Milton Berle was television's first superstar and remains one of America's top comedians.
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95
Milton Berle is 86 years young, and he has been smoking cigars since he was 13 years old. That may say more about the state of the comedian's physical fitness than it does about the benefits of smoking cigars for most of a long lifetime. But whatever the reason, it doesn't matter. He's here today and very much alive, one of the three remaining legendary comedians of the twentieth century still making us laugh--the other two, of course, being the venerable George Burns and the peripatetic Bob Hope.
"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."
While we were on the subject of women, I asked Berle what his wives had thought about his cigar smoking.
"If they had objected, they wouldn't have been my wives," he retorted. "Actually, they've all been very supportive. So have my girlfriends. I once had a brief fling with Marilyn Monroe, before she became a star. After we broke up, we wound up working together in a film in 1959, Let's Make Love, with Yves Montand. One day Marilyn told me that she liked the aroma of the cigar I was smoking--I think it was a Cohiba. So I bought her a box of small cigars. I told her they were better for her than those lousy cigarettes she smoked. She never told me whether she smoked the cigars, but at least I tried. I'm a proselytizer when it comes to weaning people off cigarettes and touting them onto cigars, which don't hurt you, unless you inhale them. But let me tell you about my first wife, Joyce Mathews."
Berle met Joyce in 1940 when he was playing the Bowery, a nightclub in Detroit. By then he'd become a success in cabarets such as the Chez Paree in Chicago and the Copa in New York, and in what was left of vaudeville. He'd even headlined at the Palace and was commanding a salary of at least $10,000 a week. He was the featured comic at the Bowery when legendary agent Louis Shurr (who later represented Bob Hope) sat down at a ringside table with a gorgeous blond named Joyce Mathews in a white ermine coat.
Joyce was in town working in the road-tour tryout of an Al Jolson musical called Hold Onto Your Hats. She was one of the two featured showgirls in the cast; the other was model Jinx Falkenberg. Berle couldn't take his eyes off Joyce, and, after the show, he sat down at Shurr's table to be introduced to the beauty. He and Joyce hit it off from the start and spent the rest of the evening exchanging small talk and looking dreamily into one another's eyes.
Their romance heated up during the Broadway run of Hold Onto Your Hats. Berle became a regular stage-door Johnny, waiting in the alley behind the Shubert Theatre every night so he could take his blond bombshell out on the town, to her apartment or wherever else they could go to elude Mama Berle, which wasn't easy. Mama wasn't about to lose her pride and joy to the shiksa without putting up a fight.
As time went on, waiting for Joyce in Shubert Alley became more and more tiresome to Berle. Jolson, who was still a huge singing star--not to mention a bigger ham than any you could find at the Hormel meatpacking plant--had fallen into the annoying habit of stopping the show every night halfway through the second act and saying to the audience: "Now you nice folks out dere know how dis show is gonna end. Johnny gets da girls, da comedy lead gets da homely broad and da ingenue's father forgives her for falling in love wit a cowpoke and gives him a job on Wall Street. Now dat you know all dis, just settle back in your seats while Jolie entertains you wit a few songs."
Whereupon Jolson would do 40 minutes of his famous numbers, from "Sonny Boy" to "Swanee" to "April Showers" to a lot more, while the rest of the cast just stood there. The curtain was supposed to come down at 11, but on many nights they were lucky if the show let out by midnight.
One night Berle became so angry about being kept waiting that he entered the theater while Jolson was doing his star turn, walked down the center aisle, put two fingers to his lips, let out a loud whistle and yelled, "hold it, Jolie!" Then he walked up on the stage, took Joyce by the hand and led her to the center aisle. There he turned back to Jolson, threw a set of keys at him and said, "we're going home, Jolie. You lock up."
Since Berle was a big star by then and easily recognizable, the audience roared, thinking it was part of the show.
Jolson was livid. He couldn't let on to the audience that he was angry, but the following night he took Joyce aside and said, "if I ever get my hands on that fucking Jew comic, I'll kill him."
"Jolson was so mad he was anti-Semitic--which is pretty mad when you consider he was the son of a rabbi," Berle told me with a grin.
Mama didn't dislike Joyce so much as she just didn't want to share her son with another woman. In spite of her resistance, her son and his shiksa tied the knot in a civil ceremony in Beverly Hills on December 4, 1941--three days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
The newlyweds settled down in a house on Roxbury Drive, while Mama remained in the smaller bungalow on Palm Drive, where she and Milton had lived before the nuptials.
At 33, Berle was too old to be drafted. He accepted an offer to star in a half-hour weekly radio show sponsored by Ballantine Beer over the NBC network. The show originated from NBC's new radio-broadcasting studios on the corner of Sunset and Vine.
Berle took a break in his narrative to catch his breath. "I suppose that was the period when you joined Hillcrest Country Club and became a member of the comedians' Round Table," I interjected.
But he surprised me by saying he had joined Hillcrest much earlier, in 1932. "It cost me $275 to join in those days. Now the initiation fee is $150,000, if they'll accept you, which all depends on how much money you've given to the United Jewish Appeal.
"Speaking of that, I have to tell you, Arthur, what happened to [George] Jessel at the Round Table one noon. The whole gang of us was there--your father and uncles, the Ritz brothers, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Burns, Lou Holtz and Jack Benny--when an elderly businessman approached Jessel very timidly and said, 'Mr. Jessel, my wife, Rosie, had a little poodle she was crazy about who just died. It would very much please her if you would do the eulogy at the dog's funeral.' "
For those readers who aren't familiar with Jessel lore, his avocation was doing eulogies at friends' funerals, and even nonfriends'. But this was different. He fixed his eyes on the old man, chewed angrily on the end of his cigar and then exclaimed in disbelief, "You want me to do a eulogy for a fucking dog? I do people--not animals. Now go away!"
But the old man refused to leave and finally said, "look, Mr. Jessel. If you'll do this one favor for me, I'll give you $2,500 in cash, and I'll also donate $25,000 to UJA."
Jessel, who was always in need of money, said instantly, "that's different. You didn't tell me the dog was Jewish!"
One day Berle was sitting next to Groucho at the Round Table at lunch. Groucho finished his corned beef sandwich first and lit one of his favorite cigars--a Dunhill 410--and started blowing smoke in Berle's direction.
Berle, who told me he doesn't mind other people's smoke except when eating, finally turned to Groucho and asked, "Don't you ever inhale?"
And Groucho looked at him straight-faced and cracked, "not when you're around."
Another time Berle sat down next to George Burns, who was polluting the atmosphere at the table with one of his cheap stogies. According to Berle, Burns smokes a cheap brand because he gets them for nothing from the Consolidated Cigar Company for whom he works.
Unable to stand the odor any longer, Berle turned to Burns. "You must be smoking one of those Lawrence Welk cigars."
"What's a Lawrence Welk cigar?" asked Burns, reverting to his days as Gracie Allen's straight man.
"A piece of shit with a band around it!" quipped Uncle Miltie.
It was the bane of Berle's life at the Round Table that he could not get Burns to smoke an expensive cigar. One afternoon Berle said, "George, I can't stand it any longer. I want you to try a good cigar for a change." And he pulled an Upmann Amatista from his pocket and handed it to Burns. "Here, smoke this."
Burns looked at the Upmann suspiciously and put it to his nostril to get a whiff. "How much does this one cost?"
"Two dollars and fifty cents," replied Berle.
"Two dollars and fifty cents!" repeated Burns incredulously. "Why, before I'd smoke this I'd first have to fuck it."
After the Ballantine Radio Show was canceled in the spring of 1942, Berle accepted an offer to star in the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. Consequently, he and Joyce moved back to New York into an apartment at 875 Fifth Avenue. Mama, never far away, could wave to her son from the window of her apartment in the Essex House on Central Park South.
To illustrate what a major box-office attraction Berle had become, the producers of the Ziegfeld Follies agreed to put his name above the title of the show. This was a huge concession, and Berle says it's the only time in the history of the Follies that a performer saw his name above the title--and that includes some fairly respectable talent: Will Rogers, Fanny Brice and Bob Hope, to mention but a few.
The Ziegfeld Follies opened on April 1, 1943, at the Winter Garden, the night after a little thing called Oklahoma! by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which turned out to be the smash hit of the decade, if not the twentieth century.
In spite of the competition, the Follies ran for 553 performances. As if that wasn't enough to keep Berle busy, he also found the time to squeeze in camp shows for the GIs, benefits for the Red Cross, appearances to help sell war bonds and broadcasts for Armed Forces Radio.
Berle was getting laughs from everybody except his wife. By the end of the war, his marriage was headed for the rocks; it didn't end until October 23, 1947, when Joyce divorced him in Reno, charging "mental cruelty." But actually it was more complicated than that. Like many show-business wives, Joyce couldn't stand to be married to someone who spent more time with his writers, agents, advertising men, gophers, stooges and other actors--not to mention his mother--than he did with her.
Joyce had started drinking heavily and spending money like it was going out of style. Once, she tried to kill herself, claiming she was bored with life. She had wanted to resume her acting career, but Milton had objected.
The marriage ended abruptly one morning without a word of warning when Joyce served him with divorce papers.
Between the closing of the Follies and the emergence of Berle as "Mr. Television" in the fall of 1948, he kept occupied playing nightclubs. But in the spring of 1948 he received an offer to do another radio show--this one to be sponsored by the Texas Company (Texaco). He accepted the offer reluctantly, saying he preferred to go into the newer medium of television. But the radio show, "Texaco Star Theater," was a hit, thanks to the efforts of a talented writing staff consisting of Nat Hiken, Aaron Rubin and two brothers who were newcomers to the field--Danny and Neil Simon.
The success on radio led Texaco to sponsor an hourlong television show for Berle that fall on Tuesday nights on NBC. Hard worker that he was, Berle signed on for 39 television programs in addition to his weekly radio broadcasts--78 live shows in one season.
The television show, also called "Texaco Star Theater," was basically vaudeville, with Berle acting as a no-holds-barred emcee.
Its weekly budget was a niggardly $15,000 for everything--performers, sets, writers, musicians, technicians and airtime. Berle's cut was only $1,500 a week, which was quite a bargain for Texaco, considering that Berle claims he had to wear "five hats"--those of the star, director, writer, cameraman and editor.
Broadcast from the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, "Texaco Star Theater" caught on with the public immediately, garnering in 1950 the highest score from the first Nielsen ratings--79.9. Today the No. 1 show is lucky if it gets 21.
The show opened with a spirited musical number sung by men dressed as service-station attendants.
Oh, we're the men of Texaco,
We work from Maine to Mexico,
Our show tonight is powerful,
We'll wow you with an hour-ful.
The ditty went on for several choruses, with Berle, also in uniform, joining in, and segued into an hour of comedy sketches and musical productions featuring leggy chorus girls, guest comedians and singers.
"Texaco Star Theater" was so popular that it was the only television program not preempted on Tuesday night, November 2, 1948, for the Truman-Dewey presidential-election returns.
Of course the competition on television wasn't as stiff then. Actually Berle was the first of the big-name comedians to get his feet wet in the new medium. His peers, namely Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Skelton, Eddie Cantor and Fred Allen, were all scared to leave the security of radio to risk flopping on the tube, where they would have to work with sets, wear costumes and makeup, devise stronger scripts and memorize lines.
But Berle didn't have to worry about leaving the airwaves because he'd never been that big on radio in the first place. As one wag cracked, "the trouble with Milton Berle on radio is that his personality comes across."
But television was a different story. Because it was a visual medium, it allowed him to do the kind of shtick he did best--physical comedy. He could mug, drop his pants, take a pie in the kisser, dress in drag, ogle bosomy showgirls; in fact, he could be as outrageous as he liked as long as he didn't violate the censorship code.
In his first four seasons on the air, Berle reigned throughout the country as "Mr. Television." In April 1949 he hosted the "Damon Runyon Memorial Fund," the first charity telethon, and in May became the first comedian to appear simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek, with accompanying profile stories. At the second Emmy Awards presentation in January 1950, Berle won for "Most Outstanding Kinescoped Personality," and "Texaco Star Theater" won for "Best Kinescope Show."
To give you an idea of just how well-known Berle was becoming, when Al Jolson asked my then five-year-old daughter, Linda, to name the days of the week, she shot back, without meaning to be funny or precocious: "Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday Milton Berle."
But fame isn't everything. He missed Joyce and, more than that, he missed Vicki, their four-year-old adopted daughter. On June 16, 1949, in New York City, he married Joyce again.
When Walter Winchell heard of Berle's plans to remarry Joyce, he asked, "Why?" Stuck for a reasonable answer, Berle stammeringly retorted: "Because...uh...she reminds me of my first wife."
Apparently that wasn't enough to sustain the marriage. The union broke up again in December for the same reasons as before--this time for good.
The pair was divorced in March 1950, with the court awarding Joyce $30,000 a year in combined alimony and child support. The two agreed to share custody of Vicki.
Within two years, Mr. Television's salary had shot from $1,500 a week to $11,500. Between "Star Theater," guest shots and assorted nightclub engagements during the summer hiatus, Berle was making so much money that the 30 grand he had to pay Joyce was a mere drop in the bucket--not even a drop by 1951. In May of that year, he signed an exclusive contract with NBC guaranteeing him $200,000 a year for 30 years. He could now afford to smoke the most expensive cigars at the Round Table.
Berle remained single until December 9, 1953, when he wed Ruth Cosgrove, a former publicist for Sam Goldwyn. Though attractive, Ruth didn't have the flashy showgirl looks of Joyce. But she was better suited temperamentally to being married to a high-powered comic. She had a good sense of humor and understood the demands on his time that the profession called for, could help make business decisions and, though she was a cigarette smoker herself, she liked the smell of her bridegroom's Havanas.
When they were in Paris on their honeymoon the following summer, Ruth took Milton on a shopping expedition to help select an evening bag. When she saw one that appealed to her in the window of a little shop, she went inside and asked the clerk to show it to her. "Ruth opened it up," said Berle, "and tried to fit one of my cigars into it. It didn't fit, so she kept trying larger and larger bags until she finally found one that was the right size. I bought it for her. But I didn't know what she was up to until that night. When we were getting dressed to go out, Ruth took four of my cigars from my dinner-jacket pocket and put them in her purse. 'Now you won't look so lumpy when we go out,' she told me. After that I started calling her my 'humidorable.' "
On the same trip they decided to visit Italy. Because Berle can't go anywhere without a healthy supply of cigars, he stuffed about 500 pure Havanas into one of his suitcases. But customs at the Rome airport would allow a visitor to bring only 100 cigars into the country at a time. The inspector said he'd have to confiscate the rest.
The quick-thinking Ruth saved the day. "Like a shot," recalled Berle, "she took one of my cigars from her purse, stripped off the cellophane and asked me for a light. She nearly choked to death smoking it, but it enabled us to bring another hundred cigars in."
Though admittedly Berle is a difficult man to live with, he and Ruth made an ideal couple. They remained married for 38 years. Along the way, in 1961, they adopted an infant son whom they named William after their close friend, Academy Award-winning film director and writer Billy Wilder, who became the baby's godfather.
Ruth died of cancer in 1989, and although it wasn't lung cancer, Berle blames her death on her addiction to cigarettes. She smoked three to four packs a day throughout their marriage. Berle tried to wean her off cigarettes but failed.
Berle's personal life showed a marked improvement when he married Ruth, but his television ratings were down. Texaco had dropped his show in June 1953. It was still making audiences laugh but was beginning to suffer from the competition of newer programs like "I Love Lucy," "Your Show of Shows" (starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco) and "Arthur Godfrey and His Friends."
Buick picked up the Berle show with a slightly changed format for the 1953-1954 season. The ratings were respectable, but some of the magic was gone.
To further dampen 1954, Mama died on May 31 while Berle was rehearsing the fifth of six shows being produced and broadcast from NBC in Burbank. He left immediately for the East to take care of the funeral arrangements, while Bob Hope substituted for him on that week's episode.
Buick dropped the show in 1955 after two seasons, for it was no longer a success. Berle blames his fall on the fact that Goody Ace, his head writer, turned his character into a schnook instead of the aggressive, pushy, outrageous, baggy-pants comic he had been when he was on top. "Besides, Goody, great writer that he was, didn't write visual comedy," complained Berle, "and I'm a visual comic."
With his $200,000-a-year guarantee from NBC for the next quarter century, Berle didn't have to worry about money. Nor was there a dearth of jobs if he felt like working. He was still a big attraction in nightclubs and at the gaming palaces in Las Vegas. There were plenty of comedy roles for him in Hollywood films, and because he was a good, legitimate stage actor he toured the country in plays like The Last of the Red Hot Lovers and The Impossible Years (which I happen to have written).
He also emceed the "Kraft Music Hall" on television for a full season and during another season starred in a game show called "Jackpot Bowling."
As a major television personality, though, he was all washed up by the 1960s.
Another bitter pill for him to swallow was the embargo the United States slapped on Cuba after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban missile crisis. The blockade meant Berle could no longer procure Cuban cigars.
"I knew two weeks before it happened that I'd no longer be able to buy Cuban cigars," Berle told me. "So I decided to put in a supply of them. I went to Dunhill's and to every great department store in New York, like Saks, Bloomingdale's and places that had great tobacco departments. I was determined to buy up as many as I could. When I went into Saks and asked if they had any Upmanns, the salesman said he had a few left. I told him to trot them out, as I'd like to sample one. Which I did. But after a couple of puffs I pronounced, 'this is not an Upmann.' The salesman, a very polite young man, insisted that it was. 'Well, it doesn't taste like an Upmann,' I told him. Now there was a guy with a little moustache sitting on a couch nearby. He interrupted me and said, 'that's an Upmann.' Well, I got testy and cracked, 'who asked you? I'm buying cigars, and I'm an expert on Upmanns. And I can tell you this is not an Upmann. I don't know what it is, but this is not an Upmann.' The guy on the couch said, 'but I can tell you it is an Upmann.' Finally, I turned at him and yelled, 'will you shut up? I've had enough of you. Who the hell are you, anyway?' And he turned to me with a straight face and said, 'my name is Upmann. H. Upmann. And my father started the Upmann Cigar Company.'
"I was never so embarrassed in my life. I felt like crawling out of the place."
Today, embargo or no, Berle is still smoking very expensive Cuban cigars. He wouldn't reveal his source, but while we were talking he opened up his bag and took out a leather cigar case that contained five large cigars and handed me one. It was long and thin.
"That's a Cohiba," he said. "The kind Castro smokes. Or smoked. I understand he's given them up."
I put the side of the Cohiba to my nose and smelled it. But Berle said, "no, no, you don't smell a cigar that way. Stick the end of it into your nostril."
So I did, and it smelled the same. Then I asked him how much a cigar like that cost. "Five bucks?" I ventured.
Berle looked at me as if I were nuts and exclaimed, "would you believe 25?"
I nearly choked upon hearing the price. "But you can't buy them. They're embargoed," he went on. "I have a connection."
"How many of those do you smoke a day?" I asked.
"Four. Maybe five."
"Well, that certainly can't hurt you," I told him.
"Of course not. Cigars are fine as long as you don't inhale them [or sit next to George Burns]. That's why I'm always after my friends to give up cigarettes. That's what kills them. That's what killed Ruth."
While we were on the subject, I had to ask him what he thought of all the restrictions on smoking today.
"I don't like it. I don't believe that secondhand smoke gives you cancer. They've never proved it.
"You know, when Bush was president, he appointed Arnold Schwarzenegger national chairman of the Council on Physical Fitness. Schwarzenegger smokes cigars, you know, though he doesn't want the public to know it. Anyway, Arnold appointed me spokesman for physical fitness for older Americans.
"Recently I've been going around to all the senior-citizen places speaking on the subject. I tell people that I smoke cigars, but tell them to lay off cigarettes. And I mention that I keep healthy by exercising. Every day I run on the treadmill and punch the bag. I used to be an amateur boxer."
At the time of our interview, Berle was producing a videotape starring himself called "The Milton Berle Low Impact/High Comedy Workout for Seniors."
In it he leads a group of oldsters ranging in age from 70 to 101 through some fairly strenuous exercises.
Berle not only acts in the tape, he directed it, wrote the material, set the key lights, chose the camera angles and is in charge of its distribution. Shades of his "Texaco Star Theater" days.
Berle's comedy-workout tape will be in video stores by the time this is published. According to those who've seen the finished product, it's not only helpful and inspirational, it's extremely funny.
After Ruth died, Milton Berle was a fairly lonely man. Many of his friends from the Round Table gang were gone, including Groucho and Jack Benny, and so were all of his brothers, except Phil, who is 94 and lives in Hollywood.
As a result, Berle found himself spending more and more of his afternoons in a booth reserved especially for him in a corner of the dining room at the Beverly Hills Friars Club.
He eats lunch there when he's in town, smokes cigars and exchanges jokes and show-business talk with his cronies, such as singer Tony Martin, comedy writer Buddy Arnold (who wrote the Texaco song) and some younger members, such as Frank Ferrante--who portrayed Groucho in Groucho: A Life in Review, off-Broadway--and Joe Vitrelli, a character actor who has played Mafia types in films like Goodfellas and Bullets Over Broadway.
Within reach of Berle's well-manicured right hand is a telephone on which he constantly fields business calls and offers to perform.
And when he gets the opportunity, he tries to convert friends who are hooked on cigarettes to cigars. One such friend is Vitrelli.
Berle likes Vitrelli and hated to see him killing himself with cigarettes. So every time they met, Berle would walk up to him and yank the cigarette out of his mouth. One day Berle handed him a Churchill-sized Romeo y Julieta cigar and told him to try it.
"Hey, dis smells good," he told Berle, who showed him how to cut the end and light it.
A few days later, Vitrelli walked into the Friars and over to Berle's table with a cigar in his mouth. Berle congratulated him on making the switch and asked him what kind it was.
"It's the same as the one you gave me," said Vitrelli. "It's a Romeo and...uh...a Romeo and...uh..." Unable to recall the rest of it, he looked at Berle with a helpless expression and asked, "a Romeo and...uh...what's that fuckin' broad's name?"
Even after Ruth's demise, Berle maintained an active evening social life. As one of the last of the legendary comedians, he was a much-sought-after guest on the Bel Air party circuit at the tony homes of people like Aaron Spelling, Marvin Davis and David Geffen. Which is how he met Lorna Adams, his third wife--or fourth, depending on how many times you want to count his marriages to Joyce Mathews.
Since he was in mourning for the first year after he became a widower, Berle never brought a date along to any of the Bel Air and Beverly Hills soirees. But he'd been introduced to Lorna, who'd attended some of the same parties as someone else's date, and he found her attractive.
Lorna is a tall, well-built redhead, about 30 years younger than Berle, who owns a clothes-designing business in Los Angeles.
One evening while Berle was dining with Danny Welkes, his agent, at Nicky Blair's steak house on the Sunset Strip, he noticed Lorna sitting with a girlfriend at a nearby table. She noticed him, too, and sent her waiter over with an offer to buy him and his friend a drink. Berle sent word back that he didn't drink, but that he'd stop by her table later and buy dessert for her and her friend. Which he did, after which he lit a cigar and inadvertently blew smoke her way. Then, realizing his secondhand smoke might be objectionable, he waved it away and apologized.
"No problem," she replied. "You can blow smoke in my face anytime."
The way to a man's heart! Especially the heart of a man who had recently lost a wife and was lonely.
Berle and Lorna were married on November 26, 1990, less than three months after their restaurant meeting.
But there's a twist to the story.
About a year after their wedding, Lorna informed her husband that she had developed nodules on her vocal cords and that her doctor had advised her to stay away from cigar smoke.
"Now when I want to smoke at home, I have to go into another room," Berle lamented to me at the end of our interview. "Well, that's life. Or is it marriage?"
Arthur Marx is the author of three books and two plays about his father, Groucho.
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