originally published March 18, 2012
I wasn’t entirely sold on this topic. Sure, I have a sense of history. I understand that, while my childhood television hours were focused on whether Schneider would fix Bonnie Franklin’s squeaky hinge, or whether Fonzie would get together with those girls and… well, I didn’t know what he did with girls up in that apartment. Anyway, the point is, I know there were shows from before my time. Important shows, the shows that drew the blueprints for television.
But how much can I say about a show that predates me by two decades? One that was never aired in syndication in my lifetime (in my market, anyway)? When it comes down to it, all I really know about Milton Berle is that he made people laugh by wearing a dress, Howard Stern claims he has a huge penis, and at one time he was the first guy to be the most important man on television.
Alright, time to do some research. Ms. Wiki tuned my dial to the Texaco Star Theatre, and I don’t want to disappoint. I can’t afford to get cancelled.
To get to this piece of history we’ve got to go back to when television was a science-fiction fantasy, like instant mashed potatoes, do-it-yourself home permanents and R2D2-shaped mailboxes.
The early 1930s were prime time in the age of radio, and Texaco used to sponsor a show called The Fire Chief, starring Ed Wynn. Wynn became better known for other incarnations of his goofy radio voice, including his role as the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice In Wonderland. If you aren’t familiar with his trademark delivery, honed to the tune of Texaco’s sponsor money in the 1930s, check him out here, or just tune in to one of the hilarious Hollywood Babble-On podcasts on Kevin Smith’s SModcast network – his co-host Ralph Garman always pulls this voice out of his bag of tricks. (you’re welcome for the plug, Mr. Smith – free tickets can be sent directly to my email address)
After they wrapped Wynn’s show in 1935, Texaco kept its toes in the radio world, eventually launching the Texaco Star Theatre radio show in 1938. It was a variety show, with various guest stars making appearances. Kind of like a Saturday Night Live, but on radio, with more musical guests and less funny. What am I saying… it probably couldn’t have been less funny.
Fred Allen was the first major host of the show, starting in 1940. You might remember Fred Allen from… well, you might remember him if you’re over eighty. He was a big radio guy; his television work was minimal. Fred had become a huge radio star over the previous decade, sponsored by both ends of the proverbial sponsorship body: Ipana Toothpaste and Sal Hepatica Laxitives. He helmed the Texaco Star Theatre until 1944 when his doctor told him to take a break. Nowadays they have better stress-management drugs I suppose.
After Allen, Texaco tried out a few other hosts, including James Melton (a former opera singer), Tony Martin (former Burns and Allen guest), Gordon MacRae (star of Oklahoma!), Jack Carter (who played himself in Viva Las Vegas, and still performs today), and finally Uncle Miltie.
Milton Berle was a child star in silent films, then a stand-up comedy and radio star. Some say he could pull off the physical comedy of Charlie Chaplin while spurting the verbal wit of Groucho Marx. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Miltie’s work, and I’ll buy it. He was a funny dude. Anyway, he was a successful stand-up comic in the 1930s, so a perfect fit for Texaco’s show in the 40s.
In June of 1948 it was time to bring the hit show to the new medium of television, and while Berle was only one of a few rotating hosts at first, it only took a couple of months before his job was cemented. Berle was a smash. The audience share for NBC on Tuesday nights was a whopping 80… granted, there were only a couple other stations to choose from, and there was probably nothing of interest on the Dumont Network at the time. But Miltie was Simon Cowell, Cliff Huxtable and Cosmo Kramer all rolled into one. Everybody watched.
He was the first guy to get racy on TV, even if being racy only meant wearing a dress (something Fatty Arbuckle did in films thirty years earlier). Think about it – this was a brand new medium, nobody had ever established what could and couldn’t be done. Sure, he wasn’t about to bang a hooker and kill a homeless guy on prime-time TV, but within the parameters of the censors, who knew what could happen? Berle was a scientist who was handed brand new equipment and told to create. He was the Beatles discovering tape loops, overdubbing and LSD. He got to set the standard, and fortunately he had the talent to pull it off.
There were 500,000 television sets sold in the first year Miltie’s show was on the air. By 1956 there were 30 million sold. Miltie can’t take credit for all of TV’s success, but he was most certainly a part of it. He even gets credit for having the highest rated show in the 1950-51 season, the first year the Neilson people started measuring TV ratings.
In 1953 Texaco stepped out of sponsoring the show, and it became the Buick-Berle Show. Buick left after a couple years, opting to sponsor Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners instead. By 1956 the ratings had dropped and Miltie took his final bow. Huge as he was, the show lasted no longer than According To Jim.
Variety shows were a big thing in the dawn of television. Formats for scripted drama hadn’t yet been nailed down, and a solid host could carry an audience through a full hour of comedy and music, with the right guests and a good staff of writers. And just as Ed Sullivan brought the Beatles to prime-time in the 60s, Miltie gave the world a dose of Elvis on his show.
In the end, Milton Berle was TV’s first superstar, and he was also the first superstar to suffer from over-exposure on TV. If it weren’t for Berle, well, it’s not like we’d all be listening to radio today for entertainment. But we might have made Ed Wynn the guy we first worshipped as a TV god. That would have been… strange.