Milton Berle, `Mr. Television,' dies at 93

Medium's first superstar brought TV to America with early variety show

March 28, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Milton Berle, television's first superstar and the man who came to be known as "Mr. Television," died at his home yesterday afternoon at the age of 93.

With Mr. Berle at the time of his death were his wife, Lorna, and other family members, according to longtime Berle publicist Warren Cowan. The performer was diagnosed with colon cancer last year and had been in hospice care the past few weeks, according to the Associated Press.

Mr. Berle's death, like the birth of his Tuesday-night television variety show in 1948, is a milestone moment in the history of the medium that has come to so dominate American life.

"There was always the sense while Milton Berle was alive that television was still a new invention and that we were living television history as part of our contemporary lives," Robert J. Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said in a telephone interview last night.

"Now that Milton Berle is gone, one really realizes that the history of television is the kind of thing you're going to put in museums and talk about as history. He is that seminal a figure and really did mark the flash point, or beginning, of television. One critic once said he was the fuse that lit the bomb of television. And I think that was not hyperbole."

Mr. Berle was not the beginning of television, which was broadcasting in select cities before World War II, but he - more than any other entertainer - was the one who brought television into America's living rooms. Beginning in 1948, Tuesday nights were home to Mr. Berle and The Texaco Star Theater variety show that he headlined.

Television was then in an experimental state, held in a "freeze" situation until 1950 by the federal government. It was estimated that there were fewer than 400,000 television sets when Mr. Berle debuted in 1948 along with another variety show, Toast of the Town, which would come to be known as The Ed Sullivan Show.

By the start of 1949, the number of sets jumped to 1 million, and then doubled again by 1950. The consensus among television historians is that Mr. Berle, along with Mr. Sullivan and Sid Caesar, drove those sales. Early research services found that 80 percent of the homes with televisions were tuned to Mr. Berle on Tuesday nights on NBC.

"What television desperately needed in those early days was some program that forced people to go out and spend a good chunk of money to buy a television set back then. And, just like The Sopranos have done for HBO and MTV did for cable, Milton Berle did for television the first time around. He gave you an excuse to spend a lot of money and drag one of these things into your living room, which would change your life and the life of the country at large," Thompson said.

Unlike Mr. Caesar, Mr. Berle was not a great comedian or performer. In fact, his career in most other media foundered before he found his niche on the small screen.

Born in New York in 1908 as Mendel Berlinger, he was onstage performing in vaudeville as a child. By the early 1930s, he was working full time as a comedian in vaudeville and such Broadway reviews as The Earl Carroll Varieties and Ziegfeld Follies. But he was never a headliner.

In the early 1940s, he went to Hollywood and managed to land roles in several films, such as Margin for Error in 1943. But again he was not a major player.

All that changed on June 8, 1948, when he auditioned as host for The Texaco Star Theater. His guests that night included singer Pearl Bailey, tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and ventriloquist Senor Wences. Mr. Berle was an instant hit and took over as permanent host in September. For three seasons, Tuesday nights belonged to Mr. Berle, and Texaco Star Theater was the highest- rated variety show on television.

Mr. Berle essentially restaged vaudeville for television with broad physical humor, sketches, skits and songs. What Mr. Berle is perhaps most remembered for as a television performer is dressing as a woman. Many of his biggest laughs came when he appeared on camera in drag. A running joke among other performers was that Mr. Berle's greatest talent as a comedian was stealing jokes from others. Still, America loved him - for a time.

Television changed quickly in those years, and The Texaco Star Theater was gone by the start of the 1954 season. Mr. Berle headlined other variety shows on NBC in the 1950s, but none was as successful. At the height of his fame, he had signed a 30-year contract with NBC guaranteeing him $100,000 a year. By 1960, NBC had him working as host of a bowling show, Jackpot Bowling With Milton Berle, to try to get him to end the contract. He renegotiated for a lower annual fee and the right to work on other networks.

He appeared as a guest on such dramas as Mannix and The Mod Squad in the 1960s and 1970s, but was not often seen on television after a TV testimonial in 1978, A Tribute to Milton Berle. He received a special Emmy award that year. His last appearance on network television was the 1998 Oscar telecast, during which he appeared with two other television pioneers, Bob Hope and Mr. Caesar.

"I think Berle's disappearance from television helped keep the Milton Berle legend alive," Thompson said. "He never became the fat, sequined Elvis Presley as Elvis did. Thankfully, he'll mostly be remembered as `Mr. Television' or `Uncle Miltie.'"

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