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Milton Berle

(1908 - 2002)

Milton Berle's career is one of the longest and most varied in show business, spanning silent film, vaudeville, radio, motion pictures, and television. He started in show business at the age of five, appearing as a child in The Perils of Pauline and Tillie's Punctured Romance. Through the 1920s, Berle moved up through the vaudeville circuit, finding his niche in the role of a brash comic known for stealing the material of fellow comedians. He also became a popular master of ceremonies in vaudeville, achieving top billing in the largest cities and theaters. During the 1930s, Berle appeared in a variety of Hollywood films and further polished his comedy routines in night clubs and on radio.

Berle is best known for his role as host of Texaco Star Theater, television's most popular program during its early years. The show had begun on the ABC radio network in the spring of 1948, and Berle took part in a televi-sion test version for Texaco and NBC in June of that year. He was selected as host, and the first East Coast broadcast of the TV series began in Septem-ber. Within two months, Berle became television's first super-star, with the highest ratings ever attained and was soon referred to as "Mr. Television," "Mr. Tuesday Night," and "Uncle Miltie." Restau-rants, theaters, and nightclubs adjusted their schedules so patrons would not miss Berle's program at 8:00 P.M. on Tuesday nights. Berle is said to have stimu-lated television sales and audience size in the same way Amos 'n' Andy had sparked the growth of radio.

Although the budget for each program was a modest $15,000, many well-known entertainers were eager to appear for the public exposure Texaco Star Theater afforded, providing further viewer appeal and popularity for the program. The one-hour live shows typi-cally included visual vaude-ville routines, music, comedy and sketch-es. Other regular features included the singing Texaco station attendants and the pitchman commercials by Sid Stone. Berle was noted for interj-ecting himself into the acts of his guests, which, along with his opening appear-ance in out-landish costumes, became a regular feature. His use of sight gags, props, and visual style seemed well-suited for the TV medium. In 1951, Berle signed a contract With NBC granting him $200,000 a year for 30 years providing he appear on NBC exclusively.

His was one of the first television shows to be promoted through merchandising, including Uncle Miltie tee-shirts, comic books and chewing gum. When other programs evolved to compete with Berle's popularity, his domi-nance of the television audience began to wane, and Texaco ended its sponsorship. In the 1953-54 season, the Buick-Berle Show was set into the 8:00 P.M. Tuesday time slot. Facing greater competition and sensing the need for more determined effort to compensate for the dwin-dling novelty of both the program and the medium, Berle's staff and writers changed focus from the zany qualities of the show's early days to a more structured format. Berle continued to attract a substantial audience, but he was dropped by Buick at the end of the season in 1955. Hour long variety shows had become more difficult to orchestrate due to higher costs, in-creasing salary demands, and union complications. Also, Berle's persona had shifted from the impetuous and aggres-sive style of the Texaco Star Theater days to a more cultivated, but less distinc-tive personality, leaving many fans somehow unsatisfied. The next year, a new Milton Berle Show was produced in California for the 1955-56 season, but it failed to capture either the spirit or the audience of Uncle Miltie in his prime. Berle was featu-red on Kraft Music Hall in the late 1950s and Jackpot Bowling, a 1960s game show. In 1965, Berle renego-tiated his 30-year contract with NBC, allowing him to appear on any network. He later made gu-est appearances in dramas as well as comedy programs. In addition to televi-sion, Berle's career in the later years includ-ed film, night clubs, and benefit shows. He has been the subject of nearly every show business tribute and award, including an Emmy and TV specials devoted to his contribu-tions and legacy in broadcasting.

MILTON BERLE. (Mendel Berlinger). Born in New York City, New York, U.S., 12 July 1908. Attended Professional Children's School. Married 1) Joyce Mathews (twice) (divorced, twice); two children; 2) Ruth Gosgrove Rosenthal, 1953; children: Vicki and Billy. Began career by winning contest for Charlie Chaplin imitators, 1913; childrens' roles in Biograph silent film productions; cast member of E.W. Wolf's vaudeville children's acts; in theater since Floradora, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 1920; debuted in New York City with Floradora, 1920; in radio, 1930s; toured with Ziegfeld Follies, 1936; television series and specials from 1948; lyricist of more than 300 songs; contributor to Variety magazine. Honorary H.H.D., McKendree College, Lebanon, Illinois, 1984. Member: ASCAP; American Guild of Authors and Composers; Grand Street Boys; Friar's (re-elected honorary abbot emeritus, 1968; president [Los Angeles] from 1978). Recipient: Yiddish Theatrical Alliance Humanitarian Award, 1951; Look magazine TV Award, 1951; National Academy of Arts and Sciences Award, Man of the Year, 1959; Emmy Award Nominee, 1961; AGVA Golden Award, 1977; Special Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement, 1978/79.

Sources: The Museum of Broadcast Communications