Sunday, February 22, 2004

Uncle Miltie

“For a guy who never made it big on radio,” famed vaudeville comedian Milton Berle once jokingly remarked, “I was always on.” Indeed, Berle starred in a slew of different programs under various formats over a thirteen-year span on radio, but it would take television’s The Texaco Star Theater to make “Uncle Miltie” a household word. John Dunning succinctly sums it up when describes the popular comedian as “radio’s best-known failure.”

Milton’s first foray into radio was The Gillette Original Community Sing, which ran on CBS from September 6, 1936 to August 29, 1937 as a Sunday night comedy-variety program. It was here than Berle demonstrated his patented “machine gun comedy” shtick, a style very similar to that of Bob Hope’s but with a heavier emphasis on slapstick. (Both Berle and Hope have both acknowledged that they patterned their stage personas after Ted Healy, a sadly neglected comic who—for better or worse—was responsible for unleashing The Three Stooges on an unsuspecting world.) Berle recalled in his autobiography that the program’s theme song (which he sang in the show’s opening) was “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing,” which would require the audience to respond: “Tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet!”

Milton later went on to host NBC’s Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One in the fall of 1939—a comedy panel show in which its members would attempt to finish the jokes sent in by the show’s listening audience. (Three of the show’s panelists went on to further radio fame: Harry Hershfield and “Senator” Ed Ford to the similar but better-known Can You Top This?, and Harry McNaughton to the Information Please spoof It Pays to Be Ignorant.) Berle then resurfaced in 1941 on Three Ring Time, a comedy-variety program for Ballantine Ale that ran for a season on both the Mutual and Blue networks. Though the program received favorable critical buzz, it turned into a complete bust—much of it due to the internecine squabbling of Berle and co-star Charles Laughton. Milton tried radio three more times as a headliner: a brief self-titled series over CBS in 1943 for Campbell Soups; a 1944-45 “half-hour of slapstick” for Blue/CBS called Let Yourself Go (sponsored by Eversharp); and a summer series over CBS in 1946, Kiss and Make Up—a gimmick program in which “judge” Berle presided over a mock court. (This turkey was created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later responsible for My Friend Irma and Life With Luigi.)

1947 found Berle seriously wanting to succeed in radio, so much so that he cancelled several lucrative nightclub appearances (that would have netted him $25,000 weekly) in order to break his radio jinx with Philip Morris’ The Milton Berle Show, a Tuesday NBC program beginning March 11, 1947. Though the show barely made a dent in the ratings (its Hooper was a dismal 11.6), it’s probably Berle’s best radio work, described by OTR historian Elizabeth McLeod as “one of the forgotten bright spots of postwar radio.” The Milton Berle Show took a weekly satirical look at prominent pop-culture phenomena; one week it might be “a salute to relaxation,” the next “a salute to high finance.” This January 20, 1948 broadcast (which I listened to last night) will give you sort of an idea, as announcer Frank Gallop introduces the show’s star:

GALLOP: Ladies and gentleman… 
BERLE (interrupting with an ad-lib) You’re great!!!
GALLOP: …with national economy in the news, tonight we salute Wall Street and high finance…the star of our show has been saving for years, and faces the future with hope…
BERLE: That’s right…
GALLOP: He should—he’s been saving all of Hope’s jokes…and here he is—Milton Berle!
(Amidst the audience’s applause, Berle can be heard ad-libbing “Fine introduction tonight…you’re a fool, Mr. Gallop.”)
BERLE: Thank you…all right (as the audience applause subsides) Take the sign down….thank you…oh, I’m startin’ off with a lull…thank you and good…Mr. Gallop, I shouldn’t be so happy…I really shouldn’t (here Berle speaks in an affectation) I mean, I should—I’m shocked…at that introduction you gave me tonight…literally and deeply shocked…I mean that sincerely…you say that I, Milton Berle (back to his normal voice) I steal from Bob Hope? You don’t understand, that’s just high finance…I take a joke from Bob Hope…Eddie Cantor takes it from me…Jack Carson takes it from Cantor…and I take it back from Carson…that’s the way it operates, it’s called corn exchange…

The show’s format rarely deviated from week to week—after his monologue, Milton would interview a few individuals with some connection to the show’s topic, more than likely members of his supporting cast, like Jack Albertson (pre-Chico and the Man), Ed Begley, and Arthur Q. Bryan. Next, he would conduct a hilarious interview with “expert” Al Kelly, a comedian/second banana whose specialty was “double-talk” routines. Announcer Gallop would then introduce with a ringing bell the weekly “forum” (similar to Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley”), in which questions would be taken from “members” of the audience. Among the participants were Arnold Stang—on loan from The Henry Morgan Show—playing a quarrelsome character always out to pick an argument with Berle, and Pert Kelton—who invariably introduced herself as “Tallulah Feeney, I’m a homemaker.” The show would then conclude with a segment entitled “At Home With the Berles,” in which Milton, his wife (Mary Shipp), and his bratty son (Stang) would be featured in a sketch again related to that week’s topic. 

The Milton Berle Show was a very underrated program, which benefited tremendously from both a fine supporting cast and well-written scripts from veteran scribes Nat Hiken (a former writer for Fred Allen who later created the TV classics The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?) and Aaron Ruben (The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, USMC). Announcer Frank Gallop was the perfect foil for Berle (Berle: “Mr. Gallop, did you hear that? I just got four laughs in a row.” Gallop: “Yes, they’re all in the row your mother is in.”), and vocalist Dick Farney and orchestra leader Ray Bloch found themselves the frequent target of Milton’s barbs. But what ultimately made the show click was Berle himself, his boorish stage persona (described by Gerald Nachman as “the manic comic who won’t shut up until you laugh”) and self-deprecating manner blending seamlessly with Hiken and Ruben’s broadly-written satire. Berle demonstrated with this series—though admittedly, the radio audience at home appeared to have a dissenting opinion—that he didn’t need his trademark verbal gags and slapstick to create a rapport with listeners.

The Milton Berle Show was axed by NBC on April 13, 1948, and Milton moved to ABC in September with a radio version of The Texaco Star Theater, bringing along with him Stang, Kelton, Gallop, and writers Hiken and Ruben (who were joined by two scriptwriting brothers, Danny and Neil Simon). In later years, Milton remembered it as “the best radio show I ever did…a hell of a funny variety show.” It, too, was doomed to last only one season—but by that time, it scarcely mattered. Milton was already wowing audiences with the TV version on NBC, a program that became the stuff of legend—and bestowed upon him the kingly title of “Mr. Television.”

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