showbiz, PBS, January 18, 1998.