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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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.
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