This new medium needed something to get people talking and looking. It came in the form of a visual comedian who was larger than the tiny screens on which he appeared. On June 8, 1948, television's first hit series and superstar were born with Milton Berle starring on Texaco Star Theater.
When the series began, there was little else on the TV landscape: an occasional cooking show, a low budget talent show, a newsreel or two, but nothing compelling. In fact, some stations were staying on the air longer hours just to show their test pattern for viewers' entertainment. That was about to change as 1948 was the year networks became serious about programming. Big-time entertainment also became possible at that time as a boycott by the musicians union finally came to an end.
In the summer try-out, Berle was the first of several hosts who were tested. Comedians like Henny Youngman,Morey Amsterdam, and Jack Carter all gave it a shot, but Berle was an immediate hit and signed for the series within a few weeks of his debut.
The show opened with four men in Texaco uniforms singing a jingle about the sponsor ("We are the men of Texaco/We work from Maine to Mexico..."). Then, they would give Milton an introduction that was a set-up for whatever goofy outfit he was wearing. One on occasion he was introduced as a man who had just paid his taxes so he came out dressed as a hobo wearing a barrel. More than once, Miltie came out in drag--very, very bad drag--walking on the sides of his feet while teetering in his heels. Berle would do absolutely anything to get a laugh! The crowd howled, especially his mother Sarah. She was always in the audience as a "plant" to egg on the laughter. You can easily pick her out on any episode; she's the loudest laughter in the studio.
Texaco was a boon for vaudevillians. Besides big name singers and stars who performed in slapstick sketches and production numbers, novelty acts were a staple. It wasn't unusual to go from a dramatic torch song into a trained animal act. (On one show, a group of unfortunate dancers had to follow an elephant act that left a few "gifts" on the stage.) But ultimately, the show was all about Berle. He horned in on every performer's act. He personally ran the rehearsals armed with a referee's whistle that dangled from his neck. He'd even use his hands to give camera instructions while he was performing.
In the first years, he was drawing more than 80% of all viewers--a feat that hasn't been accomplished since. NBC was so intent on keeping Berle around that, in 1951, they signed him to an exclusive 30-year contract worth $200,000 annually.
During 1952, Berle's ratings began to slip, thanks in part to his taking a week off each month. The agencies, client and network all panicked and demanded changes. A new writing staff, headed by Goodman Ace, was brought in and the crazy Berle and his vaudeville format were out. In its place was a more dignified show that was set primarily "behind the scenes" of the Berle show, in much the same way as The Jack Benny Program. There were plenty of big production numbers and a staff of malcontents for Berle to do battle with. Now, instead of being Milton Berle, he was playing Milton Berle, something he says he was never comfortable with. Despite his misgivings, the show's ratings rebounded.
Texaco Star Theater ended it's run June 9, 1953 when Texaco moved its sponsorship to another series. That fall, Miltie continued his Tuesday night reign with a new title: The Buick-Berle Show). "Mr. Television" began his final season in September 1955 under the simple title The Milton Berle Show. (That same title was used on his ABC variety series in the late 1960s.)
A few notes on this episode guide: Texaco Star Theater, the Buick-Berle Show and The Milton Berle Show are all included under this listing; the episodes' air dates are correct but the episode numbers are relative; information from these earliest days of live television is sketchy at best. This guide has been pieced together using various reference books, newspapers and magazines of the day (NY Times, Variety, Time among them), various performers websites and Milton Berle's autobiography.moreless
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