At 8 P.M. on September 21, 1948, comedian Milton Berle debuted as sole host of “The Texaco Star Theatre,” a live, hour-long television variety show that quickly became the most popular program on the new medium.
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By 1948, Berle was 40 years old and, in a show-business career that had begun 35 years earlier, had already done just about anything an entertainer could.
He had been born Milton Berlinger on July 12, 1908, in Harlem, New York. His father, paint salesman Moses Berlinger, was the son of German-Jewish immigrants; his mother, the former Sarah Glantz, was descended from Polish Jews. Milton was one of five children.
On Halloween of 1913, when the 5-year-old Milton won a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, his mother saw the potential for both stardom and the extra income her family needed.
In short time, young Milton began appearing in silent films (a total of more than 50), sometimes even traveling to California for production.
From there he moved to vaudeville. By the age of 12, having teamed up in an act with a girl named Elizabeth Kennedy, he exchanged the overly long name “Berlinger” for “Berle.” (At the same time, his mother began calling herself “Sandra Berle.”)
Stand-up comedy led to being the master of ceremonies for variety shows, sometimes at theaters on Broadway; then radio, and even an appearance in 1929 on a very experimental television broadcast in Chicago.
Initially, Berle was one of three emcees who rotated as hosts for “Texaco Star Theatre,” which had a trial run on NBC TV beginning in June 1948.
By the fall, he was asked to become the sole and regular host. At the same time, he continued hosting a radio show of the same name for ABC.
This meant that, in 1948-49, Berle hosted 39 episodes of “Texaco Star Theatre” on TV on Tuesday evenings, and 39 Wednesday-evening radio shows – a grueling schedule, especially as he was involved in every aspect of production.
“The Texaco Star Theatre” was broadcast from studio 6B in Rockefeller Center’s RCA building, in New York. Berle’s guests that first night included the comedian Phil Silvers and an act called Evelyn Knight and her magic violin.
The show was an immediate hit, so much so that little over a month later – on election night, November 2, 1948 – Berle’s show was the only TV program not preempted for coverage of the results of the Truman-Dewey presidential race.
Because it was the early days of television and not many people owned TV sets, viewers would often gather in the homes of friends and neighbors, who sometimes sold food and drinks to their guests.
If Americans owned 500,000 television sets in 1948, by 1956 – the year Berle’s show finally ended its run – that number was up to 30 million, largely because of his show.
Restaurants and movie theaters would shut down on Tuesday nights, and in Detroit municipal officials supposedly observed a precipitous drop in water-reservoir levels between 9 and 9:05 P.M., as residents held off from using the bathroom until “Star Theatre” had signed off.
Berle’s initial salary for the show was $1,500 a week. By June 1951, he had signed a 30-year exclusive contract with NBC that guaranteed him $200,000 annually.
In 1953, Buick replaced Texaco as sponsor, but by June 1955, as the show faced ever-stiffer competition on the air, and amid declining ratings, the Buick-Berle show went off the air.
Berle lived until March 27, 2002, and he made the most of it. He continued hosting variety shows, but also began taking on dramatic roles, both for TV and film. He did extensive charity work, and was a popular nightclub entertainer as well.
As an adult he became a devotee of Christian Science, though he continued to consider himself a Jew as well. He was married four times (twice to the same woman, whom he married a second time “because she reminded me of my first wife”), and had a fabled sex life.