Career and Chronology
He was born Milton Berlinger on Sunday, July 12, 1908 to Sarah Glantz Berlinger and Moses Bedinger on 68 West 118th Street in the Harlem area of New York. He was the fourth of five children. His father was a paint salesman. His mother, Sarah (whose friends called her Sadie), was a department store detective.
He began his show business career in 1913 at the age of five, when his mother entered him in a Charles Chaplin contest and he won a tin cup. Under the guidance of his mother. he pursued a career in entertainment. He was first the Buster Brown model.
He then made his screen debut being “thrown from a speeding train” by star Pearl White on location in Fort Lee, New Jersey for Pathe Studio’s serial “The Perils of Pauline” (1914). He then went to Hollywood where he played a newsboy in Keystone’s silent screen comedy classic. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” (1914) starring Charlie Chaplin, Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand.
Shuttling from coast t0 coast, he appeared in more than fifty silent films with stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford and Marion Davies. He worked in kid acts on the vaudeville circuit. and between shows he completed homework assignments for New York City’s Professional Children’s School.
At the age of 12, he made his Broadway debut on April 5, 1920 in the Baby Sextette number of the Shubert’s revival of “Floradora.” As Milton notes, “My mother was real stage mother. She used to coach me.” On opening night, he took her last-minute advice to start on the wrong foot during the sextette’s big number. Although he was warned to change it on opening night, he followed her advice. It brought down the house. After J.J. Shubert personally confronted Milton about it, Shubert then took him aside and asked if Milton could do it again the next night. Afterwards, Milton’s mother told her son, “You see! You’re discovered!” As Milton’s brother Phil recalled, “She used to laugh louder than anybody in the world at anything he ever did.” Milton even let the audience in it: one of the gags Milton did in quieting the applause before he would start his act was to look to her in the audience, smile, and say, “Thanks, Mom!”
When he teamed with Elizabeth Kennedy in me vaudeville act “Broadway Bound:” he changed his last name to Berle (and Sarah changed hers to “Sandra”). On May 2, 1921, Kennedy and Berle opened the second half of the Palace Theatre’s vaudeville house, eventually moving up into being headliners.
By the time he was 16, he was working solo as a Master of Ceremonies in vaudeville, getting into everyone’s act, and creating the brash, flip style that would become his trademark. He patterned himself after one of vaudeville’s top comics, Ted Healy. Healy was flattered that Milton was doing an imitation of him. Healy took him in hand and said, “Milton, there’s no such thing as an old joke. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s new.” Honing his craft, Milton became a scholar of comedy. Milton started collecting joke books, sketches and jokes. As Milton said, jokingly, “It’s not true, I never stole a joke in my life. I just find them before they’re lost.”
On December 29, 1924, he opened as a single at Loew’s State Theatre on Broadway, performing a 12 minute comedy routine at the cinema’s vaudeville house.
It was as early as 1929 that he first tried television. While appearing in Chicago, he was invited to appear on an experimental station. As Milton remembers, “So we went over and I did it. I walked in there and the lighting was just the worst…fluorescent lights. They had black lipstick on me. I looked like Pola Negri or Theda Bara and that’s the first time that I was on television!” It would be nearly 20 years later that this same medium would make him not only television’s first, but perhaps greatest star.
In January 1932, at the age of 21, he was headlining at the Mecca of vaudeville, New York’s Palace Theatre. He was the youngest Master of Ceremonies in the theatre’s history. He was held over for eight weeks. Soon he was appearing in Broadway’s legendary reviews. Billed as “the rising young American comedian,” he debuted on September 27, 1932 in Earl Carroll’s “Vanities.” He was also in George White’s “Scandals” (and in a little over a ten years, he would. headline the Ziegfeld Follies). In nightclubs, he was earning up to $25,000 a week, performing what show business insiders called. “the most perfect comedy act in the business.”
While working in clubs, Milton met and married showgirl, Joyce Matthews. In 1945, they adopted their daughter, Vicki. Milton and Joyce divorced, remarried, and then divorced again.
He made a screen test for Samuel Goldwyn in October of 1936, but it was RKO who signed him. He appeared in New Faces of 1937 and Radio City Revels (1938).
On September 25, 1939, he returned to Broadway in George Abbott’s production of the comedy, See My Lawyer, which ran 224 performances.
He did four films, mostly musical comedies, all released on 1941 by Twentieth Century-Fox: Tall, Dark and Handsome, Sun Valley Serenade, Rise and Shine, and Gentleman at Heart. However, he never got the chance to be the wild and zany Milton Berle that vaudeville and nightclub audiences knew.
However, film gave him the opportunity to show his dramatic talent. One of his best screen roles was dramatic. He played Moe Finkelstein in Otto Preminger’s Margin for Error (1943). This is how his performance was described in Photoplay magazine: “He gives the performance of his career as the Jewish cop. His lines sparkle like icicles in the sun.”
Before he was 30, Milton was a veteran of every area of show business, except burlesque. He was the first star in theatre history to receive top billing over the Ziegfeld Follies, which opened at the Winter Garden on April 1, 1943 and enjoyed the longest run of any edition of the Follies, with 553 performances. During the run, he even produced tWO plays.
He excelled in nightclubs, culminating with a 51 week run at Nicky Blair’s Manhattan club. His cafe appearances have been too numerous to count, including 47 weeks at Billy Rose’s Casino de Paris, co-starring with Harry Richman at Broadway’s International Casino for 38 weeks. He reached the ultimate in nightclub appearances at New York’s Carnival for 54 weeks.
During 1945 he played to nearly 400 hospitals with a US unit.
First appearing on radio in 1929 on the Fleischmann Hour with Rudy Vallee, between the years of 1934 and 1949 he was a regular on at least six different radio shows. These include the Gillette Original Community Sing,“Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One, Let Yourself Go, and The Milton Berle Show. His first show was sponsored by Ballantine Beer for NBC and The Milton Berle Show was sponsored by Quaker Oats.
In the spring of 1948, he received an offer from Texaco to do a radio show. The show, Texaco Star Theatre, was a hit, boasting writing talent such as Nat Hiken and Danny & Neil Simon. As Milton modestly notes, “I really never had a big success on radio because what I did was too visual. Audibly and verbally, it did not play.” He was starting to be interested in television.
By 1948, television had changed significantly from his first venture into it in 1929. Television was ready for Berle and Berle was ready for television. However, at the time, Berle’s show business pals called television “amateur night” – no star wanted to go into it.
Milton was told he would be one of three stars talked about to do a test show in the summer for Texaco – which was already his sponsor for his radio show. Milton did his show on June 1, 1948 and Texaco decided on him. Milton suggested the concept, which was similar to what he did in vaudeville. The official premiere for this summer show was or. June 8, 1948 – and it was a smash. The show was fast, funny and visual, and most of all: live.
At the start of the new season, on Tuesday, September 21, 1948, live from studio 6B in the RCA building in Rockefeller Center in New York, Milton made a spectacular television debut as the star of NBC’s Texaco Star Theatre. It caught on immediately, garnering the highest score from the first Nielsen ratings: 79.9. Milton had the highest ratings of any radio or television show then on the air. No other show even came close. Milton recalled, “I had a rating of 83.” then jokingly added. “Of course, in those days, there were only 83 sets, My mother owned 82.’”
Tuesday nights belonged to Milton Berle. The show was television’s first big hit, to the point that, on Tuesday nights, just before the show aired at 8:00pm, everything seemed to stop so that people could gather around the television set to watch his show. The show was so popular it was the only television program not preempted on Tuesday night, November 2, 1948 for the Truman-Dewey presidential election returns.
People were watching Milton on television, whether they had a television set or not. Milton’s brother, Phil, remembers, “The Texaco Star Theatre became a household word in those days, and the calendar even changed from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. A lot of people had concessions in their apartment selling candy and ice cream because there were very few television sets at the beginning.”
When Milton originally went on the air, there were only 500,000 sets in the entire country. By mid-season, the number had skyrocketed to over a million and, by 1954, more than 26 million American homes had at least two television sets. He is reputed to have sold more television sets than any advertising campaign.
Children made up a large part of Milton’s audience. When they wouldn’t go to bed until the show was over, their parents wrote in by the thousands, begging Milton to help out. “He’d say, ‘now all you little kids… I want you to listen to Uncle Miltie and go to bed right after the show is over’ and that’s how that started – Uncle Miltie.” Milton’s audience spanned all ages. At the age of 40, with 35 of those years in show business, Milton Berle, now known as “Uncle Millie,” had become an overnight success.
There was great audience anticipation as to what would Uncle Miltie be: one week Milton dressed as Santa Claus and the next week he was dressed as Carmen Miranda. Always a quick study, Milton became an expert on television production after only three shows. Milton recalls, “Nobody knew as much as I did about television, because no one knew anything about television – about producing and directing. And I knew just as much. So I produced it and I directed it and 1 wrote it.” Always the perfectionist, he also worked closely with his guest stars.
Milton renewed his radio contract with Texaco for Wednesday nights and agreed to be on television for them on Tuesday nights. In 1948-1949, he did 39 radio shows for Texaco on ABC and 39 television shows for Texaco in NBC: 78 live shows in one season.
The pressure Milton was under was tremendous. He was working 7 days a week, 39 weeks a year. The show’s production schedule was rigorous. One hour after the show aired, Milton and his writers were working out ideas for the following week’s show. By Sunday, rehearsals began and did not stop until moments before the show went on the air.
Soon the biggest stars in comedy went on with Milton Berle: from Harpo Marx to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It was the best of Broadway, Hollywood and Las Vegas in your own living room.
In the spring of 1949, he hosted the Damon Runyon Memorial Fund (for cancer research), the first charity telethon in television history. He was on the air for 24 hours.
In May of that year, he was the first comedian to appear simultaneously on the covers of both Time and Newsweek the same week. He has been on the cover of TV Guide over a dozen times.
At the second Emmy Awards presentation, on January 27, 1950, he received the Emmy Award as the year’s “Most Outstanding Personality” and won “Best Show.” He would go on to receive a total of 4 Emmys.
However, because his shows were broadcast live, they couldn’t be repeated. Milton asked NBC if he could go on film, but the network turned him down. They wanted to keep the spontaneity of the show. But they also wanted to keep their number one star happy. So on May 3, 1951, Milton made show business history when he signed an unheard of 30 year exclusive contract ‘with NBC·TV which paid him $200,000 a year, whether he performed or not, but restricting his television work NBC. As Milton jokes, “I have a 30-year contract with NBC. Really – 30 years. And the lawyer who drew it up for me got the same sentence.”
The hard work paid off. For four seasons the Texaco Star Theatre was the #1 show on television. And with each passing week, Milton had to work harder to stay on top. By 1952, he faced competition. On the heels of his success, more and more shows came on the air. He wasn’t alone anymore. Milton still did win in the big cities, but when television spread to rural areas, things changed. Between January and June of 1952, the Texaco Star Theatre went from being #1 to #20. That summer, Milton and Texaco revamped the show. The vaudeville format was replaced with a more relaxed musical comedy format about the problems with putting together a variety show. Within a month of it’s premiere, the new Texaco Star Theatre was back in the top ten, ranking just below the #1 show, I Love Lucy.
The following season, Milton had a new sponsor: Buick. Buick sponsored the show for the 1953-1954 season, calling it the “Buick-Berle Show.” ‘The transformation to the “Buick-Berle Show” happened on the air, with Milton explaining that he had a different sponsors that year (“This year, I’m selling Buicks,”) and that there was a new opening song to sing. One of Millon’s guests for the premiere was Frank Sinatra.
Besides changes in the show, there were also changes in Milton’s private life. On December 9, 1953, he married former press agent, Ruth Cosgrove. Milton and Ruth had met in the fall of 1951. Their marriage was to last 38 years (until Ruth’s death in 1989).
Sadly, just a few months after his marriage to Ruth, Milton’s mother died at the age of 77. It was the end of one of the most famous teams in show business. She had been Milton’s manager, valet, teacher, and inspiration. She was the person who sped up the process of his stardom.
Milton decided he would end his weekly series on June 5th 1956, almost eight years to the day of his very first show. His show ended as all his shows did, with his signature song, “Near You.” Milton wasn’t the only television comedian to call it quits. Within a year, Sid Caesar and Jackie Gleason would also end their shows. Viewers now preferred westerns to variety shows.
Viewers from the late 50s on, saw a Milton Berle that they had rarely seen before. He was Milton Berle, the dramatic actor. He had given his variety show audience an indication of his dramatic talents as early as 1953 in a serious sketch.
He won an Emmy nomination for his powerful dramatic performance as “Eddie Doyle” a down-on-his-luck blackjack dealer on television’s Dick Powell Theatre episode,”Doyle Against the House,” televised on October 24, 1961.
Milton and his wife, Ruth, adopted a baby boy, Billy in 1961, named after their close friend, famed writer/director Billy Wilder, the baby’s godfather.
Throughout his career, Milton has always lent a helping hand to his fellow performer. Milton found time to be a mentor to both Henny Youngman and Alan King.
Two years after he left his series, he hosted the Kraft Music Hall for a season, which was also done live. A highlight of the series was the appearance of famed author, Carl Sandburg, who traded quips with Milton.
In the late 60s, he negotiated to end his 1951 poet with NBC. On May 21, 1965 it was changed so he would take a 40% reduction in his annual pay in order to gain his freedom to appear on other networks.
Milton went back into the movies, joining the all-star cast of comedians in Stanley Kramer’s “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.” He continued to make films in the 60s, but was lured back into television’s weekly grind in 1966 with an ABC weekly series which Milton called the forerunner of “Laugh-ln.” Since then, he has made countless specials and guest appearances.
On December 3, 1968, after a 25-year absence, he returned to Broadway in Herb Gardner’s “The Goodbye People,” again proving his range as a dramatic actor. The New York Herald Tribune called his performance “one of the most poignant experiences of the season.”
In November 1974, his autobiography was published which Publishers Weekly called, “The most shockingly candid and humanly revealing story a superstar ever wrote. His book deserves curtain calls.”
He ventured into cable television with “Milton Berle’s Magic of the Stars” in 1981 on HBO, For PBS’s “American Playhouse,” Milton portrayed the patriarch of a family coming apart at the seams in “Family Business.” He starred with Danny Thomas and Sid Caesar in a television movie, “Side By Side,” playing lifelong friends who refuse to let old age slow them down.
Milton has received many honors over the years. He has won 4 Emmy awards (and most recently shared a tribute at the 1999 Emmy Awards with Bob Hope and Sid Caesar). In 1973, ABC honored his 60 years as an entertainer, televising the Friars Club benefit for him, attended by 1300 guests. On March 26, 1978, NBC-TV aired the special, “A Tribute to Mr. Television.” In 1984, he became the first to be inducted into the “Television Hall of Fame.” In 1992 he became the first inductee into the “Comedy Hall of Fame” located in Montreal, Canada. In 1993, he received a Life Achievement Award for NAPTE for his contribution to television. On February 11, 1996, he Won the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Comedy Awards. He was recently awarded a special plaque from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences stating that henceforth he will be known as Mr. Television.
A highly rated member of ASCAP since 1932, he has had over 400 songs published, ranging from “I’d Give a Million Tomorrows,” “I,” “Lucky, Lucky Me” and “Summer Love” to “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long.” He received a Life Achievement Award for his poetry and lyrics to songs from the Poets’ Society of America.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger served as the National Chairman of the President’s Council of Physical Fitness under President George Bush, he selected Milton Berle as advisor on physical fitness for older adults.
A long-time member and former President of the Friars Club, he often holds seminars there and around the country for aspiring comedians. He has been the Abbot Emeritus of both the Friars Club of New York and the Friars Club of California for over 20 years. The Friars Club most recently honored him in July 1999, celebrating his birthday.
He is also an author. In 1974, Milton Berle – An Autobiography, was published. As Frank Sinatra noted. “This is the gutsiest book I’ve read in years. It’s dynamite.” He also wrote, Our of My Trunk, Laughingiy Yours, and a novel called Earthquake. B.S. I Love You details conversations and anecdotes from politicians, sports figures, film and television stars, and comedians from the Friars Club.
His collection of jokes, which he started back in vaudeville, now numbers 6 million. He has collected some of the best in two books, which have become standard reference volumes in libraries across the country. Milton Berle’s Private Joke File: Over 10,000 of His Best Gaga, Anecdotes, and One-Liners and it’s sequel, More of the Best of Milton Berle’s Private Joke File: 10,000 of His Best Gags, Anecdotes, and One-Liners. The books not only have some of the great jokes, but also include Milton’s thoughtful comments on all types of jokes and comedy.
Milton owns a company called Berle Comedy Software Ltd. which manufactures floppy disks of his first joke book.
When his beloved wife, Ruth, died of cancer, in 1989, Milton was alone for a year and a half. While dining at Nicky Blair’s steak house, he was introduced to Lorna Adams. Not long after that, they were married, on November 26, 1990.
A cigar lover since the early 1920s, he is known for smoking fine cigars. He has been On the cover of the magazine, Cigar Aficionado. He also started his own magazine, Milton, it’s motto being. “We Drink, We Smoke, We Gamble” and dedicated to people who share that same “joie de vivre.”
He often goes on television where no man or woman his age has ever gone before. He has appeared in a music video and took on shock jock Howard Stern on “The Howard Stern Show.”
In 1995, he received another Emmy nomination recently for his dynamic dramatic performance as an Alzheimer’s patient in “Beverly Hills 90210.” He has guest starred on other hit television shows, such as “Sister, Sister,” “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air;’ and recently played the uncle of Fran Drescher’s character in the sitcom, “The Nanny.” In 1993 he co-wrote the episode, “The Last Laugh,” for “Matlock” in which he guest starred.
On October 14, 1999, he filmed an episode of the popular children’s show on Nickelodeon, “Kenan and Kel.” It is scheduled to alr at the beginning of the year 2000, again introducing Milton Berle to a whole new generation.
Whether Milton Berle is referred to as Mr. Television, Uncle Miltie, Mr. Entertainment or Mr. Show Business, everyone recognizes that the niche he has carved for himself, whether it be comedic Or dramatic is individually indelible and admired.