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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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.
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