Wednesday, 17 February 2016

A TV Newcomer Named Milton Berle

The Advertising Club in Baltimore declared him the “Outstanding Radio Personality of 1947,” but that isn’t how you know him. In fact, he was considered a failure on radio by one than one critic. You know him as Uncle Miltie. Mr. Television.

1948 was an incredible roller coaster for Milton Berle. He was left without a radio show on April 12th in a game of musical chairs involving two networks, a quiz show and Dinah Shore. Meanwhile, Broadcasting magazine revealed on May 10 that Texaco would be sponsoring a new TV show on NBC. There’s no indication in the trades when Berle was signed but his contract on the show originally ran only four weeks.

The show debuted on June 8, 1948. The Texas Company spent $10,000 on the hour-long broadcast that ran on seven NBC stations on the East Coast. It was an instant smash. Variety raved how several million people tuned in to watch vaudeville, 1920s style. Broadcasting was so impressed, it transcribed the entire opening commercial in its review. Still, in mid-June, Berle was talking with the Biow Agency about taking over Phil Baker’s quiz show. He needn’t have bothered. Suddenly, he was the hottest man in show biz. By early August, Bill Paley tried to lure Berle with an exclusive CBS contract. Nothing doing. NBC signed him by August 18th to a 40-week stint hosting Texaco Star Theatre. So much for any idea of rotating hosts. And ratings just got better and better. Berle has gone down in history as the man who, more than anyone else, kick-started the still-primitive television industry with his broad and hammy antics.

Interestingly, one critic who never seemed to be a fan of broad and hammy antics liked the show. It could have been that John Crosby accepted the show for what it was—a regurgitation of New York’s Palace Theatre on the small screen. It may have been old-fashioned, but that’s what the show was supposed to be. And it was top-flight old-fashioned.

Here’s Crosby’s review that appeared in papers on June 29, 1948. Interestingly, he omits the presence of Pearl Bailey and Senor Wences in the opener, probably because it would clutter up (or negate) the point about circuses he was making. Incidentally, John F. Royal was a former press agent who was hired as a vice-president at NBC in the ‘30s. He was put in charge of shortwave broadcasts, then foreign relations and, finally, television in 1946, a time when the network had few stations and didn’t even broadcast seven days a week.

Milton Berle’s formula for getting laughs is relatively simple. His jokes are, to put it mildly, frayed, but he gives you twice as many as any one else. Before you have time to inspect the origins of a Berle joke, three others are whistling past your ear. He has an astonishing faculty for retrieving jokes that fall flat, rewinding them and pelting them right back at you, sometimes two or three times. You laugh, bub, or else.
The reason for bringing it up at this time is that Mr. Berle is master of ceremonies in a new and highly promising NBC television show called Texaco Star Theater and he's very good at it and very, very funny. As an emcee, Berle keeps up a barrage of what in my high school, baseball-loving days, we used to call the old pepper. The old pepper consisted of trite, spirited, morale-building remarks uttered by the infield in the general direction of the pitcher. (“Ya murderin’ the bum! Ya got him swinging like a garden gate!”)
Berle a special twist to the old pepper is to convince the audience that it is being murdered, that the jugglers it just witnessed are easily the most sensational act in all show business and that it should demonstrate its proper appreciation. He gives the illusion of inimitable artistry where sometimes there isn't very much, and he can fill a stage by sheer volubility. It's a great gift and I think NBC had best hang on to Mr. B., who promises to be much better in television than he is in radio.
As an idea of how things develop in television, Texaco Star Theater opened shakily three weeks ago with a program which sounded as if it had been written by a circus pres agent. Rosario and Antonio, “World's Greatest Spanish Dancers,” the Moroccans, “Tops in Aerobatics”—they were a bunch of people in burnooses doing flip-flops—Al Kelly, “Specialist in Utter Confusion.” The superlatives not withstanding, it seemed like a dull Wednesday at the old Palace, possibly the one that killed vaudeville.
On the second program, the talent was better—Bill Robinson and Harry Richman—but the total effect, due to the absence of Berle, who was sick, was worse.
The third show last week was a whingding in all respects. Bert Wheeler, that deadpan and skilled comedian, was both appealing and hysterical in one of his old revue acts, Harry Richman sang “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in the way that laid ‘em in the aisles in the 20s. (I could just hear Dutch Shultz tap dancing in his grave.) Berle and Richman produced what “Variety” refers to as a socko finish by donning blackface and imitating Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson in high style. It was a bit of pure showmanship that would appeal not only to the oldsters but to the youngsters as well.
Those were just the highlights in a full hour. There were also a performing dog act, at which I sniffed generously and forgivingly, ballroom dancers who were lithe, muscular and restful, and, I believe singers. (You can't do without singers.)
It was a good show and it brings to mind John F. Royal's statement that television would have to return to first principles of show business, that a comedian shouldn’t follow another comedian (as is the practice in radio).
Television, he said, should be a balanced whole with each part enhancing, rather than competing with its components. However. I have an uneasy feeling that television is going to reach its peak in pure entertainment in the next year and that it'll never be that good again. Harry Richman can't very well sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” indefinitely. Bert Wheeler's repertoire is large but not unlimited, and the performing dogs—echoing a melancholy thought recently expressed by Billy Rose—can do only a few things really well. Once you've seen it, you've seen it. One other thought on the same subject. Following a particularly strenuous routine, Berle mopped his brow and muttered: “And for the money!” Right now the money isn't large and the Berles, the Richmans, the Bert Wheelers are playing for peanuts because they don't know where it might lead. But, when salaries go up, how long can television afford such a lineup of veteran entertainers?
Just a line on the commercial. The Texaco commercial, a very clever act, is done by a shell game artist who speaks double talk, sells quack remedies, fleeces the passer-by and somehow brings Texaco into all this. It's as painless a commercial as I can remember but I keep wondering how long Texaco will consent to being represented by a con man with all that that implies for their oil products. In one show he drank the stuff. Very funny to me, but did the board of directors of the Texas company like it?

John F. Royal turned out to be wrong about a balanced evening of programming on TV. Comedy blocks worked in radio. Comedy blocks worked on television, too. And Crosby’s fears of “what’ll they do for an encore” turned out in the long run to be unfounded. Television has carried on well past 1948 with all kinds of new programming (granted, thanks in part to technology that Crosby would never have dreamed about back then). But in the short term, he was correct. People soon tired of Berle’s antics, Crosby included. Old vaudevillians became old hat. The revue format (with the exception of Ed Sullivan’s show) evolved into the variety format and new hosts came along to become stars.

But that didn’t mean the end of Milton Berle’s career. His place in history as Mr. Television almost guaranteed him guest appearances. As long as there were variety and talk shows, there was a place on television for Uncle Miltie.

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