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"The Thief of Bad Gags," Milton Berle has made a career out stealing other people's jokes, perhaps the longest running element of his high-energy stage persona. His rapid-fire delivery of one joke following another, like ammunition from a machine gun, has stood him in good stead, fostering a career that has lasted almost as long as Berle has been alive.
He was born Milton Berlinger in New York City on July 12, 1905. His mother, Sarah Berlinger, attended to every detail of his career, and no stage mother in the business could compete with her devotion to her son's career, or match her drive or tenacity in seeing he achieved her goal of stardom. When Bob Hope accused Berle of stealing his material, Sarah indignantly replied, "My son would never stoop so low. My son stoops high!" Before Berle was old enough to speak (and barely old enough to walk), she had him doing child's modeling, his most famous as the little boy in the Buster Brown shoe ads, an icon that would last into the late '50s. made his film debut at age five in the Pearl White action serial, The Perils of Pauline. He did extensive work in the movies as a child star, making several appearances as "the little boy who gets saved" in various Douglas Fairbanks films. Berle came to Hollywood and immediately found work with Charlie Chaplin in the Mack Sennett comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance and in two Mary Pickford films, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Little Lord Fauntleroy. He made his stage debut in 1920 in an early revival of Floradora, and took whatever kind of role would keep him working in show business. As George Burns described it in his memoir, All My Best Friends," he 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 — he made other people's material come out of his mouth. By the time he was 14 years old he was playing next-to-closing at the Palace."
Young Berle did indeed play the Palace, and when he became too tall to do kid acts (or "flash acts," as they were known in vaudeville circles), he started all over at the bottom of the bill in small time. He worked briefly with a quick change artist, and later with Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields. He even worked with Phil Silvers, who at that time was a song plugger, standing up in the audience when Berle called on him to sing the latest hit. But it was Berle's standup comedy that got him back on track, and by the end of his teenage years, he was back on Broadway, starring in the Ziegfeld Follies and headlining all the top night clubs.
It was during this period (the late '30s and into the following decade) that Milton tried radio. Berle's act was tightly honed, and his penchant for rattling off one joke after another compared favorably with Bob Hope's approach, already a radio institution. But Berle never could find a radio niche that worked for him, first trying a panel show called Stop Me If..., a variety format called The Three Ring Show, another program called Kiss and Make Up, and three others with marginal success. Although Berle was a fantastic success as a nightclub performer, the main complaint about his radio show was that he was an act that had to be seen to be appreciated. His time would soon come.
Berle kept plugging away at nightclub work, which was more than plentiful, the occasional movie role that came his way (like Sun Valley Serenade and Always Leave 'Em Laughing, perhaps his best film turn) and any other open avenue that show business had to offer. A little known fact about Berle is his occasional ventures into tunesmithing. He wrote "Leave the Dishes in the Sink, Ma" which got a free ride in extra royalties for him when it was placed on the B-side of Spike Jones' million-selling hit recording of "Cocktails for Two."
In 1948, Berle became the biggest — and first — star in that new infant medium that was taking the country by storm, television. With his shows, Texaco Star Theater, Kraft Music Hall, and finally, just The Milton Berle Show, the comic's non-stop energy paved the way for other comics to figure out how best to conquer the fast pace of this new medium. Berle quickly became known by his then longstanding sobriquet, "Mister Television," and Tuesday nights were known as "Berle nights," when America seemingly came to a standstill to watch the show. He made television the new popular thing, responsible for getting more Americans to purchase television sets than anything the new invention had to offer. The two most vivid images of early TV are living rooms full of neighbors swarming like bees to the only TV set on the block to watch Uncle Miltie while crowds of people stood outside of appliance stores laughing at Berle's shenanigins on the set on display in the front window.
Loud, fast, and noisy, he was perfect for the medium. As Berle would do almost anything to get a laugh — including wearing a dress and high heels for his entrance, or a caveman outfit in the next sketch on one show — his raucous, brash, and thoroughly unsubtle style of humor was perfect for family consumption, and had the whole country wondering what crazy thing he'd do next week. It was his defining moment, those eight years that saw him go from being a top paid nightclub comic to a national treasure. Although he never scaled that kind of success again in the medium (by 1960, he was the comedic host of a bowling show), his rep as one of the greats had been established and he would continue on, making guest appearances on both variety and dramatic shows into the '80s and beyond. By his own estimate, he has done over 10,000 benefits, once working as many as seven different dinners in one night. Berle is justifiably proud of establishing the Berle Foundation for Crippled Children, serving as mayor of Meding Heart, FL, the site of the National Children's Cardiac Home, bringing in much needed funds, and acting as the host of numerous telethons. He currently has books and exercise videos (!!) on the market, as well as compilations on video cassette of old routines from his glory days on the small screen. In his 90s as of this writing, Mister Television continues to provide the laughs.