How Jewish television pioneer Milton Berle inspired modern comedy stars

Click photo to download. Caption: A 1943 publicity photo of Milton Berle. Credit: EBay via Wikimedia Commons.

By Robert Gluck/JNS.org

Today’s comedy superstars, especially those whose careers are driven by television, may very well owe their success to pioneering Jewish entertainer Milton Berle.

Born Mendel Berlinger in Manhattan in 1908, Berle became America’s first small-screen star. Aptly nicknamed “Mr. Television,” he influenced and helped promote the work of hundreds of younger comics.

“Milton Berle was deceptively successful and very Jewish,” says Lawrence Epstein, author of “The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America,” published the year Berle died in 2002. “His success came about because early television sets were mostly sold in wealthier urban areas, with Jews and gentile urbanites accustomed to and appreciative of Jewish humor. So Berle’s quick talking, his high-speed jokes, his dressing in outlandish costumes, and his sprinkling of Yiddishisms all played well. Ironically, it was Berle’s success with those urban audiences that propelled the sales of televisions around the nation.”

Epstein explains that once televisions reached the rural areas of America, viewers “took a look at [Berle] and said he spoke so fast they couldn’t understand him, and that he wasn’t funny, and [they asked], ‘What was that foreign language?’” 

“That is why Berle’s television career was meteoric,” Epstein tells JNS.org. “It burned brightly but briefly.” 

Berle’s close friend Lou Zigman, a Los Angeles-based labor lawyer and Brooklyn native, disagrees with Epstein’s use of the word “meteoric,” arguing that Berle never burned out like a meteor does. Berle kept performing, assisting other comics, giving to charities, and spreading Jewish culture until his death, and he was even performing card tricks as a hospital patient at age 90, according to Zigman.

“I asked Milton how come all the gentiles knew Yiddish humor,” Zigman tells JNS.org. “He answered that the great majority of comedians and writers in those early years were Jewish. That’s why it spread, and our culture spread, all over the country.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Maury Wills, Milton Berle, Jimmy Piersall, and Willie Mays in a salute to baseball on the television program "The Hollywood Palace" in 1967. Credit: ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons.

At age 5, Berle won an amateur talent contest and appeared as a child actor in silent films. He became a vaudevillian at age 12 in a revival of the musical comedy “Florodora” in Atlantic City, N.J., and was hired by producer Jack White in 1933 to star in “Poppin’ the Cork,” a musical comedy about the repeal of Prohibition. From 1934–36, Berle was heard frequently on “The Rudy Vallee Hour” radio show and attracted publicity as a regular on “The Gillette Original Community Sing,” a Sunday night comedy-variety radio program broadcast on CBS. Then came the “Milton Berle Show,” a variety format he would revive for his television debut.

That debut was “Texaco Star Theatre,” which began in September 1948 on ABC and continued until June 1949. The show became the first-ever “appointment television”—a program prompting viewers to adjust their schedules to watch it at a specific time. Berle’s autobiography notes that in Detroit, “an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the ‘Texaco Star Theatre’ before going to the bathroom.”

According to Artie Butler, Berle’s friend and a well-known composer/arranger, Berle had a Jewish sense of comedic wit. At age 16, Butler met Berle while filling in for his piano player at the Town and Country Club in Brooklyn.

“Milton was a mensch, a lovely man, a giving man,” Butler tells JNS.org. “He had a New York, garment district, Stage Deli, vaudeville-based Jewish sensibility, the theatrical yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but not in Yiddish. I asked him where he got his first laugh. He told me he was a chorus boy in one of Ziegfeld’s musicals, a hoofer. Every night his mother was there in the audience. He was purposefully out of step with the other dancers and [producer Florenz] Ziegfeld himself told him after the show to keep doing that, that it got a lot of laughs.” 

Berle assisted popular comics including Fred Travalena, Ruth Buzzi, John Ritter, Marla Gibbs, Lily Tomlin, Dick Shawn, and Will Smith. Butler says young comedians sought Berle’s advice because he was a pioneer. 

“Every comic including David Brenner and Rodney Dangerfield wanted to hear the stories about how Milton worked in the Catskill (Mountains) at Grossingers and The Concord, and how he worked the Jewish audiences,” says Butler. “Milton told them they were rough audiences and he had to learn how to finesse them.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Milton Berle in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in 1963. Credit: Yekrats via Wikimedia Commons.

What would “Mr. Television” think of today’s programming?

“I think Berle wouldn’t much like current television,” Epstein says. “He was a believer in live comedy, in working hard for the joke. I don’t think he would have appreciated current subject matter or language either. It just wasn’t his style.”

In 1947, Berle founded the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, Calif. Other founding members included Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, Robert Taylor, and Bing Crosby. The private show-business club is famous its celebrity roasts, in which club members are mocked by their friends in good fun.

But occasionally, Berle’s life took on a more serious note. He risked his newfound TV stardom at its zenith to challenge “Texaco Star Theatre” when its corporate sponsor, the gas giant Texaco, tried to prevent black performers from appearing on the show.

“I remember clashing with the advertising agency and the sponsor over my signing The Four Step Brothers (a black dance group) for an appearance on the show,” Berle writes in his autobiography. “The only thing I could figure out was that there was an objection to black performers on the show, but I couldn’t even find out who was objecting. ‘We just don’t like them,’ I was told, but who the hell was ‘we’? Because I was riding high in 1950, I sent out the word: ‘If they don’t go on, I don’t go on.’ At ten minutes of eight—ten minutes before showtime—I got permission for The Step Brothers to appear. If I broke the color-line policy or not, I don’t know, but later on I had no trouble booking Bill Robinson or Lena Horne.”

Berle “deserves credit” for taking a stand on integration in the context of “The Texaco Star Theatre,” says Epstein.

“His whole television career depended on that show,” Epstein tells JNS.org. “This was six years before Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation. Berle invited the black singer Pearl Bailey. He also invited Señor Wences, a Sephardic Jewish ventriloquist who spoke with a thick accent. I’m not sure too many people of the era given the stakes would have had as guests a black singer and a Sephardic Jew who used his hand as a puppet.”

Berle never forgot his Jewish upbringing. He hosted the first charity telethon, for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation, in 1949. A permanent fixture at charity benefits in the Hollywood area, he was instrumental in raising millions for charitable causes and made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for making the greatest number of charity performances by a show-business professional. According to Zigman, he was a member of the Creative Arts Temple in Beverly Hills, Calif., and spoke at the synagogue’s charitable events.

“Milton was a product of New York Jewish culture,” Zigman says. “We take pride in ourselves as being multi-racial and multi-ethnic, having a respect for other people.” 

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Posted on August 28, 2014 and filed under Arts, Features, U.S..