(This story is adapted from my 2013 book, "And Then I Met....")
In 1948, only one in 150 Americans owned a television set. Then a brash comedian named Milton Berle became host of a new program called The Texaco Star Theater. Within a year, TV sales soared, largely because of viewer addiction to his outlandish antics. He so dominated the airwaves (the Nielsen ratings showed that 80 percent of every U.S. household with a set tuned in to him) that movie theaters and restaurants closed their doors on Tuesday nights, because they couldn't compete with the man dubbed "Mr. Television" and "Uncle Miltie." Years later, he related in his autobiography that one study showed Detroit's water reservoir level sank on Tuesday nights between 9:00 and 9:05: "It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the Texaco Star Theater before going to the bathroom," he wrote.
Berle's star power appeared so enduring that in 1951 Texaco signed him to an unprecedented 30-year television contract. However, with the new medium's exploding popularity, the comedy competition grew more potent. His popularity dropped as new programs challenged his supremacy, and in 1953 Texaco canceled his show. During the ensuing years, he remained a fixture in television, and he continued performing in feature films, on Broadway, and in nightclubs.
When I met him, he was decades removed from his early television success, but he remained very much a star and showed no signs of slowing down. Indeed, the Guinness Book of World Records claimed he performed the greatest number of charity benefit performances of anyone in show business history. It was at one such benefit that we met. In 1992, I attended a youth program fundraising luncheon at Burbank's Castaway restaurant where he entertained.
The audience rose and cheered for the 84 year-old comic legend when he appeared at the dais. Chomping on his cigar, he quipped, "Who am I, Ross Perot?" (At the time, Perot was a third-party presidential candidate.) He then launched into a rapid-fire Borscht Belt routine filled with ethnic humor for which modern standards of political correctness required frowns of disapproval in 1992 (and a far worse response these days). For him, political correctness gave way. "Hey," he asked the crowd as he pointed to the Hispanic waiter serving coffee at a front table, "How did that Mexican kid know I'm a Hebrew? Each time he waited on me, he kept asking [imitating a Spanish accent], Jew want more chicken? Jew want more water?" He then pushed his fist to his stomach feigning indigestion: "I've got so much gas that I'm being chased by the Arabs."
Other Berle gems:
• "I'm so unlucky. I loaned my friend $30,000 to have plastic surgery. Now I can't find the son of a bitch!"
• "Anytime someone goes into a deli and orders pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies."
• "At my age, I feel like Zsa Zsa Gabor's sixth husband. I know what I'm supposed to do, but I don't know how to make it interesting."
• "I recently married a woman who's 30 years younger than I. Three months ago we made love for one hour and three minutes. Of course, that was the night they turned the clocks back."
• "We owe a lot to Thomas Edison. If it wasn't for him, we'd be watching TV by candlelight."
• "Experience is what you get after you've forgotten her name."
And on it went: a repertoire of one-liners from an old vaudevillian who did the show without a note before him. After rocking the room with unrestrained laughter for 30 minutes, he finished to another standing ovation.
As people filed out of the banquet hall, the event producer, my friend Norman Mamey, invited me to meet Berle, who now wolfed down his untouched lunch before the waiters cleared the table. I felt awkward visiting with him while he tried to eat, but he insisted that I join him. He talked while chewing food, and pieces of broccoli kept falling from his mouth and onto his coat during our conversation. What the heck—at his age he deserved a little table etiquette slack. That minor distraction aside, he was delightful.
I gave Berle an old movie still from a film he made more than 50 years earlier. He thanked me as he studied the picture: "Now just one question," he asked: "Who the hell are these other people in it with me?"
When Mamey told Berle that I was a great public speaker, his eyes lit up. "If you speak in public a lot," he insisted, "then you need to buy my book Milton Berle's Private Joke File. There are over 10,000 jokes in it and it will be a valuable reference for you. It's only $20. Let's go—I'll give you a ride to the book store right now so you can buy it!"
Remembering that Berle had a reputation throughout his career for comedians suing him for stealing their material, I chided, "I'll buy your book if you will indemnify me if I get sued using your jokes."
"Buy my book and I'll give you a waiver!" he promised.
A photographer snapped a picture of us. Moments later, as we shook hands and said goodbye, he took a step back. His foot slipped from the stage, he reeled and began falling backward from the riser. I grabbed his arm and caught him just in time. He was unharmed, but the experience left him shaken. I helped him to his chair until he felt steady. After regaining his composure, he said somberly, "Thanks for saving me. That's how Bing Crosby died. Crosby fell backward off a stage and it led to his heart attack a few months later."
That instance was the only time during this Burbank appearance that Berle—and everyone else—didn't have a smile on his face.
• • •
Milton Berle died of cancer at age 93 on March 27, 2002.
Producer and Grammy Award winner Norman Mamey died at age 66 after a long illness on January 22, 2015.
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