Milton Berle (Berlinger), America’s first television star, was born in Harlem on this date in 1908. He won a talent contest at age 5 and caught the show biz bug with appearances as a child actor in silent films, including The Perils of Pauline. Berle was an established radio comedian and vaudevillian when he became the host (“Uncle Miltie”) of the television show, Texaco Star Theater (1948-55), which aired on Tuesday evenings. The show won 80 percent of the television audience and dampened movie ticket sales on Tuesday nights. In Detroit, according to Berle’s autobiography, “an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the reservoirs on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05. It turned out that everyone waited until the end of the Texaco Star Theater before going to the bathroom.” “Mr. Television,” as he became known, soon clashed with Texaco over a scheduled appearance of African-American performers, the Four Step Brothers, on the show. “‘We just don’t like them,’ I was told, but who the hell was ‘we’? Because I was riding high in 1950, I sent out the word: ‘If they don’t go on, I don’t go on.’ At ten minutes of eight — ten minutes before show time — I got permission for the Step Brothers to appear. If I broke the color-line policy or not, I don’t know, but later on I had no trouble booking Bill Robinson or Lena Horne.” Berle kept his material clean but was outrageous and transgressive (he regularly appeared in drag) and hilariously quick-witted. In the 1960s, he was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of charity performances made by a show-biz performer. He died in 2002.
“Laughter is an instant vacation.” —Milton Berle