For over a hundred years some of the greatest video treasures of all time have been produced. Some have been lost in the sands of time and others, soon to be rediscovered, will become fan favorites for a whole new generation.
Each week we will feature just one of the many hidden gems that you can see on RCN TV with insights and commentaries on classic television shows and legendary cinematic performances.
Last week here at the Showplace we took a look at the early career of Milton Berle. Today we look at the “second act” of this legendary entertainer’s career.
Despite success on the silver screen, nightclubs, live performances and popular guest stints on radio, Milton Berle languished for nearly 20 years in mediocrity with inconsistent gigs as a regular radio show host (none of his own shows lasted more than 14 months). While struggling on an audio-only medium, Berle believed that the invention of television would be the perfect place for his “physical comedy heavy” brand of humor.
He was right!
Milton became the first megastar of the medium (predating Lucille Ball’s I Love Lucy by three years) and was one of the most successful TV programs–comedy or otherwise–from 1948 to 1952.
Berle and his show each won two Emmy Awards after the first season (he added two more Emmys in 1950) and NBC signed him to a whopping 30-year, one million dollars per year contract! 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 nickname “Mr. Television.”
He also earned another nickname, “Uncle Miltie,” 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.”
Despite his popularity, NBC made a tragic and extremely costly mistake early during the show’s run. Berle asked the network to film the live show (which would have allowed many of his episodes to be saved in a high video quality and therefore available for full syndication), but NBC declined. This resulted in most of his show’s episodes being lost or saved only on poorer-quality kinescopes.
By 1953 his ratings started to decline and his sponsor, “Texaco” pulled out. Buick quickly became the program’s sponsor before they too dropped out. The show’s ratings continued to slide for two years, leading to the its cancellation.
According to the Encyclopedia of Television, “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.”
Berle followed that program with four failed attempts at his own television shows with none lasting more than a year, much to the dismay of NBC, who was obligated to keep paying him until 1980. In 1966, he opted out of the contract to try his own variety show again on ABC, but that too didn’t last a year. The most sustained success he had as a regular TV host for the rest of his career was as the emcee of bowling shows in which he would throw in jokes in between interviews with the sports’ competitors.
However, he still remained extremely popular in movies, television guest spots and performing in person in Las Vegas, Hollywood and around the world for the next five decades.
He starred in five made-for-television movies and 14 television specials and was featured in additional 14 movies between 1960 and 1995.
Berle was named to the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of charity performances made by a show-business performer. Unlike the high-profile shows done by Bob Hope to entertain the troops, Berle did more shows, over a period of 50 years, on a lower-profile basis. Berle received an award for entertaining at stateside military bases in World War I as a child performer, in addition to traveling to foreign bases during World War II and the Vietnam War. The first charity telethon (for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation) was hosted by Berle. A permanent fixture at charity benefits in the Hollywood area, he was instrumental in raising millions for charitable causes.
In April 2001, Berle was diagnosed with colon cancer but was advised by his doctors not to undergo surgery as they estimated the growth was not serious nor would negatively affect his health for another 10-12 years.
Eleven months later, Berle died from that same cancer. He was 93.
Be on the lookout for “Uncle MIltie’s” unusual brand of comedy on the surviving episodes of his own television show that airs Sunday afternoons at 2pm. You can also spot his many guest appearances on other programs you can see on RCN-TV.
To view the complete rundown of classic programming on RCN TV, check out the weekly listings here on our website.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RCN or any other agency, organization, employer or company.