`We'll wow you'

Milton Berle: He dressed up as Carmen Miranda -- and made TV an essential part of life.

March 30, 2002

THOSE BIG luscious lips and those big front teeth that looked as though they ought to be at work somewhere building a beaver dam and those big awful jokes that were so bad you just couldn't wait for the next one.

That was Milton Berle.

Was it really 54 years ago that he put television on the map with NBC's Texaco Star Theater? Yeah, and you know what? He'd already been in show business 34 years by that time.

That's the startling thing. Vaudeville, where the young comedian got his start, was closer to early TV than early TV is to us. Men and women who had played the circuits, living out of trunks and traveling by train, brought a whole ethic of live entertainment and hard work and greasepaint and slapstick and being funny to those early days of the tube.

Born in Harlem, Mr. Berle learned his way around a stage when there was still a Kaiser with his mustaches in Germany and before the New York Yankees had ever won a pennant. By the time he was 40 he was the king of television.

He was Uncle Miltie and he was TV's pre-eminent cross-dresser. His jokes were lame? Why, how could a joke be lame if it was still going strong after half a century?

His career stretched 88 years -- he was slapped by Charlie Chaplin in a silent film and cracked jokes with Larry King on CNN. He died Wednesday at the age of 93. Think about it -- almost a century's worth of silliness. Where would TV be without him?

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