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 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.
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