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At 77, Uncle Miltie Still Rates As Mr. Television

May 15, 1985|LAWRENCE CHRISTON

Why are Jewish divorces so expensive? Because they're worth it.... I'm so unlucky, if they sawed a woman in half, I'd get the part that eats.... You show me a milkman in drag and I'll show you a dairy queen. . . .

Milton Berle was in sharp form for a seminar at Universal Studios on Monday night where Stage 42 is this year's site for the Museum of Broadcasting's tribute to the career of a man who so dominated his medium that no one has yet been able to wrest from Uncle Miltie the sobriquet Mr. Television.

"It was a new medium with no history," said the museum's president, Robert Batscha, introducing the 77-year-old Berle to an audience of about 175. "He turned a TV set into more than a piece of talking furniture." The Berle canon is so voluminous that the museum has had to divide it into decades and subdivide his dramatic work and appearances with other comedians.

At Universal, the TV monitors lit up with selections from the Texaco hour and other shows ranging from the late '40s through 1959.

Berle was as corny as they come, but even from our 1985 vantage you could still feel the excitement he generated when he first appeared on the "Texaco Star Theatre" in 1949, and began shutting down Tuesday night America.

Berle was instant party time. He was the long-deferred birthday cake for a country beginning to feel chipper after a postwar convalescence, and he played that sense of giddy, goofy relief to the hilt, gussied up in those dumb costumes, chasing people in the audience, cracking up with his guests, forever charging into our living room tranquillity with those jug ears and that brash, sybaritic leer. (He was to the '40s what Steve Martin was to the '70s.)

In one clip, dressed in a woman's blond wig and an elegant blue sequined dress, he smokes a cigar and croons, "Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you . . . or would you rather be a pig." That merging of lyrics from different songs doesn't quite make sense, but it's funny somehow, the way things are funny when the mood strikes you and you can't re-create it--until next Tuesday rolls around again.

When the house lights came up and Berle stepped out, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. This was not an industry group conditioned to ceremonial Hollywood idolatry. It was virtually a white, heartland America vacation crowd in shorts and summer slacks, often families with young kids in tow, trammed in from the gate. Most looked too young to have known Berle from the early days. And it was peculiar to hear them laugh at his old New York Jewish vaudeville shtick, much of it risque--it was like seeing a group of earnest Kansas City Jaycee families cordoned off to observe the shmoozing at Nate 'n' Al's. (Even Berle's cigar looked like something none of them would ever touch.)

But laugh they did. Berle was ready for them. He wasn't about to bask. It was bup-bup-bup: "I'm very thrilled to be part of the Museum of Broadcasting. Better than the wax museum. . . . My audience made me what I am today--a rerun. . . . I wanna thank the museum for sending me that beautiful basket of fruit. How they got all those guys in a basket I'll never know. . . . Don't laugh so loud--they have to use that seat again. . . . I'm getting so bad. Last night I dreamt Dolly Parton is my mother and I was a bottle baby. . . . Hey, kid! Don't move around when the king is on."

To someone who offered a feeble heckle: "Don't start with me. This is my racket. I wouldn't go to where you work and steal your plunger."

The earlier film clips had shown Berle working with an increasingly sophisticated guest lineup. (One episode shows him, as a member of a Metropolitan Opera sextet, breaking out a jeweler's eyepiece and appraising the diamond earring of a female chorister standing next to him.) Frank Sinatra had guested a couple of times. Berle mentioned early Sinatra, to segue into "Any Italians in the audience here? Where's Jimmy Hoffa? Great--you don't know who Jimmy Hoffa is. Look him up in the phone book. Under concrete. . . ."

While it was clear that Berle felt a mandate to perform, he also had a few more serious things to say as well. He told us that he broke television's color line in 1949 by having the four Step Brothers on (Macio Williams, one of the brothers, was in the audience and Berle saluted him), a decision that NBC and Texaco didn't approve until three minutes before air time. He said he received 300,000 pieces of mail protesting the affectionate gesture of putting his arm around Lena Horne.

For the first two years of the show, he said, his budget was too tight to hire writers and he hauled out virtually every current routine from the material of his already lengthy nightclub and stage career. (As a kid he worked in the Ziegfeld Follies.)

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