Milton Berle is remembered fondly as one of the best comedians of the Vaudeville era and also played an important role in continuing vaudeville into early television. Vaudeville was the most popular form of American Entertainment from the 1860s to the 1930s and even continued up to the ’60s. There were many notable entertainers from this era, each of which contributed invaluable ideas and performances to this form of entertainment, and Milton Berle in particular stood out for his perseverance, his dedication to his work and his comedic talent, the latter of which he was able to eventually bring into the television industry and to carry on the ideas and values of vaudeville into the 1950s.
Milton Berle was an American comedian and actor who was extremely popular during the later 1930s and 1940s in both Broadway and Vaudeville, and in the late forties through the fifties on television shows. Milton Berle was born on July 12th, 1908 and was pushed by his strong-willed mother to enter show business at a very young age. Berle’s acting career started at the age of 5, when he began impersonating Charlie Chaplin, a famous comedian and silent film star at the time. Milton’s mother entered him in a variety of different contests and his talent for impersonation eventually won Berle first place in a Chaplin look-alike contest. This victory brought new attention to Berle and allowed him to land several child acting roles in a variety of different silent films such as Bunny’s Little Brother and The Perils of Pauline, both of which were quite popular for this era.
After many successful acting ventures, Berle entered vaudeville at age 10 . This led to his Broadway debut in the revival of the musical Floradora in 1920 when he was 12 years old. Later at the age of 14 he was deemed too tall for child acts he was used to preforming with in vaudeville, and he started to branch out into other areas. Milton Berle began doing solo comedy routinesin an effort to continue his career and survive. George Burns, a fellow comedian, described that Milton Berle did everything he could to stay in show business saying, “[Berle] taught himself to sing, dance, dance on his toes, do acrobatics, work on the trampoline, juggle, ride a unicycle; he did card tricks; he even did a unique kind of ventriloquism” (Burns). Along with his many other talents Berle was known during his vaudeville career to tell jokes in quick succession and to include slapstick humor and physical comedy in his performances. His diversity led Berle to developed a unique type of fast-paced, try anything keep it moving comedy, which aided him in furthering his entertainment career.
At the age of 21, in 1929, Milton Berle began headlining vaudeville shows in New York City featuring his own comedy skits and became known as one of the most highly acclaimed comedic acts of his time. In addition to this Berle even starred in the popular Ziegfeld Follies, which was a more elaborate and high-class vaudeville show. A biography of Milton Berle states that during his time preforming in the Follies he “enjoyed the longest run of any edition of the Follies, with 553 performances” (Career and Chronology). Vaudeville Ziegfeld and Broadway however were just the start of Milton Berle’s career. Berle had an incredible work ethic and talent, and this, backed with the unwavering forceful support from his mother allowed him to climb even higher in the entertainment industry.
Throughout the 1930s Berle performed in radio but never really found his specific niche. The reason for this was that much of Milton Berle’s comedy was visual in nature, and the radio could not convey this. Despite this he continued on the radio and signed on with his sponsor Texaco in the 1940s. His talk and variety show continued until in 1948 Texaco proposed that Milton Berle become one of three stars in a test television show known as “The Texaco Star Theater” (Bibliography). At this point in time, mass television was a new genre of entertainment. Many Americans were moving away from the traditional musical films, and the vaudeville era was coming to an end. Many people liked the idea of being able to view programs in their own homes and because of this television gained popularity in rapid manner. Television gave many people amusement and entertainment in a very accessible setting with little to no effort on their part. There were problems with reception, clarity of picture and frequent technical interruptions but as tv got better so did its popularity and many musical stars were forced to turn to tv as musical movies failed to generate box office.
Although the vaudeville era was over, Milton Berle was able to continue it into television and in particular the program known as “The Texaco Star Theater”. Texaco, the sponsor of this show, let Berle have a say in the material and format of this new broadcast, and Berle took this opportunity to make the show a reflection of his own skills: emcee work, stand-up and rapid-fire comedy, vaudeville-type skits. The formula he used was variety and having nothing last more than about 10 minutes, interrupted at the end by a commercial, sometimes with the commercial built right into the live show. And if something went wrong you treated it like live vaudeville and just always had a plan B ready to employ to get through the situation. Berle already had a strong background in vaudeville, and brought what he learned from his past experience in show business into the television industry. His shows, then, often consisted of a variety acts, ranging from acrobatics, comedy, magic, and song and dance. Upon seeing the show, critics remarked that “the show was fast, funny and visual, and most of all: live”, all of which was very similar to actual vaudeville entertainment (Bibliography).
Milton Berle’s variety show became an instant hit with the American public, and Berle even became known as “Mr. Television” due to the fact that he was this medium’s first star. “The Texaco Star Theater” became so popular that it outranked and out-competed any other television broadcast of its time. When interviewed by the Los Angles Times about his transition from vaudeville and Broadway to Television Milton Berle simply said: “Funny is funny and if it was done right the same acts that provided comedic relief in vaudeville shows could also be used to make people laugh on live television.”(Bernstein). Milton Berle was right about this, and not only did his show succeed, but it also paved the way for television as a new medium of entertainment and set the standard for many subsequent shows such as Your Show of Shows, featuring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and Mel Brooks.
Milton Berle was a well-rounded actor, performer and comedian. Thought his career he showed a remarkable work ethic, talent and perseverance, which led him to be much beloved. When his tv shows weakened in popularity as diverse and more sophisticated comedy replaced his in your face slapstic style in the 1960s, he was able to survive often playing in serious, dramatic roles on tv and in film but after the later 1940s and the 1950s “Uncle Miltie” as he became affectionately known to the general public was never able to approach the fame that he had found on tv and he became increasingly unknown to a younger generation, which had embraced Woody Allen and Steven Wright and even Sam Kinison and others. Although Berle was a sort of spiritual godfather of the likes of a Steve Martin or Adam Sandler and much of the format of Saturday Night Live owes a great debt to him, Berle never was able to revive his career sufficiently in his later decades.
Milton Berle entered show business at a young age and began his career in vaudeville entertainment, performing talents such as acrobatics, dancing and eventually branching out into comedy. Berle had a successful career in both Broadway productions and somewhat to a lesser extent in movies and in 1948, starred in Americas fist hit television show known as “The Texaco Star Theater”. During his Broadway career Milton was fondly remembered as one of the most extraodanary comedians of his time, and Berle was able to bring this talent and past experience in vaudeville into television and even be credited with continuing the vaudeville era of entertainment through the 1950s. He was a pioneer of great influence up to our own times.
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“Milton Berle, TV’s First Star as ‘Uncle Miltie,’ Dies at 93.” The New York Times. The New York Times, n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Milton Berle.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., n.d. Web. 04 May 2017.
The University of Arizona School of Anthropology Vaudeville Collection holds the following Milton Berle sheet musics:
LONESOME AND SORRY 1926 – by Benny Davis, Con Conrad. Inset photo “Featured by MILTON BERLE, THE WAYWARD YOUTH”
FORGIVE ME 1927 – Words by Jack Yellen. Music by Milton Ager. Inset photo “Successfully Introduced by MILTON BERLE”.