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.
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