“Mr. Television” (Research Paper)

 ”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. Thanks to “Mr. Television” there was a TV sales boom during the early 50′s, and he singlehandedly popularized the variety show style format as well. Milton Berle’s vaudevillian based comedy alongside his flippant city slicker persona captured the attention of a vast variety of viewers during televisions early golden age. Although Milton Berle was an instant sensation, his intitial success wore off rather quickly. After the last season of the Milton Berle Show, he appeared in the Kraft Music Hall series as NBC attempted with no success to find a place to showcase “Mr. Television.” The factors that contributed to Milton Berle’s initial success were in retrospect also the same factors that took him away from the American eye.

       Television’s first American superstar Milton Berle, was born Milton Berlinger July 12, 1908 in Harlem. Born the second youngest of five children, Milton and his family had to endure the hardships of growing up in extreme poverty during the beginning of the century. Life was tough for Moses Berlinger, Milton’s father, a paint and varnish salesman who was tragically plagued by injuries that halted Moses from being able to provide for his family. Milton’s Mother Sarah “Sadie” Glantz Berlinger was a department store detective and full time mother of five. Sarah Berlinger recognized her son’s  exceptional talent very quickly, and came to the realization that her youngest son was the families one and only ticket out of the slums. As Milton Berle recalls in his autobiography, at the age of six he galavanted around Manhattan dressed as a very small Charlie Chaplin for Halloween. Later on that night a strange man followed him home, the man suggested that Sarah Belinger enter her son into the Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest. Accompanied by his mother, Milton made his way into the contest and took home first prize, but more importantly proved his ability to entertain a crowd. Entering the world of a childhood actor, Milton began honing his craft as a young comedian. Influenced by the popular mediums of the time, vaudeville and silent movies, Milton began to practice his schtick on the streets of New York. Sarah Berlinger assumed the role of Milton’s first and most motivated manager, booking her son in as many gigs and amateur talent shows as possible. The money was decent and a young Milton Berlinger got his first taste of what show business could offer.

       As an adolescent Milton began to bring home the bacon and became the key provider of the family. “I guess I thought my childhood was fun while I was living it. Looking back, I can feel in my gut that it was lousy. But there’s no one to blame. Pa had no talent for supporting the family, and Mama had to take over.” Wrote Berle in  Milton Berle: An Autobiography,  ”When other kids were going to school and having friends their own age, I was busy fighting with drummers in pit bands all over the country.”(Berle and Frankel, 44). The obligation of supporting a family at such a young age required Milton to grow up rather quickly, and in doing so Milton was robbed of his childhood. Milton’s adolescence, youth, and innocence were all taken away from him and replaced with the responsibility of having to feed his family.

       After appearing in vaudeville circuits and amateur talent shows all over the New York area, Milton caught a big break as a child actor in a silent film. The Perils of Pauline was a motion picture series shown in weekly installments and filmed at Fort Lee, New Jersey. The director had chosen for Milton to play a little boy that was to be thrown from a moving train. Milton recalls the experience,  ”I was scared shitless, even when he went on to tell me that Pauline would save my life.” Milton explains in Milton Berle: An Autobiography“Which is exactly what happened, except that at the crucial moment they threw a bundle of rags instead of me from the train. I bet there are a lot of comedians around today who are sorry about that.”(Berle and Frankel, 47-48). This is characteristic of Berle’s manner when recalling the past in his autobiography. A true comedian, Milton would never allow a dramatic story to lay flat without a punch line. Soon after his success in The Perils of Pauline, he received numerous offers to act in upcoming silent films, and so Milton Berlinger continued to act, and began to make a name for himself as an up and coming child actor.

       In 1916 Milton Berlinger enrolled in the Professional Children’s School, a college preparatory school located in New York City. The Professional Children’s School was designed to provide an education to young actors working on the New York Stage, in Vaudeville, or to prepare them for a traveling carreer. Milton attended the school and shortly after landed his first stage role in the musical comedy Florodora. The show opened in Atlantic City, New Jersey and due to rave reviews, after four weeks the show was moved to Broadway. Although an early broadway star, Milton could not deny his true comedic talents, and continued to frequent the Vaudeville Circuit throughout the 1920′s.

       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.

       Berle’s career was on the up and up, and he landed himself a plethora of radio gigs during the mid to late thirties. He could be heard regularly on The Rudy Vallee Hour and The Gillette Original Community Sing. His radio stints made his popularity grow, and so he continued to star on and host comedy/variety based radio programing throughout the 1930′s into the 1940′s. His two shows of note were The Milton Berle Show(NBC 1947-1948) and The Texaco Star Theater(ABC 1948-1949) the predecessors to his first television show. These shows began to cast comedians like Arnold Stang, and many others who would later accompany Milton on The Texaco Star Theatre and The Buick Berle Hour. Arnold Stang played the familiar character “Francis” a little guy with a large mouth. Who was known for pointing out Berle’s many short comings, and often heckling the big-egoed star for huge laughs. This was an important addition to Berle’s repertoire, “Francis” became the voice of the critics and hecklers, whom often had less than flattering opinions of Berle’s low brow style comedy. The comedic chemistry Berle had built up with his comic sidekick during radio would later be carried over to television.

       While 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 Vaudevill 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.

Arthur Frank Wertheim stated in his article The Rise and Fall of Milton Berle.”The Production of the Texaco Star Theatre reflected the newness of television.”(O’Connor, 60). Wirtheim is calling attention to the unexpectedness of live television and how nothing had ever been done like it before. Considering that there was no precedent set for the medium, everything Berle created on screen was in fact experimental. The shows weekly budget of $15,000 in the opening season was barely enough to cover costs, and considered low even at the time. The four small camera’s that filmed the show were mounted on platforms facing the small stage and consequently blocking the live audience’s view of the stage. Berle discusses the dilemma of the camera’s blocking the studio audiences view, and how he approached this issue in Milton Berle: An Autobiography, “I learned quiclkly that I couldn’t do anything small, because the studio audience couldn’t see it, and if the studio audience didn’t laugh, chances were the home audience wouldn’t either.”(Berle and Frankel, 270).  The new mediums unexpectedness brought forth many technical issues, the picture was often out of focus and boom microphones were regularly caught in the shots. Along with the unforeseen technical issues, the show was stifled by material and preparation dilemmas as well. 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.

       Everything was working out for Milton on television, and he barely had to change his act. The Texaco Star Theatre conceptually was styled exactly like an old-fashioned vaudeville bill. The show featured several variety acts that would be placed in between the comedy routines, and usually end with a guest star performance. Even the commercials were well written and performed by the exceptional comedian Sid Stone. Assuming the role he had played throughout his entire vaudeville career, Berle resembled a comic master of ceremonies rather than a variety show host. He would start off the show with a hilarious opening monologue speckled with cheap laughs, then introduce the special guests and acts of the nights show. “The comedian’s rapid monologue was a combination of vaudeville-type insult jokes, topical gags, and wordplay.” (O’Connor, 66). 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.

       Milton Berle represented the image of New York Jewish stand-up comedian, who would often insert references to popular Manhattan landmarks in his jokes, playing to his large New York audience. “Berle’s rapid delivery, frenetic activity on stage, and even the swift progress of the show matched the fast pace of city life.”(O’Connor, 67). A significant element to Berle’s fame, was that during the hight of his fame from 1948-1951 his audience was mostly urban. The show was broadcasted live from Studio 6B in the RCA building at Rockefeller Center, and had a distinct New York vibe that many early viewers could relate to. Out of Berle’s five million viewers, thirty-five percent of them were watching from New York City, and most of the other large viewing percentages were coming from Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Berle’s distinct city slicker persona was widely accepted because the majority of his viewers were living in major metropolitan cities and could relate to his character.

       During the 1949 and 1950 seasons The Texaco Star Theatre was rated the number-one watched show on television. In 1951 Berle’s programing received the second highest seasonal rating in television history. The program obtained an average Nielsen rating of 61.6, meaning that in TV-equipped households, an average of 60 percent were tuning into watch Milton Berle on Tuesday nights.  Along with outstanding ratings, Berle has been credited with spike in TV sales during the early to mid 1950′s. “Tradition has it that millions of Americans bought televisions sets especially to see Berle, and there was a large increase in sales during the height of his popularity.”(O’Connor, 70). About six million television sets were sold in 1950, which is almost double the total amount of television sets sold during the entire 1940′s.  Sets continued to sell and by the end of 1951 American households had bought over fifteen million TV’s. Of course not everyone bought a television set solely to watch “Mr. Television”, but his contribution to the early stage of  sales boom cannot be overlooked.

       Milton Berle’s achievements of national celebrity, and attaining one of the highest television ratings ever is more than impressive, but in retrospect, his popularity was still primarily in urban areas where his flippant city slicker persona and vaudevillian based antics had proven appeal. His amazingly high ratings and unparalleled early television success illuminates the tastes of early television audiences. “The high ratings really signify the perfect match between Berle’s citified comedy style, the limited size and scope of the urban audience, the lack of competitive programming, and the novelty of television.”(O’Connor, 70).  Berle had become a widely accepted television star because early urban television audiences felt comfortable with Berle’s persona and style of comedy. He resembled a style of comic that many had probably witnessed before television, in night clubs or in theaters, and early audiences could identify with him.

     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. These and other programs were offering something new to the public, with the intent of attracting rural, suburban and urban audiences.

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. Ironically America’s first iconic television star also became American televisions first flash-in-the-pan celebrity.