Milton Berle was television's first superstar and remains one of America's top comedians.
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95
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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."
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