Looking Back at Milton Berle’s Early Years

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Okay, this is going to be difficult, but just for a moment I want you to pretend that you’re bored, sitting at home, and looking for something to occupy your mind but the only options for entertainment are reading a book, listening to the radio, or watching whatever’s on the only three TV stations that exist. This is what the entertainment landscape looked like inside people’s homes in the late 1940s. So, you can imagine that if you’re one of the lucky few who manage to make it on to television and you do it well, your near-captive audience is going to adore you. This is the scenario that created the massive success of Milton Berle.

This is not to take away from his talent. Berle started out in vaudeville at the age of 12, became an MC at age 16, and by age 26 he was making a name for himself in the world of radio as a frequent guest on a number of different programs before finally hosting his own stream of variety and game shows into the late 1940s. Then came the leap onto the small screen.

The Texaco Star Theater was initially a radio show, hosted by Fred Allen, and a few others at the end of its run, airing from 1938 to 1949. The show basically brought a classic vaudeville show to the air, featuring comedic sketches, musical guests, and the occasional dramatization of popular stories. The same was true of the television version of Texaco. Launching on June 8, 1948, initially the show rotated hosts each month but by the fall Berle was named a permanent fixture on the show. Once the new season began with Berle at the helm, the ratings soared every Tuesday night at 8 o’clock on NBC. After its first year the show earned a pair of Emmy Awards for Best Kinescope Show and one for Berle himself as Most Outstanding Kinescoped Personality. Texaco Star Theater was largely credited with inspiring the sales of TV sets in America during this time, going from 500,000 in his first year as host to over 30 million when the show ended eleven years later.

Today we look at a typical episode of the program from its first year on the air on January 18, 1949. As with every episode of the show, it begins with the entrance of four singing Texaco repairmen who sing about servicing your cars. You should probably just watch this video of the song but it includes a lot of singing about what they do over at Texaco including rhymes like: “I touch the clutch, I poke the choke, I mop the top, I sell the Coke. / I clear the gear, I bop the knock, I jack the back, I set the clock. / So join the ranks of those who know and fill your tank with Texaco.”

Enter Berle, who apparently is just returning from California, on a dog sled, covered in furs and wearing tennis rackets instead of proper snowshoes. When left to his own devices in a monologue format, the closest modern analogue I can think of for Berle is Pete Holmes: Berle is very in the moment, but loves to bounce around from topic to topic. He’s in the middle of a riff, “It was so cold out [in California], I was at the Santa Nina racetrack betting on the horse to win place or snow,” when a footlight suddenly goes out on live television. “The lights just went out here,” he says, while snapping to someone off-camera. “Put on the lights.” A little later, he mentions someone in the audience and the camera shows them for, I guess, a little too long because Berle then commands the director to go “Back to me! And lose a little weight here, please. In the stomach. The government is taxing corporations.”

The first act of the night is the Paul and Paulette Trio. Before I get too far into their act I want to talk about their name, which I think is just hilarious. They could have easily named themselves Paul, Paulette and Jimmy. Instead, poor Jimmy doesn’t get credit in the name, even though it’s the same number of words, and is reduced to being referred to only as a part of the trio. So great.

Anyway, you’d probably expect Paul, Paulette and Trio to sing or dance or something, right? Let me break down how the routine works. In a hotel room set, Paulette is dressed as a sexy maid, dusting a counter. A Bellboy comes in behind her back, asks her to go out with him. She turns him down, so then naturally, he kisses her, and then begins jumping on top of the counter which is actually a giant trampoline. While watching I wrote in my notes a bunch of question marks, followed by, “This is what entertainment looked like back then,” but quite frankly, I don’t know who I am to judge because I watched the full ten minute routine. Unfortunately, I’m not very well equipped to summarize trampoline acts, or any acts that require physical activity, so I’ll quote a reviewer from a 1949 issue of Variety Magazine, complete with period showbiz slang. “Lively opening pace with Paul & Paulette Trio serving as terrlf housewarmers and could have wound show up in sock fashion if placed at end of lineup… Paulette as a French maid not only adorns act, but twists, twirls and flip-flops in easy and graceful manner. George Paul and Jimmy Garner, former National Trampoline Champ, in bell-boy garb, do series of somersaults and pirouettes, with Iively orch backing, building up to ‘triple twister’ by Garner. Accolades are hefty proving trio’s knack of projecting ability even in a packed house.”

At the end of the routine, Berle enters, struggling to bring in a giant suitcase that Paulette is able to pick up without any trouble. Berle then gets on the trampoline as the band plays the funeral march. He jumps up and down, flailing around, until he gets his leg caught in the frame, I think intentionally, but by the looks of it, also painfully.

The next act is a woman named Florence Desmond, an English comic and impersonator who talks about a wide variety of characters she’s had conversations with, including a singer from Hungary, Bette Davis, Mae West. She occasionally has some issues losing her British accent, but she’s very skilled with her impersonations, though her material drags on an awfully long time. After a number of monologues, Milton joins her on stage and the pair performs a scene from “the worst version in the world” of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. It includes scene-chewing overacting and the cartooniest British accents ever done.

Up next, Tony Martin sings a medley of songs and then Berle enters, paddling a canoe alongside a cardboard cut-out of a Native American that “spits” water at him as he paddles. The pair do a variety of Vaudeville jokes until they make their way off stage singing. For example:

Tony: Friends to the end?

Milton: Give me five dollars.

Tony: This is the end.

Milton: That’s an old joke.

Tony: Well, you gave it to me!

The final act is Carmen Miranda (you may know her better as the lady with the fruit hat in Looney Tunes and banana stickers) performing a few songs from Brazil before being joined by Tony, and then finally, Berle in a dress and hideous makeup. He brings all of the performers out on stage and then throws it over to the singing Texaco mechanics who close up the show.

As a host Berle is fantastic. He keeps things moving, he serves as a throughline from some very disparate guests (how else could you transition from trampoline act to British mimic to smooth-as-silk crooner?), and he kept the audience engaged. As a comic, things get a little more problematic. Of course we have to put him in the context of his time: he’s doing material from the Vaudeville stage at this point. Of course it’s going to seem old and corny. Back then it was new and corny/funny. Yes, he was a notorious joke thief, but he also referenced it frequently. There are numerous stories about Berle being not so nice backstage, including one alleged incident which led to an already strange appearance with RuPaul on the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards to become an oddly tense sparring match. No matter which version of Berle you choose to remember, it’s impossible to deny Uncle Milty was one of the most important figures in TV history.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just launched a second season featuring Chris Elliott!

Looking Back at Milton Berle’s Early Years