During 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.
Berle 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.
Berle's 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."
On 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.
Featuring 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.
After 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)
Alan Roth (1948-1955)
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
September 1966-January 1967 Friday 9:00-10:00
Berle, Milton, with Haskel Frankel. Milton Berle: An Autobiography. New York: Delacorte, 1974.
Bester, Alfred. "The Good Old Days of Mr. Television." Holiday (New York), February 1958.
"The Child Wonder." Time (New York), 16 May 1949.
"Milton Berle: Television's Whirling Dervish." Newsweek (New York), 16 May 1949.
Sylvester, Robert. "The Strange Career of Milton Berle." The Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 19 March 1949.