by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 11, 2002
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When Milton Berle died two weeks ago at the age of 93, it meant more than the end of several entertainment eras. It meant this was the last time I could trot out the story of how I may have made Uncle Miltie - a man who made millions wet their pants laughing at him on television - wet his own.
Although my personal contact with Berle was limited to one wonderful phone interview in 1998, he and I have a long history together.
It goes back to 1948, when I was living with my family in an apartment house in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Goldbergs, who lived upstairs, were the first ones in the house to buy a television set. Every Tuesday night,half the families in the building would gather in the Goldberg's living room to watch tv. We kids sat on the floor; the adults pulled dining room chairs into the living room, or sat on the arms of the couch when things got crowded. The rattle of coffee cups and gossipy chatter hushed at 8p.m., when Texaco Star Theater went on the air.
"Ohhhh, we're the men from Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico... ." the dancing gas station attendants sang, and we were off on another adventure in cross-dressing, stolen jokes, old vaudeville numbers and general hilarity. At 89, Berle was touring the country with a group of comedian friends (a still-brilliant Sid Caesar was one) doing a mock Friars Roast in the middle of the afternoon - hey, they were old guys; they couldn't stay up late any more.
A newspaper assigned me to do an interview, and it was a thrill to dial a number in California and tell Hans, the butler, that I had an appointment to talk by phone with the legendary Milton Berle.
The voice on the line was a little more gravelly than I remembered, but underneath the age, the richly insecure timbre was immediately recognizable.
I didn't expect him to be so charming.
"My first wife was a Joyce, so I know how to talk to Joyces," he began. "She was one of the most beautiful showgirls in New York back in the 1930s. Her name was Joyce Matthews, and before me, she was married to showman Billy Rose. Along with Jinx Falkenberg, she was one of the golden girls of her era." After their divorce, Berle married one of the first tough-talking female journalists in the business; she later became a publicist.
"She was really sharp," Berle said. Ruth Berle managed her husband's career for 35 years, until shedied. His third wife, Lorna, was then 51. It seems that while the world thought of him as a clown, he was a ladies' man.
It started with Berle's mother, who wanted to be in show business. But it wasn't the kind of thing dignified young women did in the 1890s, so she poured her energy into her young son. The first time he saw a mirror, he said, he started hamming it up and making faces in it.
By the time he was five, he was already imitating the great film comedian Charlie Chaplin.
"Everybody said I was cute and funny," Berle said. "Then I won a Charlie Chaplin contest on a Halloween afternoon. And I started modeling. I was the Buster Brown Boy in the shoe ads in the tabloids. 'I'm Buster Brown, I live in a shoe. That's my dog, Tige. He lives there too.' The words came out of my mouth in a bubble. My mother was my guide. She was the pusher. She loved show business. She was the 1898 version of the motherin 'Gypsy.'" An agent called on the family's Bronx home.
"He said he had a connection with the Charlie Chaplin studios,"Berle said. "Chaplin saw me dressed as the Buster Brown boy and said I'd be good for one of his silent pictures. So this man Eldridge made the arrangements, and my mother and I took a train out to California. It took three days. It was for Marie Dressler's film, 'Tillie's Punctured Romance.'I was the kid they saved on the train. I still have the clip from the picture." Chaplain liked Berle and put him in more two-reelers.
"I loved it," Berle said. "I was a young boy, and I kept my eyes and ears open and I watched the greatest. Chaplain produced, directed, wrote the script, and wrote the music. Then I came back to New York and was with silent pictures in the east."
By the time he was 12, Berle was singing and dancing professionally. "My mother shlepped me around," Berle said. "She was pushy as a stage mother, but she was sensational, a terrific woman. When I was about 15, I was doing a single playing vaudeville - singing and dancing and telling jokes. I started to do one-liners and schtick, just from watching and learning and seeing vaudeville acts. George Burns, who I was very close to, always said he started 'playing the small time.' So did I."
In the 1930s, Berle became a star, playing the Palace - the apex of vaudeville - for 10 weeks, with his mother still at his side, pushing. He was the first star to have his name above Florenz Ziegfeld's on a Broadway marquee. In time, Berle said, he played every theater in the United States. "I was in every phase of theatrics, from boy model to silent pictures to vaudeville to Broadway shows," Berle said. "It wasn't easy, I must say. It was pretty hard work."
In 1948, however, Berle sensed the power of the new industry called television. The Texaco Star Theater became so popular that theaters and restaurants were half-empty because people stayed home to watch him. There were probably fewer than 500,000 television sets in America that year, but when Berle ended his run in 1954, more than 26 million American homes had at least one television set. Uncle Miltie had become "Mr. Tuesday Night" and "Mr. Entertainment."
"I own 156 hours of the Texaco shows," Berle said. "I had the brains to make a kinescope of each one. They're in my archives. We did 39 hours a year. The money was nothing, compared with what they get today. I produced it, I directed it, I wrote it. They were all live shows. You got what you saw and you saw what you got, and if we blooped and made a mistake, tough luck." Berle never stopped working. He published over 400 songs, made films, acted on Broadway, and wrote his autobiography. For a while his high-living lifestyle was celebrated in glossy magazine called Milton, put out by Lorna Berle. The magazine's motto was, "We drink, we smoke, we gamble," but you could take that with a grain of salt.
"I don't know what beer tastes like," Berle said. "I've never had a drink in my life. I've never smoked a cigarette, but I've been smoking cigars since I was 12. And I gambled, but I don't any more, because it's not worth it to lose all that money. It's Lorna's slogan. The drink could be a Coca-Cola, on my part."
Berle said he still loved performing.
"It's the only way I can keep alive," Berle said. "I'm not working for the money. Being an actor all my life, to be honest and truthful, there is a certain ego about performing and still making people laugh. And I've been making people laugh for 80 years, right? It makes me happy, and my brain is still working, and it keeps me young."
By then I was worried that I had kept him on the line too long. I apologized.
"It's all right, dear," Berle said. "I couldn't go to the bathroom, so I peed in the bed."
There was a moment of silence.
"Was that a joke?" I asked.
"Yes, dear, that was a joke." Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but I had played straight woman for Milton Berle, and I was thrilled.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.