Berle’s Bio


Mr. Television

Mr. Television

The Texaco Star Theatre Vaudeville Show debuted on June 8, 1948, and Milton Berle became the first major star of American television. By the fall of the same year Berle was a widely accepted sensation among American viewers. Every Tuesday-night “Uncle Miltie” dominated the young experimental medium’s ratings, at his peak making his way onto 80% of American television sets.


Before 1948 owning a television set was an extravagant expense, known only by the few rich enough to afford them. After “Mr. Television” captivated audiences with his onslaught of high energy site gags, vaudeville routines, and his infamous cross-dressing drag skits, suddenly the television became a must have family item. 


Milton Berlinger transformed himself overnight, from a seemingly innocent silent movie and Broadway child actor, into Milton Berle, the brash adult city slicker comedian who prided himself on stealing his fellow comedians material. “Flippant, aggressive, a wise guy, a corner comedian, big city slicker with a put-down, an insult, with venom, with bitterness, with smiles, without smiles, a smart-ass–sure, I know my image. I created it.”(Berle and Frankel, 44).  In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, Milton describes the attributes associated with his more aggressive, less sophisticated style of “new humor” that he had picked up on the streets of New York, from the children of the newly arrived jewish immigrants. Berle found his niche playing the role of a wisecracking New York based city slicker, who always managed to get the last laugh. By the 1930′s he had achieved top billing and ecstatic reviews in the nations largest cities and theaters across the country. Berle became a popular master of ceremonies at theaters and nightclubs, and was viewed by some of his peers as the king of vaudeville.

Young Milton

Young Milton

1943 SPRING TRAINING WITH MILTON BERLE  DUROCHER  2Milton-Berlemilton_berle_(1955)milton-berleWhile working on The Texaco Star Theatre radio program, an advertising representative by the name of Myron Kirk, informed Berle that Texaco was looking for a someone to host televisions first large scale variety show. Berle was intrigued by the new experimental medium, and knew his talents and schtick would be complemented by a visual component. Milton Berle hosted the series premier of The Texaco Star Theatre Vaudeville Show on June 8, 1948. Unsure of what television audiences would relate to, Milton stuck with his gut, and performed the comedic style he had perfected in the vaudeville circuits and nightclubs throughout his career.


Milton finally received the big break he was

expecting. Although the producers of The Texaco Star Theatre had the idea to sign many rotating hosts, Milton’s performance and more importantly the audience reaction and ratings could not be ignored. Texaco decided to sign Milton Berle exclusively to host the telecasts during the 1948-1949 season.

Berle was as manic on stage as he was the in pre-production process. It took the staff the entire week to prepare for each weekly broadcast, and Berle took most of the burden upon himself. He was deeply involved in every aspect of the production. He would cut and edit the writer’s lines, select the musical arrangements, direct the talent, design the set and costumes as well as check and adjust the camera angles. He did it all, except rehearse his monologues, because he felt the timing was dependent on the audiences reactions.


Along with frantic last minute details that would need to be handled every week, he was faced with another dilemma. In Vaudeville a comedian had years to hone his craft, and could act the same routine in front of different audiences over and over,  but on television the American public expected exciting new material every week. The show ran Berle ragged, but he appeared every Tuesday for thirty-nine consecutive weeks with new skits, bits, and jokes for every show.



Assuming the role he had played throughout his entire vaudeville career, Berle resembled a comic master of ceremonies rather than a variety show host. Berle would do just about anything for a laugh, upstaging the special guest became his regular routine. He was known for having little to no restraint when it came to sharing the spotlight. Berle felt that if he was out on stage during another performers routine it would only benefit the routine, giving the guest more time on screen, and assure the audience a few more chuckles, and that was all that mattered to Milton Berle.


His famous cross-dressing and slapstick antics often depended on himself being the fall guy or the butt-end of a bad joke. He was constantly sprayed with seltzer bottles, assaulted with cream pies, and at any mention of the word “makeup” he would be hit in the face with a whirling powder puff from somewhere off stage. Slapstick comedy appealed to the early television viewers, and this was a staple of vaudeville’s visual comedy and sight gags. But Milton did not rely solely on embarrassing himself, he would say anything for an extra laugh, including mocking his co-stars delivery of lines. When his co-statrs intended jokes would fall flat, Milton would jump at the chance to ad-lib a put-down at their own expense.

During the 1949 and 1950 seasons The Texaco Star Theatre was rated the number-one watched show on television.
In 1951 Berle’s programing recieved the second highest seasonal rating in television history.

Between 1952 and 1954 coast-to-coast coaxial cable began to bring newly licensed stations in small town and rural areas. Although Berle now had the potential for more viewers than ever, his ratings did not increase, in fact they plummeted. Berle’s flippant citified television personality was not intended for rural audiences, and more so reflected the stigma of the “urban vs. rural” conflict in America. Television was changing and it seemed to have no time or place for Milton Berle’s old-fashioned style of comedy. New and old television viewers taste’s began to change with the medium, and Berle quickly became one of television’s first victims. Audiences of all backgrounds began to indulge in the domestic situational comedies of  I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners.


Ironically, the factors that led to Milton Berle’s extreme popularity and instant success as a television star, were also the factors that contributed to his quick departure from stardom. Berle’s vaudevillian based comedy and flippant city slicker persona were the key factors to his initial appeal, but as the spectrum and taste’s of the American television audiences changed, Berle began to lose his grasp on the American public. As quickly as Milton Berle had made a name for himself during television’s infamous golden age, he was just as swiftly swept under the rug of obscurity, as his television career came to an end.