Milton Berle, TV's First Star as 'Uncle Miltie,' Dies at 93
Thu Mar 28, 8:59 AM ET
By LAWRENCE VAN GELDER The New York Times
Milton Berle, the brash comedian who emerged from vaudeville, nightclubs, radio and films to become the first star of television, igniting a national craze for the new medium in the late 1940's, died yesterday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 93.
The uninhibited Mr. Berle almost single-handedly led the entertainment revolution that addicted the nation to the small screen by wobbling on his ankles while wearing high heels, flouncing in evening gowns, grinning to reveal blacked-out teeth, braying "What the hey," being whacked silly with sacks of flour after shouting "Makeup!" and invariably thrusting himself into the routines of his guests.
On Tuesday nights at 8 o'clock, families with new black-and-white television sets found themselves welcoming into their living rooms their less privileged neighbors to roar at the antics of Mr. Berle, first on the "Texaco Star Theater," which ran from 1948 to 1954, and then for another year on the "Buick-Berle Show." And before long, those neighbors, too, decided that owning a television set was a sine qua non of early post-World War II life and that to watch Milton Berle walk on the sides of his shoes each week was to laugh in paradise.
Within two months after its debut on Sept. 21, 1948, the "Texaco Star Theater" was so popular that it was the only show not canceled to make way for presidential election coverage on the night that Harry S. Truman upset Thomas E. Dewey.
Mr. Berle ruled Tuesday nights in America, dominating the new medium in a way no one else ever has and becoming perhaps the most famous man in America in the late 1940's and 50's. Life magazine reported that in 1947 there were 17 television stations in the United States broadcasting to 136,000 sets. As a consequence of Milton Berle's success by the end of 1948 there were more than 50 stations and 700,000 sets. At one point, his show's Hooper rating, the dominant gauge of viewership, was 80.7, or 28.9 points ahead of its nearest competition.
"Crazy things started happening all over the country," Mr. Berle recalled in "Milton Berle: An Autobiography," written with Haskel Frankel (Delacorte, 1974). Nightclubs changed their closing to Tuesday nights from Monday because of the popularity of Mr. Berle's show. Restaurants were empty for the hour he was on the air and business in movie houses and theaters plummeted.
"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," Mr. Berle wrote. "It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the `Texaco Star Theater' before going to the bathroom."
Picked by Mr. 50's.