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Forever Young

Milton Berle was television's first superstar and remains one of America's top comedians.
Arthur Marx
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.

"No give...buy!"

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.' "


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