The Milton Berle Show
Synopsis of TV Show
In the late 1940’s, there was one very good reason to own a television, and his name was Milton Berle. They called him “Mr. Television,” and the name was well applied. It’s been said that Milton Berle’s Tuesday night crowd-pleasing physical comedy on NBC’s Texaco Star Theater was the single biggest reason for the proliferation of TV sets at the end of the 40’s. Those who weren’t yet lucky enough to own televisions of their own crowded around any screen they could find, soaking up the outlandish comedy of TV’s first true megastar.
Vaudeville-trained comedian Milton Berle had been trying to break into radio since the 1930’s, but there was one big problem: Berle’s best bits needed pictures, not just words. The comedian was never able to launch a real hit on the radio, but the emerging TV medium was much more fertile ground. Berle had hosted a radio comedy/variety program called The Texaco Star Theater, and when the sponsor decided to move into television, Berle was given a shot at hosting duties.
At first, Berle was one of several rotating hosts, but after only a handful of broadcasts, Texaco knew it had its frontman. In the fall of 1948, Berle’s hosting duties became permanent, and the legend of “Mr. Television” was born. There were a handful of guests on every broadcast—singers, ventriloquists, dancers, comedians and Hollywood stars—but Berle was always on hand to throw in a gag or a one-liner. Each show opened with four singing Texaco men (“Oh, we’re the men from Texaco…”) giving a wild musical introduction to the host, who usually entered in a fabulously outrageous costume (a Carmen Miranda get-up, a clown, a caveman, and anything else that might possibly get a laugh).
Since Berle was such a visual comedian, the show usually revolved around sight gags. If the host “accidentally” slipped in the words “make up” at any point in the show (“Did they kiss and make up?”), a makeup man would enter and swat Milton’s face with an enormous powder puff, leaving Berle wandering around dazed in his patented duck-like waddle walk. Even the commercial pitches were done with comedic pizzazz—the early years had Sid Stone as an old-time huckster, and later seasons brought ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson and his dummy Danny O’Day. It was all very vaudevillian, and it was an instant smash.
Ratings were phenomenal during the show’s early years, and for most of America, Tuesday nights practically belonged to “Uncle Miltie.” NBC signed Berle to a 30-year contract, guaranteeing him a yearly salary whether he worked or not. As new shows began to challenge Berle’s TV dominance, Texaco abandoned its sponsorship, but Buick immediately picked it up for The Buick-Berle Show in 1953. By this time, Berle had revamped the program to make it a show within a show, with regular co-stars playing his secretary Max, his agent, and NBC stagehand Francis.
The show was officially christened The Milton Berle Show in 1955, running for another season on NBC (a season that included two guest appearances from a certain Elvis Presley). Berle continued to appear in NBC programs like The Kraft Music Hall (which he hosted), but “Mr. Television” eventually became more familiar to younger TV audiences as an always-entertaining guest star on other programs and in movies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Muppet Movie.
Berle did return to hosting once more, this time as host of a new Milton Berle Show on ABC (the 30-year contract with NBC had been renegotiated), but that effort lasted less than a season. “Uncle Miltie” was still beloved to the first TV generation, and his continued appearances on other shows and on his own TV specials kept him in the limelight for several decades. But to those early adopters of TV technology back in the late 40’s, he will always be “Uncle Miltie,” the best (and sometimes only) reason to head down to Montgomery Ward and buy that Philco TV set.
Release History of Prime Time Show9/21/48 - 6/9/53 - The Texaco Star Theater - NBC
9/29/53 - 6/14/55 - The Buick-Berle Show - NBC
9/27/55 - 6/5/56 - The Milton Berle Show - NBC
9/9/66 - 1/6/67 - The Milton Berle Show - ABC
TV Sub Categoriescomedy
TV CastMilton Berle Himself, various
Announcer (1948-51) Sid Stone
Regular (1948-52) Fatso Marco
Announcer (1952-53) Jimmy Nelson
Max, various (1952-55) Ruth Gilbert
Regular (1952-53) Bobby Sherwood
Francis, various (1953-55) Arnold Stang
Agent (1953-55) Fred Clark
Regular (1953-55) Jack Collins
Regular (1953-55) Milton Frome
Announcer (1954-55) Jack Lescoulie
Regular (1966-67) Irving Benson