Our Inductees: Milton Berle

Biography

The 3rd inductee into the Official National Comedy Hall of Fame® was MILTON BERLE. His career spanned 80 years. He is considered the 1st major American TV star.

Berle first appeared on television in 1929 in an experimental broadcast in Chicago which he hosted in front of 129 people.

Berle would revive the structure and routines of his vaudeville act for his debut on commercial TV, hosting The Texaco Star Theatre on June 8, 1948 over the NBC Television Network.[14][15][16] They did not settle on Berle as the permanent host right away, but was originally part of a rotation of hosts (Berle himself had only a four-week contract). Comedian Jack Carter was host for August. Berle was named the permanent host that fall.

Berle’s highly visual style, characterized by vaudeville slapstick and outlandish costumes, proved ideal for the new medium.[17] Berle modeled the show’s structure and skits directly from his vaudeville shows, and hired writer Hal Collins to revive his old routines.[14][15]

Berle dominated Tuesday night television for the next several years, reaching the number one slot in the Nielsen ratings with as much as an 80% share of the viewing audience. Berle and the show each won Emmy Awards after the first season. Fewer movie tickets were sold on Tuesdays. Some theaters, restaurants and other businesses shut down for the hour or closed for the evening so their customers would not miss Berle’s antics.[9] Berle’s autobiography notes that in Detroit, “an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the Texaco Star Theatre before going to the bathroom.”[18][19]

Television set sales more than doubled after Texaco Star Theatre’s debut, reaching two million in 1949. Berle’s stature as the medium’s first superstar earned him the sobriquet “Mr. Television”.[9] He also earned another nickname after ending a 1949 broadcast with a brief ad-libbed remark to children watching the show: “Listen to your Uncle Miltie and go to bed.”[20] Francis Craig and Kermit Goell’s Near You became the theme song that closed Berle’s TV shows.[21]

Berle risked his newfound TV stardom at its zenith to challenge Texaco when the sponsor tried to prevent black performers from appearing on his show:

I remember clashing with the advertising agency and the sponsor over my signing the Four Step Brothers for an appearance on the show. The only thing I could figure out was that there was an objection to black performers on the show, but I couldn’t even find out who was objecting. “We just don’t like them,” I was told, but who the hell was “we”? Because I was riding high in 1950, I sent out the word: “If they don’t go on, I don’t go on.” At ten minutes of eight—ten minutes before showtime—I got permission for the Step Brothers to appear. If I broke the color-line policy or not, I don’t know, but later on I had no trouble booking Bill Robinson or Lena Horne.[22]

Berle asked NBC to switch from live broadcasts to film, which would have made possible reruns (and residual income from them); he was angered when the network refused. However, NBC did consent to make a kinescope of each show. Later, Berle was offered 25% ownership of a company manufacturing the teleprompter by its inventor, Irving Berlin Kahn, if he would simply use the new gadget on his program. He turned the offer down.[24]

A frequent user of the tranquiliser, Berle frequently endorsed Miltown on his show, and became one of the main figureheads promoting the drug in 1950s America. Due to his promotion of the

 drug, Berle was dubbed ‘Uncle Miltown’ by Time magazine.[25]

For Berle’s contribution to television, he was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

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