Milton Berle was television's first superstar and remains one of America's top comedians.
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"I was a kid actor of 13 when I tasted my first Havana cigar," Berle recalled recently. He was holed up in his spartan office on Santa Monica Boulevard, just down the street from the Beverly Hills chapter of the renowned Friars Club, where he holds the lofty title of abbot emeritus. "I remember it well. The year was 1921. I was a kid actor. I sang...danced...told jokes. And I was handled by a man who used to book cruises with entertainment. Well, he booked me on a cruise to Havana in 1921. My mother, Sarah, also came along and brought my baby sister, Rosalind. Mama went everywhere with me; managed me. She was your basic stage mother, kind of on the order of your grandmother Minnie [the mother of the Marx brothers]."
When Berle got off the ship in Havana, he found himself in the midst of a bunch of Cuban children hawking cigars. Cuban cigars, of course.
"Cigarro...cigarro...try...try!" they shouted.
"OK, give me one," said the young Berle.
It ended up costing Berle 12 cents.
"I'd never smoked before in my life, not even a cigarette," Berle continued. "But I took it, put it in my mouth and lit it. What the hell did I know? But it tasted good, so I kept puffing on it, and I guess I inhaled a lot of the smoke. I didn't know you weren't supposed to inhale a cigar. Pretty soon I got sick to my stomach and started to throw up. Then my mother noticed what I was up to and didn't approve. So she came over to me and slapped me on my neck hard. She wouldn't slap me on the face because if I was going to be an actor I needed my face. That was Mama. Always thinking about what was best for my career."
Slap or no slap, he was hooked on cigars for the rest of his life. Besides enjoying the taste, Berle wanted to be like the important comedians he'd seen on the stage in vaudeville. Groucho Marx. Ken Murray. Ted Healey. George Jessel. Lou Holtz. They all worked with cigars onstage.
"Back in the States I started smoking Rey del Reys...Perlas. They cost me 20 cents apiece. I used to buy them at United Cigar Stores. I also bought cigars from a place on 48th and Broadway called the I & Y Cigar Store. The 'I' stood for 'I make 'em' and the 'Y' for 'You smoke 'em.' "
Unlike other performers of that time who smoked in their act, Berle never smoked a cigar on the stage. And he still doesn't, unless the part calls for it.
According to Berle, it took a lot of guts for him at age 13 to stand up to Mama on the cigar-smoking issue. Mama, whose name was Sarah Berlinger, had assumed the guidance of her son's acting career after he had won a tin cup in a Charlie Chaplin contest in Mount Vernon, New York, at age five. From that day on, she was determined to steer him to the top.
It was either that or starve to death.
Moses Berlinger, Sarah's husband and Milton's father, was a nice guy, but totally incapable of supporting a family of seven. In addition to Milton, who was born in 1908, Moses had sired Phil in 1901, Francis in 1904, Jack in 1905 and Rosalind in 1913.
Moses, the son of a German immigrant, was a dreamer, a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. He tried to earn a living doing everything from house painting to selling paint to being a door-to-door salesman to "inventing" chocolate-covered cherries--which had already been invented. But nothing he tried ever worked out.
"We lived in the Bronx and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in an assortment of crummy flats and brownstones, but there was never enough money to pay the rent," remembered Berle. "We were always having to sneak our furniture and belongings out in the middle of the night and move to a new place. It wasn't until I was fairly grown that I learned that moving could be done in the daytime. I thought it was like sleeping--something you had to do at night."
So after Milton won the Chaplin contest, Mama Berle decided that the only way to achieve wealth, security and happiness was to make her youngest son into a star, either in vaudeville or films. She had wanted to be a performer herself, but her family wouldn't hear of it. "So after she married my father and had a lot of kids, she was determined to become a performer through me," claimed Berle. "Why me and not my older brothers? I guess because she thought I was the cutest."
Although by 1913 the film business was already starting to move west to Hollywood, where the weather was more conducive to outdoor shooting, there were still plenty of picture companies making their headquarters in New York and New Jersey. Famous Players-Lasky was on 56th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues; Keystone, Vitagraph, Essanay and Fox were working out of shacks and cow barns in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Astoria; and Pathé, which produced the highly successful weekly serial, "The Perils of Pauline," starring Pearl White, was located in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
For some reason, Mama decided that Fort Lee was the place to start her son's picture career.
"Where Mama got her information from--she certainly didn't read Variety in those days--I don't know," said Berle. "But when she heard that Pathé was looking for a boy my age to be in a serial with Pearl White, she played sick from the department store where she was working to keep bread on the table and schlepped me over to Jersey on the Fort Lee ferry at the crack of dawn. Because we were the first ones there, I got the job. I played a little boy who gets thrown from a moving train and is rescued by Pearl White. When the director told me that was my part, I was scared stiff. I thought they really were going to throw me off a moving train. But when the moment of truth came, they threw a bundle of rags off the train instead of me."
After his debut in "The Perils of Pauline," Berle played kid parts in a number of other silent films in which the big names of the day starred--Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Corinne Griffith, Marie Dressler, Mabel Normand and even Charlie Chaplin. "If you can find prints of any of those films today," grinned Berle, "look for a kid with Bugs Bunny teeth--that was me then, and, now that I think of it, that's me now."
Some of those films took Mama Berle and Milton all the way to Hollywood, where the budding comedian got his first glimpse of orange trees and coconut palms. However, after Berle outgrew little kid parts--and the First World War created a shortage of film--movie work on the Coast grew scarce. So it was back to New York to make the rounds of casting agencies again and pick up split-week engagements in small-time vaudeville houses and nightclubs with a female dancing partner he had linked up with at a dancing school in Harlem his mother had sent him to. Their act earned between $3 and $5 a performance, which wasn't much--but then bread wasn't $2 a loaf in 1917, either.
Berle remembered that for a period in his life Mama could afford to serve only rice to the family for dinner. "We ate so much rice I got up in the morning and did my own laundry," he added jokingly.
Berle's career began its slow but steady climb upward after Mama took him to a music publisher's office in Tin Pan Alley one day and had him put on an impromptu singing performance for the agents and song pluggers who were sitting around puffing cigars. A man named Schoenstein heard Milton and hired him to sing at the Mt. Morris Theater on 116th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem the following Thursday night.
Thursday at Mt. Morris was "songwriters' night," when composers of pop tunes were encouraged to get up and plug their newest "standards."
Because Berle was under 16, the rules of the Gerry Society prevented him from performing onstage at night. The organization had been founded to curb the exploitation of child actors by greedy parents. But Schoenstein got around this obstacle by having the young Berle sing while standing in a box at the side of the stage.
The songwriter that evening turned out to be Irving Berlin, who was there to introduce his latest song, "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which was the big number from his army show, Yip, Yip, Yaphank. Berle sang it while wearing a Boy Scout uniform. This performance was heard by a small-time producer named E. W. Wolf, who packaged kid acts to work around the Philadelphia area. Wolf made Berle an offer that Mama couldn't refuse, even though it meant moving to the City of Brotherly Love.
Kid acts were all the rage in those days because children worked cheap. A fellow named Gus Edwards was making a fortune producing fare like "School Boys and Girls" and "Kid Kabaret." Such vehicles gave a start to Eddie Cantor, Walter Winchell, Lila Lee and Georgie Price.
"I clicked in most of the junk Wolf put me in, which led to my being seen by J. J. Shubert," continued Berle. "He hired me to come to New York and appear in an updated version of the 'Florodora Sextette,' which had originally been produced in 1900. Now, this was 1920, but audiences still appreciated looking at sexy girls. Grown-up girls, of course. But I was hired along with five other boys my age to do a number with six girls our age--a parody of the grown-up Florodora girls. We were billed as the 'Florodora Sextette of 1940.' "
The Florodora show tried out in Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore before it opened at the Century Theatre in New York City to smash reviews. The baby sextette was singled out for special mention by the critics--as were Milton and his girl partner.
"Mind you, all this happened before I smoked my first cigar," insisted Berle.
The show also coincided with his first sexual experience.
Berle had not quite reached bar mitzvah age when he lost his virginity to one of the grown-up Florodoras. It happened one Saturday after the matinee. The baby sextette was relegated to a dressing room on the top floor of the theater. The women had dressing rooms on the floor below.
While Mama waited for him by the stage door, Berle finished dressing and descended the stairs to the second floor, where the door to the women's dressing room was open. Noticing a half-naked Florodora beauty alone in front of her dressing table, Berle stopped and stole a peek. Noticing the 12-year-old voyeur, who was quite tall and handsome for his age, admiring her, the woman invited him in. But instead of reprimanding him, she was amused and put her hand inside his trousers.
"Why, you're quite a man," she complimented him.
Berle wasn't sure what she meant. "I think the whole thing took two seconds," he recalled, with a laugh. "One second her hand was undoing my fly and, the next thing I knew, I was inside her. It was over very quickly."