Milton Berle: Mr. Television

Milton Berle (by Sam Berman, 1947)

When my parents bought our first television set in 1950, Houston was only into its second year with the magical new medium and we had very choices with only one station in town. KPRC-TV was it. You could either watch Channel 2 or turn the thing off and listen to the radio. And there wasn’t much interest in radio in Houston back in 1950.

On top of these limitations, we had no coaxial cable connection to the great TV media centers of New York and Los Angeles in 1950, and, of course, there were no satellites available to beam those places or the farther world into our homes back then. Everything we watched came only in shades of black and white from live local studio programming, film, and kinescope. – Kinescope was a low quality film the networks took of their television pictures whenever they broadcasted shows they wanted to syndicate to other areas.

So, the networks like NBC filmed a live program broadcast from New York right off the television pictures of it. Then they put these “kinescope” copies in the mail to places like Houston and Dallas, usually for re-broadcast at the same time the following week.

All of the preceding information is simply background to the story of what happened in Houston and all over America on Tuesday nights from 8:00 PM to 9:00 PM back in 1950. In most places, it came a week late on kinescope, but we didn’t know any better quality, anyway. We were just glad to be receiving an animated picture that actually did something. We didn’t even seem to mind (for a while) that we had no other viewing choices – or that live pictures in “living color” might be more pleasing on the eye. For the time being back then, we had what we wanted, and especially so on Tuesday nights.

It was 8:00 PM Tuesday night, time for the Texaco Star Theater, starring Mr. Television, the one and only Milton Berle.

Milton Berle was one sight joke falling upon another, a lot of goofy expressions, pratfalls, cheap laughs from his favorite stunner, starting the show and doing skits in Lady Gaga-like dresses. Geez! When I think back upon it now, it’s almost embarrassing to recall what we thought was “funny” back in 1950, simply because we saw Milton Berle do it.

Berle was a master too of the “pesky fly” joke. A “pesky fly” joke is one that resembles the pattern of such a pest: Once a fly gets in the house, it won’t go away and can’t be killed. It just keeps coming back and landing with irritating regularity.

Berle’s biggest pesky fly was the “make up” joke. It began with a skit in which the characters complained about their make up. Each time they said those words, a goofy-looking dressing room helper would run on the stage yelling “Maaaaake Upppppp”  and hit the person in the face with a giant fully loaded powder puff.

The studio and home audiences roared. The joke became a pesky fly. From that point forward, you never knew when the guy with the giant powder puff was coming back to whack Berle or one his guests for having uttered the magic words, “make up.”

The show lasted from 1948 to 1956. It changed names in 1953, when Buick took over sponsorship, but that’s OK. Milton Berle was the show, not Texaco.

It all changed as all things do. When more networks, stations, and other kinds of comedy became more widely available, Milton Berle lost his grip on the title he earned as Mr. Television, but he was big in his day and he served as the reason that neighbors without TV sets piled into the houses of those who did at eight o’clock on Tuesday evenings to hear, “The Texaco Star Theater Starring Milton Berle Is On The Air!”

I’ll close with a tribute to the show’s opener. Since they long ago drilled this jingle into my brain, the least I can do is pass it on to you. I only wish I had a way to pass on the tune as well. Just imagine something strident and banal as the jingle melody..

The Texaco Star Theater always began with a chorus line of Texaco gas station attendants marching in file upon the stage and then facing the audience in a smiling single line to sing this song:

“Oh, we’re the men of Texaco
We work from Maine to Mexico
There’s nothing like this Texaco of ours!

“Our show is very powerful
We’ll wow you with an hour full
Of howls from a shower full of stars.

“We’re the merry Texaco men
Tonight we may be showmen
Tomorrow we’ll be servicing your cars!

“We wipe your pipe
We pump your gas
We jack your back
We scrub your glass

“So join the ranks of those who know
And fill your tanks with Texaco

“Fire Chief, fill up with Fire Chief, You will smile at the pile of new miles you will add

“Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief
You’ll find that Texaco’s the finest friend your car has ever had

“…And now, ladies and gentlemen… America’s number one television star… MILTON BERLE!…”

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Sam Quintero, here’s a link to see and hear how the Merry Texaco Men opened the show and introduced Milton Berle. Berle’s entry also confirms my Lady Gaga-like memory of his typical attire.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTofvqEJyxU

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3 Responses to “Milton Berle: Mr. Television”

  1. Sumner Hunnewell Says:

    Listening to old radio shows (I recommend http://www.brandoclassicotr.com/ – 24 hour streaming), the common joke about Berle was that he stole jokes (I think I remember Fred Allen or George Burns or Fibber McGee quipping, “If you didn’t get that joke, it will be heard again on the Berle show tonight at 8.”) I’m not big fan of the Berle radio shows.

    Last night, I introduced my 16-year old daughter to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which I remembered as a kid in the 70s as something that was shown on New Year’s Eve. So, I was able to point out Durante, Berle (who goes off about England only being saved Lend Lease), Hackett, Tracy, Pickens, Jonathan Winters (who made the show), Merman, and many others. She grew up listening (and still listens) to many of the radio situation comedies (Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Our Miss Brooks).

  2. Mark Wernick Says:

    Bill:

    Here’s a variation on the theme from when Milton Berle guest-hosted on Saturday Night Live in 1979. It was done as a tribute to having Mr. Television in their midst.

    http://snltranscripts.jt.org/78/78qtexaco.phtml

    [In honor of host Milton Berle, SNL recreates the opening to his early TV series “Texaco Star Theatre” in glorious black-and-white: Wailing siren. Clanging bell. Theme music. Fade in on a proscenium arch with a curtain reading: TEXACO STAR THEATRE. The curtain rises to reveal a second curtain reading: Starring MILTON BERLE. This curtain rises to reveal the four male cast members lined up on a stage, marching in place, dressed as 1950s-era service station employees (complete with caps and bow ties), singing:]

    All:
    Oh, we’re the men of Texaco
    We work from Maine to Mexico
    There’s nothing like this Texaco of ours
    Our show tonight is powerful
    We’ll wow you with an hour full
    Of howls from a showerful of stars
    We’re the merry Texaco men
    Tonight we may be showmen
    Tomorrow we’ll be servicing your cars

    Bill Murray: [with rag and hub cap]
    I wipe the pump
    I pump the gas
    I rub the hub
    I scrub the glass

    John Belushi: [with gas nozzle]
    I touch the clutch
    I mop the top
    I poke the choke
    I sell the pop

    Dan Aykroyd: [with a large wrench]
    I clear the gear
    I block the knock
    I jack the back
    I set the clock

    Garrett Morris:
    I slash the top
    I pick the lock
    I take your car
    Around the block
    I drive it fast
    I smoke some grass
    If you don’t like it
    Kiss my–

    All:
    Sky Chief! Fill up with Sky Chief!
    And you will smile at the pile of new miles you will add
    Fire Chief! Fill up with Fire Chief!
    You’ll find that Texaco’s the finest brand your car has ever had

    [Music ends. Drum roll.]

    Bill Murray: And now, ladies and gentlemen …

    All: Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!

    Mark

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