Monday, July 09, 2018

This Week in Television History: July 2018 PART II

The further we go back in Hollywood history, the more that fact and legend become intertwined.
It's hard to say where the truth really lies.
Donna Allen-Figueroa

July 12, 1908
Milton Berle the Emmy-winning American comedian and actor is born. 
As the manic host of NBC's Texaco Star Theater (1948–55), he was the first major star of television and as such became known as Uncle Miltie and Mr. Television to millions during TV's golden age. Mr. Television

Berle first appeared on television in 1929 in an experimental broadcast in Chicago which he hosted in front of 129 people.

Berle would revive the structure and routines of his vaudeville act for his debut on TV. His first TV series was The Texaco Star Theatre, which began September 22, 1948 on ABC and continued until June 15, 1949 with cast members Stang, Kelton and Gallop, along with Charles Irving, Kay Armen, and double-talk specialist Al Kelly. Writers included Nat Hiken, brothers Danny and Neil SimonLeo Fuld and Aaron Ruben.

The show began with Berle rotating hosting duties with three other comedians, but in October he became the permanent host. Berle's highly visual style, characterized by vaudeville slapstick and outlandish costumes, proved ideal for the new medium. Berle modeled the show's structure and skits directly from his vaudeville shows, and hired writer Hal Collins to revive his old routines.

When the show moved to NBC, it dominated Tuesday night television for the next several years, reaching the number one slot in the Nielsen ratings with as much as an 80% share of the viewing audience. Berle and the show each won Emmy Awards after the first season. Fewer movie tickets were sold on Tuesdays. Some theaters, restaurants and other businesses shut down for the hour or closed for the evening so their customers would not miss Berle's antics. Berle's autobiography notes that in Detroit, "an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the Texaco Star Theatre before going to the bathroom."

Television set sales more than doubled after Texaco Star Theatre's debut, reaching two million in 1949. Berle's stature as the medium's first superstar earned him the sobriquet "Mr. Television". He also earned another nickname after ending a 1949 broadcast with a brief ad-libbed remark to children watching the show: "Listen to your Uncle Miltie and go to bed." Francis Craig and Kermit Goell's Near Youbecame the theme song that closed Berle's TV shows.

Berle risked his newfound TV stardom at its zenith to challenge Texaco when the sponsor tried to prevent black performers from appearing on his show:
I remember clashing with the advertising agency and the sponsor over my signing the Four Step Brothers for an appearance on the show. The only thing I could figure out was that there was an objection to black performers on the show, but I couldn't even find out who was objecting. "We just don't like them," I was told, but who the hell was "we"? Because I was riding high in 1950, I sent out the word: "If they don't go on, I don't go on." At ten minutes of eight—ten minutes before showtime—I got permission for the Step Brothers to appear. If I broke the color-line policy or not, I don't know, but later on I had no trouble booking Bill Robinson or Lena Horne.

Berle's mother Sadie was often in the audience for his broadcasts; she had long served as a "plant" to encourage laughter from his stage show audiences. Her unique, "piercing, roof-shaking laugh" would stand out, especially when Berle made an entrance in an outrageous costume. After feigning surprise he would "ad lib" a response; for example: "Lady, you've got all night to make a fool of yourself. I've only got an hour!"
Berle asked NBC to switch from live broadcasts to film, which would have made possible reruns (and residual income from them); he was angered when the network refused. However, NBC did consent to make a kinescope of each show. Later, Berle was offered 25% ownership of a company manufacturing the teleprompter by its inventor, Irving Berlin Kahn, if he would simply use the new gadget on his program. He turned the offer down.
For Berle's contribution to television, he was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
TV decline
At one million dollars a year, NBC signed him to an exclusive, unprecedented 30-year television contract in 1951.
Texaco pulled out of sponsorship of the show in 1953. Buick picked it up, prompting a renaming to The Buick-Berle Show, and the program's format was changed to show the backstage preparations to put on a variety show. Critics generally approved of the changes, but Berle's ratings continued to fall, and Buick pulled out after two seasons. In addition, "Berle's persona had shifted from the impetuous and aggressive style of the Texaco Star Theater days to a more cultivated, but less distinctive personality, leaving many fans somehow unsatisfied."

By the time the again-renamed Milton Berle Show finished its only full season (1955–56), Berle was already becoming history—though his final season was host to two of Elvis Presley's earliest television appearances, April 3 and June 5, 1956. The final straw during that last season may have come from CBS scheduling The Phil Silvers Show opposite Berle. Ironically, Silvers was one of Berle's best friends in show business and had come to CBS's attention in an appearance on Berle's program. Bilko's creator-producer, Nat Hiken, had been one of Berle's radio writers.

Berle knew that NBC had already decided to cancel his show before Presley appeared. Berle later appeared in the Kraft Music Hall series from 1958 to 1959, but NBC was finding increasingly fewer showcases for its one-time superstar. By 1960, he was reduced to hosting a bowling program, Jackpot Bowling, delivering his quips and interviewing celebrities between the efforts of that week's bowling contestants. 

To quote the Bicentennial Minute, "And that's the way it was".


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Tony Figueroa
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