The small-screen’s first super-star

Originally appeared in The Daily.

Milton Berle pushes the TV envelope when the medium is brand-new


When television was first invented, it produced blurry, flickering images that were perfectly adequate for telling ghost stories, but not exactly the stuff of Sweeps Week. In 1947, two decades after the first prototypes whirred to life, about 44,000 TVs were running in the entire United States, which meant television ownership was only slightly more common than Segway ownership is today. The idiot box hadn’t quite caught on.

Starting on June 8, 1948, it did. The real hard part to inventing television, it turned out, was not inventing the box, but coming up with something worth watching. That had to wait until Milton Berle started hosting the televised version of “Texaco Star Theater,” one of the most popular programs in the history of radio. The show was sponsored by the gas company Texaco, whose singing pump attendants led off each episode.


The format of “Texaco Star Theater” followed the classic variety-hour/vaudeville routine, with Fred Allen as host before Berle took over. The host warmed up the audience with quips and stock characters, and emceed as guests dropped in and music and jokes ensued. The transition from radio to television happened relatively naturally, since the visual element of the program sometimes required not much more than turning on a camera.


Before smash-hit comedies like “I Love Lucy” could reach the airwaves, it was left to Berle to ease the world into the idea that sitting at home and staring at a small glowing screen for an hour was a form of entertainment. These bright rectangles, including the one in your hands right now, have of course come to dominate our lives.


Berle was a natural. Like Allen before him, he possessed the innate gift of being able to delight an audience by scandalizing it, ever so slightly, while still seeming homey and sufficiently morally acceptable to stay on the airwaves. There was a strong visual element to his work, perhaps due to his history as a performer who had practiced his pratfalls since he was a child vaudeville star in the early 1920s. Others in radio mastered sound, stage whispers and wisecracks, but Berle added to this repertoire pies in the face and other TV-friendly gags that would have been wasted on Allen’s radio audience.


“I didn’t take any chances,” Berle later said of the first episode. He stacked the guest list with crowd-pleasers he knew from vaudeville, including Pearl Bailey and others who became household names. Cameras were placed on stage with the performers, which gave audiences a new intimacy with the men and women who had once seemed so distant on radio. Since Berle had no writers, as the show expanded into sketch comedy he simply mined his memories of vaudeville and played classic pieces from the old stage and burlesque shows. They were old gags, but because they were on television, they reached a new audience, in a format some called “vaudeo,” a combination of vaudeville and video.


Berle reached a new audience, too. “I took some friggin’ chance by doing this,” he said later. He had been making good money in Las Vegas, and Texaco paid Berle a fraction of that amount to appear on a medium that was at the time still untested. But Berle saw that television was on the verge of a great invasion of the American home, and that he’d soon earn back the pay cut through exposure to parts of America he’d otherwise never reach.


He was right. He started off only in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as Richmond, Va., and Schenectady, N.Y. Led by the success of the Tuesday-night broadcasts, television sales skyrocketed into the millions per year by 1949 and the tens of millions the year after. They fueled an instant broadcasting boom that soon spread nationwide. Berle himself became so identified with mastery of the medium that he became known as “Mr. Television,” and no imitator came close to dethroning him for years. At the beginning, 80 percent of all television sets were tuned to “Texaco Star Theater,” which is a market share roughly equivalent to the famed “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of “Dallas” — except that “Dallas” was a single episode, and Berle went on every Tuesday.


Berle forged a link between viewer and performer, both with introductions and by joining the acts for encores after their main performances. Dressing in flamboyant drag became a signature, along with his cigars, and neighbors traded opinions about which of his costumes (wedding dresses, hats with fruit on them, etc.) was the most outrageous. On May 16, 1949, he graced the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously (the latter in drag, dressed as Carmen Miranda).


Eventually other acts superseded Berle, and some inherited his format. By 1951, Berle was no longer at the top of the ratings (“I Love Lucy” was No. 1, and later “The Phil Silvers Show”). Neither of these successors owed much to Berle’s style of comedy — they were more broadly appealing, and a bit less tuned to the Borscht Belt expectations of the East Coast elites who owned most early TVs — but live shows all bore traces of Berle’s influence, sometimes by sharing guests who had started out with Berle. Ed Sullivan’s show had its debut almost at the same time as Berle’s but spent its first years beaten soundly in the ratings. Only in the late 1950s, when Berle’s charm had waned and American tastes were becoming more even and mature, did Sullivan’s middle-of-the-road conservatism replace Berle’s comedy as the best-known variety act.


In 1951, Berle signed a contract for 30 years with NBC, but his show stayed on the air only until 1956. Nothing he did subsequently met with the same success, and since his humor has aged poorly, he’s best known not for individual jokes but as the first television superstar, and for persistent rumors of being monstrously well-endowed. At Berle’s zenith, few would have predicted he would die as such a vital but brief chapter in the history of entertainment, and with such an outré footnote to his fame. Of course, many of his contemporaries would die with less.


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