Berle's debut a golden memory

Special to the Chicago Tribune

(First published in June 1998)

In 1948, Milton Berle stepped in front of the cameras as the first guest host of a summertime NBC series called "Texaco Star Theater" -- and changed the face of television.

Through the early '50s, his was the face of television. And the name, too. Besides his Uncle Miltie nickname, the other fond alias he was given was that of Mr. Television.

And why not?

Berle, already a radio star on a self-titled show sponsored by Texaco, was tapped by the sponsor to guest-host a handful of summertime "Texaco Star Theater" TV shows, beginning with its June 8, 1948, premiere. One guest shot was all it took: Berle packed the show with everything he had developed, learned or appropriated from vaudeville, and mounted a live show that had a lot more life than anything else on the air back in network television's infancy.

"My experience in vaudeville of playing all the circuits -- the RKOs and the Loews circuits -- all through my life, I was always used to an audience, a live audience," Berle, told me in 1996. "So I said, `Why not? I'll take a shot.' …

"I knew the cameras were on me, but I didn't treat it like that. I treated it like it was an in-person show, and that's the way it came over -- very ad-lib and improv and all that. And I was used to it, and after the first show, I got kudos and everything from people around me."

The day after his variety show premiered, Berle was greeted with a rave review from Variety, which proclaimed him "one of those naturals" and called it, with equal amounts of enthusiasm and accuracy, "a performance that may well be remembered as a milestone in television."

By the end of 1948, Berle's show was seen each week by an estimated 80 percent of all TV owners, which still hadn't broken the million mark. He was the primary reason many people purchased their first TV sets; Tuesday nights were his. The first several years TV ratings were compiled, Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" topped them.

After Berle, variety shows on television became all the rage. Within a year Ed Sullivan's "Toast of the Town," "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts" and Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca in "Admiral Comedy Revue" all appeared in prime time.

In 1951, NBC signed Berle to a 30-year contract. The network should have made it 50. That way, Berle would have hosted his own prime-time Golden Age of TV golden anniversary.

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