Mr. Television

Milton Berle had a huge impact on the way Americans learned to spend their leisure time -- and how they defined themselves.

March 29, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Wednesday night, after reporting and writing my obituary of Milton Berle, I sat down with a stack of cassettes of Texaco Star Theater shows that I had been allowed to copy from various university archives over the years.

As I had done with Carroll O'Connor, Steve Allen and several other television pioneers who have passed away in recent years, I let the flickering images of Berle wash over me in that darkened room until I found one that I could freeze-frame in memory, say goodbye to and move on with my life.

The one I kept coming back to was Berle bursting on stage dressed as a June bride at the start of a show from June 1949. The audience moved from nervous, uncertain laughter to an all-out howl as he struck a series of poses.

While Berle's onstage cross-dressing was mentioned in some newspaper articles published yesterday, in the wake of his death Wednesday at age 93, this is not the kind of image on which most of us have focused.

But I have been thinking about it since. Not only is it - and the context in which it appears - highly representative of Berle, but I believe that it also embodies less obvious truths about why his television persona so captured the post-war American imagination.

Undoubtedly, the thing for which Berle will be most remembered is the enormous role he played in taking television from a novelty to a central part of American life. Fewer than 400,000 homes owned television sets in 1948, the year Berle took over the Texaco Star variety show. The industry was then in its experimental stage.

By the start of 1949, the number of televisions jumped to a million, and then doubled again by 1950. More than any other entertainer, Berle is the one responsible for those sales. Berle is the one who brought television into the American living room.

But what has gone largely unsaid is why Berle's show, which seems to be little more than vaudeville through a television camera, became the first must-see TV show. Why did this performer, who had failed to find major success in radio, film or vaudeville, drive TV sales? Some answers may be found in that opening from 1949.

The show opens on a proscenium stage. Incredibly bright floodlights are moving across the curtain, which is down. Tympani and brass sound a fanfare, and as the curtains rises, a male chorus line dressed as Texaco service station attendants strides onstage. They're singing:

"Oh, we're the men of Texaco / We work from Maine to Mexico / There's nothing like this Texaco of ours." The singing and dancing continues for more than three minutes - a choreographed salute to Texaco's Sky Chief gasoline.

It's striking how much Madison Avenue controlled television in the early days - how much the medium was developed to sell the consumer society first and foremost.

But the dancing is impressive. It has a genuine energy and excitement, and when the dancers jump skyward in unison, click their heels and throw an imaginary punch into the air, it's instantly familiar: We've seen these confident, muscular movements before in Oklahoma!

Like that landmark play, the opening of the Texaco Star Theater - with all its brass and stage lights and high-stepping - spoke to the ebullience, confidence and sense of optimism in America in 1948. That was a big part of the "magic" of television in those years - not just on Berle's show, of course, but it was the first.

Imagine how exciting it must have been the first time this box was turned on in your living room, and all this energy, bright lights and exuberance flooded into your home from the far-away kingdom of Broadway, where people in tuxedos and evening gowns sang and danced.

And, then, Berle walks onstage dressed as a June bride, holding the arm of a short, fat groom. "Don't I look adorable?" he says, primping his hair.

Strange as that image might seem for a medium that was sold as family entertainment by its founders, I believe it also spoke directly to something major happening in post-war American life: the confusion and tension in gender relations.

Women who had worked in America's factories and stores during the war were forced back into the home as returning GIs reclaimed their jobs.

The different roles and expectations assigned to men and women by society were routinely parodied and confused in skits that featured Berle in drag, and could be viewed as harmless, silly fun by couples watching at home. The appeal of such parody at a time when the tensions were not acknowledged in the larger culture must have made for tremendous comic relief. You can hear it in the way the laughter from the live audience builds.

Another aspect of Berle in drag needs mention - and it's not very pleasant. There is a long history in European literature and American popular culture of the feminized Jewish male.

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