TV's First Superstar, Milton Berle , Dies in L.A.
Milton Berle, with cigar in hand, hams it up for the
camera in New York City on May 13, 1963.
Comedian Milton Berle, whose zany,
cross-dressing entrances on the variety show he hosted
from 1948 to 1956 ushered in the age of television
and made him the medium's first superstar, died on Wednesday,
his spokesman said.
Hailed as both "Uncle Miltie" and
"Mr. Television" at the height of a career spanning
nine decades, Berle had been in declining health since suffering
a stroke in December 1998 and was diagnosed with colon
cancer in April 2001.
As one of the last of the great comedians
-- among them Jack Benny, George Burns and Red Skelton --
who came of age in vaudeville, Berle's passing marked the
end of an era.
With a beaming, Cheshire Cat-like grin, withering
stare, cigar (and a notorious reputation for stealing jokes),
Berle riveted viewers at the dawn of the television
Pushed into the limelight by his mother, he
began as a child model for Buster Brown shoes in 1913 before
working in dozens of silent movies. He then toiled
on stage and radio for years to perfect his wisecracking,
is shown with his wife at the time, Joyce, left, and
Eve Sully at a party given by Michael Todd for the opening
of his new show "Up In Central Park" at Tavern on the
Green restaurant in New York City, Jan. 28, 1945.
Those three decades as a young performer served
Berle well in preparing him for his biggest break -- his
groundbreaking career in what was then the fledgling medium
As the wildly comic host of NBC's "The
Texaco Star Theater" (1948-53), which later became
the top-rated "The Milton Berle" Show" (1954-56),
Uncle Miltie ruled Tuesday nights, virtually inventing TV's
variety show format along the way.
Built like an old-fashioned vaudeville
show, the original program opened with four Texaco Service
Men singing "Oh, we're the men of Texaco, we work from
Maine to Mexico ...," followed by a musical introduction
of Berle, who came on dressed in women's clothes or in some
other outlandish costume.
Introduced as "the man with jokes from
the Stone Age," Berle entered as a caveman. Announced
as "the man who just paid his taxes," he came
on wearing a barrel. The show closed each week with Berle
singing his theme song, "Near You."
As much as anyone, Berle established television
as a form of popular entertainment. During his show's eight-year
run, the number of TV sets in the United States jumped from
190,000 to 21 million, almost all of them tuned into Uncle
Other entertainment outlets felt the first
sting of broadcasting competition as viewers stayed home
to watch the man.
With the rising popularity of TV westerns,
detective shows and other dramas, Berle's show inevitably
waned in the ratings. Two years after its final broadcast,
Berle reappeared on NBC in October 1958 as host of the "Kraft
Music Hall" variety series," which lasted just
one season. Another comeback bid in 1966, as host of a more
restrained version of "The Milton Berle Show"
on ABC, was canceled after several months.
Still, he remained a fixture on television
through the 1960s with numerous specials -- some built around
him -- and guest spots on the other shows.