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.
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 concerning the repealing 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. According to Artie Butler, Berle’s friend and a well-known composer/arranger, Berle had a Jewish sense of comedic wit.
“Milton was a mensch, a lovely man, a giving man,” Butler told 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 Catskills (mountains in upstate New York) at Grossinger’s and The Concord, and how he worked the Jewish audiences,” said Butler.
Berle’s life occasionally 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 wrote 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,” said Epstein.
“His whole television career depended on that show,” Epstein told JNS.org. “This was six years before Brown v. Board of Education ended segregation. Berle invited the black singer Pearl Bailey. He also invited Senor 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.”