May 04, 1989 12:00 PM

Stores shut early. Restaurants emptied. Traffic vanished. Phone calls broke off. Dishes went unwashed. Sex was interrupted. Crime stopped cold. All over America, starting in the fall of 1948, millions of people who for six days and 23 hours every week seemed perfectly rational went berserk on Tuesday night and, like ants on a triple-chocolate blackout cake, swarmed around tiny, blurry, 10-inch television screens. “And now,” an announcer crowed, “here he is! Mister Television Himself!! MILTON BERLE!!!”

And there he was: a flabby, six-foot-long banana with bedpan ears, Bugs Bunny teeth, a rubbery leer that threatened to meet at the back of his neck, and the energy of a wildebeest stampede. “Good evening, ladies and GERMS!” he bawled, then waited for the harde-har at his latest god-awful getup. He arrived as Cleopatra, Carmen Miranda, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Napoleon, Mae West. You name it, he wore it. There was nothing, but nothing, he wouldn’t do to get a giggle. He took pies in the kisser and seltzer down his pants, duck-waddled all over the stage on the sides of his ankles, played a terrible-tempered piano that socked him in the shnoz with a fist on a spring. And week after week he pelted the public with chestnuts that were soggy when Adam ate his apple. “That’s a lovely suit—who shines it for you?” “I went to see the doctor. He wasn’t in. I took a turn for the nurse. But I wanna tell ya…”

Critics told Berle emphatically where to stick his vulgar shtik, but viewers adored “Uncle Miltie.” In his first year he captured 80 percent of the available audience—a record unrivaled to this day. He was TV’s first mass attraction, a jack pudding pioneer who stumbled onto El Dorado and revealed to an astonished world the power of a magical new medium. Swept up in the hurly-Berley, millions of Americans bought TV sets—the number of homes with television jumped from 136,000 to 700,000 during his first year on the air and by 1953 had reached 30 million. He was the Henry Ford of television, the one who transformed a rich man’s toy into an electronic renaissance.

He was also one of the least-liked men in showbiz. By his own admission conceited, arrogant and crude, he came on like a male Miss Piggy, threw tantrums on the set and directed fellow actors by blowing a whistle—like a trainer rehearsing seals. Onscreen, he was a camera hog, muzzling into everybody’s act. Other comics, claiming he stole more than scenes, labeled him “Milton Burglar, the Thief of Bad Gags,” a comedic magpie who pirated jokes because he lacked the talent to think up his own. Berle “couldn’t ad-lib a blister,” Jack Benny sneered, “if [he] leaned against a hot stove.”

In Milton Berle: An Autobiography, Berle admits he “pushed and shoved and bullied.” But he makes no apology for his gag collection—6.5 million computer-cataloged jokes, which he may will to the Library of Congress—or for how he assembled it. And he offers a persuasive excuse for his off-putting personality: “Take a kid of 5 and make him a star…it’s a miracle if that kid doesn’t grow up to believe he’s Casanova and Einstein and Jesus Christ all rolled into one.”

At 5, Milton Berlinger was no star. He was a brash kid from West Harlem who had one of history’s pushiest stage mothers, an unstoppable tank named Sarah who had big plans for little Milton. She pushed him into The Perils of Pauline as a $1.75-a-day bit player, then into other silent movies starring Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Inflamed by ambition, Sarah junked her job as a department-store dick and took Milton on the road in a kid act, all but abandoning her lovable nebbish of a husband and three of her children. At 13, Berle played the Palace. At 23, he scored big as a broad Broadway buffoon in a Bea Lillie revue.

Over the years, Berle notes, he also scored with many famous ladies. He brags about his male dimensions and shamelessly names names—from Aimee Semple McPherson (between sermons) to Marilyn Monroe (“Marilyn was a lady”). But he always ran home to Mama. They lived together until he was 33, and almost until her death at 77 she ruled his career with a heavy hand. She showed up at every performance, greeted every joke with screams of ecstasy. “Thank you, Mama,” he replied, and audiences howled. In 1941, over Mama’s fierce objections, Berle tied the knot with Joyce Mathews, a showgirl he describes as a “sensational dessert made of vanilla and honey.” Mama got her revenge. Night after night she dragged Berle out on the town. Joyce tried suicide, finally settled for divorce.

In 1953, when he married press agent Ruth Cosgrove, Berle found a wife almost as attractive as Joyce and almost as strong as Mama. But he hasn’t lived happily ever after. In 1955, confronted by the likes of Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, the King of Television drifted into decline and wound up on a wretched game show called Jackpot Bowling. Today, 33 years later, he is still unaware that as a hot comic in a cool medium, he was bound to wear out his audience and his welcome. For Berle, losing that audience was like losing his life. He made movies and played Vegas, but the thrill was gone. Even now at 80, with a coronary bypass in his chest, he keeps trying to recapture it. One day when a tour bus paused in front of his Beverly Hills home, the old trouper bounced onto the lawn to work a few yocks out of the yokels. Five minutes later he toddled back inside to catch his breath. Nothing daunted, Berle recently played Vegas with Caesar and Danny Thomas. “Retire?” he often splutters. “To what?” With luck, he may yet live to be as old as his jokes.

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