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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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.
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