It was billed as Milton Berle's 85th Birthday Celebration, a star-studded dinner during which the comedian known to the world as "Mr. Television" received a lifetime achievement award from a group calling itself the Poetry Academy.
The ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., was packed Saturday night with more than 1,000 guests who had come to honor "Uncle Miltie." They included more than 150 celebrities decked out in tuxedos and evening gowns and hundreds of poets from all over the United States, Canada and beyond.
The gala was hilarious and touching, yet even by Hollywood standards it bordered on the surreal, moving master of ceremonies Steve Allen to remark that Milton Berle's being honored by a Poetry Academy could be an opening segment on Robert Stack's "Unsolved Mysteries."
It seemed that everywhere one looked, there were strange sights.
Joni Mitchell, guitar in hand, sang Miltie a ballad for his birthday even though she later confessed she had never met the man and didn't know what day his birthday was (it actually falls on July 12).
Buddy Hackett, leaning over, posed for photographers between Gary Coleman and Billy Barty.
Sean Young was seen tap-dancing with the Nicholas Brothers.
Offstage, Mr. Allen was asked if any of the celebrities in attendance were poets. "I think it's safe to assume they're not," he said. Nevertheless, some said they loved poetry.
"My poetry is not that great," said Linda Blair ("The Exorcist"). "I love poetry. There are great poets and there are those of us who do it for ourselves."
Some celebrities said they didn't know anything about the Poetry Academy. Charles Bronson, asked if he was a member, replied "No" as he walked by. Do you know what it is? he was then asked. "No. It has something to do with poetry."
The celebrities at the $2,500-a-plate dinner were given complimentary admission, organizers said, but the poets said they each paid $395 (for members) and $495 (spouses and non-members) to attend the academy's weekend festivities, plus travel and accommodations. The poets could easily be spotted because many wore medallions attached to red-white-and-blue ribbons that were given to them by the academy.
David Williams, president of the Poetry Academy, said Mr. Berle was chosen for the lifetime achievement award because over the years he had written hundreds of lyrics and "ditties." He said Mr. Berle has also been largely overlooked for his contributions to early television.
Mr. Williams said the academy has about 800 members in the United States, Canada and Australia. He said academy "associates" include Esther Williams, Peggy Lee and Ginger Rogers. The highlight of the evening was Mr. Berle himself, who received a long, glass trophy.
He said his mother named him after an English poet named Milton . . . Milton Lefkowitz, to be exact.
Near the end, Mr. Berle's tone grew serious and he thanked the crowd for coming.
"There's such a feeling of warmth and camaraderie in this room that can only be summed up in one word -- love."