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“C’mon folks, these are the jokes!”

Mention “Milton Berle” to any baby boomer and chances are they’ll immediately think of the frenzied mirthmaker who entertained audiences Tuesday nights, in the newly inaugurated Golden Age of Television, as host of The Texaco Star Theatre.  Berle, once accurately described by Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio as “the manic comic who won’t shut up until you laugh,” became such a boob tube institution that he would forever be known as “Mr. Television.” “Uncle Miltie” was purportedly the reason why sales of television sets mushroomed from 500,000 in 1948 (his first year on TV) to over 30 million by the time he ended his initial run in 1955 with The Milton Berle Show.

But a goodly number of people—outside old-time radio fans, of course—aren’t aware that Milton Berle enjoyed a lengthy stint in the aural medium, beginning on this date in 1936.  Berle, a major vaudeville talent who had previously appeared on programs headlined by Rudy Vallee and Fred Waring, was the host of CBS’ The Gillette Original Community Sing, which ran until August 29, 1937 as a Sunday night comedy-variety program.  This program allowed Milton to patent his “machine-gun” style of comedy (very similar to the shtick practiced by Bob Hope) mixed with an element of radio slapstick that Radio Mirror remarked worked well “if he can keep it up.”  The show featured an audience sing-a-long led by “the Red Headed Music Maker,” Wendell Jones, and “Happiness Boys” Billy Jones and Ernie Hare.  (Actress Betty Garde was also a regular, as was future Eddie Cantor stooge Bert “The Mad Russian” Gordon—who answered to “Mischa Moody.”)  Irving Brecher, who’d go on to create radio’s The Life of Riley, was the program’s sole writer; Berle would later brag that Brecher was the only scribe he knew “who wrote a radio program every week all by himself.”

Berle’s next radio venture premiered on October 7, 1939 for NBC:  Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One, a comedy panel show in which the members of the panel attempted to finish jokes sent in by the program’s listening audience.  Stop Me, sponsored by Quaker Oats, was similar to the more successful Can You Top This? (1940; 1942-54), and in fact, two of the Can You Top This? regulars—Harry Hershfield and “Senator” Ed Ford—worked on the Berle program at one time.  (Harry McNaughton, who was one of the bright minds on the later comedy quiz It Pays to Be Ignorant, was heard on the show as well.)  Stop Me left NBC on February 24, 1940 (it would later resurface on Mutual in 1947). Uncle Miltie experienced a brief period of radio unemployment, but he didn’t have to clip coupons, kids; his movie career was still in full swing and he made a tidy sum playing nightclubs. Berle returned to the air in September of 1941 with Three Ring Time for Ballantine Ale—the first major Mutual West Coast origination, and a show that Mutual had hoped would make them “a real competitor in transcontinental broadcasting,” according to old-time radio historian John Dunning.

Three Ring Time also featured Shirley Ross and Bob Crosby (and His Bobcats) as regulars, with Bill Goodwin as announcer…delightful!  But Milton didn’t get along with the program’s other big name, Charles Laughton.  Despite his reputation as an outstanding dramatic actor, Laughton had high hopes that Three Ring Time would, as Radio Life reported, “give me a chance to do what I really like to do—make people laugh.”  Charlie, however, didn’t want to lay them in the aisles at the expense of being his co-star’s “ego massage” (the term Berle used in his own autobiography) and the two stars soon began to openly quarrel, even after Three Ring jumped ship to NBC in December of 1941.  (Mutual would later sue NBC for $10 million, charging restraint of trade.)  Laughton asked for (and was given) his release in January, and for a time Berle welcomed a rotating series of co-hosts until the show left the airwaves on June 2, 1942.

Milton Berle tried radio three more times as a headliner: a brief self-titled series over CBS in 1943 for Campbell Soups; a 1944-45 “half-hour of slapstick” for Blue/CBS called Let Yourself Go (sponsored by Eversharp); and a summer series over CBS in 1946, Kiss and Make Up—a program (created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later of My Friend Irma and Life with Luigi) in which “judge” Berle presided over a mock court as the show’s hook.  By 1947, Berle was ready to roll the dice and gamble with The Milton Berle Show, which premiered on March 11 over NBC for Philip Morris as a replacement for Rudy Vallee’s show.  (We’re not kidding about the gambling part, either; Milton forfeited nearly $25,000 in cancelled nightclub engagements just to make The Milton Berle Show a success.)  The series, which ran until April 13, 1948, didn’t make much of a dent in the radio ratings (its Hooper was an anemic 11.6) but thanks to some first-rate scripts by Fred Allen Show alumnus Nat Hiken (the later creator of The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?) and Aaron Ruben (the man who enlisted The Andy Griffith Show’s Gomer Pyle in the Marines) new generations of fans have discovered an unsung gem, described by Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod as “one of the forgotten bright spots of postwar radio.”

Berle was aided and abetted on his program by an exemplary cast of “stooges.”  There was Arnold Stang, on vacation from The Henry Morgan Show, playing the same quarrelsome wisenheimer determined to have a verbal scrap with the star.  (Stang would later be a regular on Milton’s TV show.)  Pert Kelton portrayed a put-upon housewife (“Tallulah Feeney, I’m a homemaker…”) and gave voice to a woman who appeared in a series of skits entitled “At Home with the Berles” where her only dialogue was a drawn-out utterance of “Yessssss…”  (This gag was later appropriated for the “Miss Prissy” spinster hen in Warner Brothers’ Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.)  The “At Home” sketches featured Milton as an exasperated patriarch who encountered friction from his bratty son (Stang) and his too-understanding wife (Mary Shipp).  Other regulars on the Berle program include a pre-Chico and the Man Jack Albertson, Ed Begley, Arthur Q. Bryan, John Gibson, and Al Kelly—a second banana who specialized in double-talk and would be brought out as an “expert” in whatever subject was the topic of the show that week.

Milton Berle found his perfect foil in announcer Frank Gallop, a man who sounded like a funeral parlor owner letting his hair down for the first time.  Gallop would also migrate to the comedian’s later TV show, but in the radio years got big laughs through his condescending attitude toward the star.  (Berle: “Mr. Gallop, did you hear that? I just got four laughs in a row.” Gallop: “Yes, they’re all in the row your mother is in.”)  Gallop, Stang, Kelton, Albertson, Shipp and several other members of the Berle Show cast would follow Milton (along with writers Hiken and Ruben) to The Texaco Sar Theatre for ABC in the fall of 1948.  This was the comedian’s last gasp over the ether and described by Uncle Miltie himself as “the best radio show I ever did…a hell of a funny variety show.”  Theatre was pretty much a continuation of The Milton Berle Show, and some of the surviving broadcasts are falling-down funny; a young Jacqueline Susann (before she got into the writing novels thing) can be heard on occasion, and assisting Hiken and Ruben in the writing chores were two brothers just starting out in the business: Danny and Neil Simon.

The radio Texaco Star Theatre closed its studio doors on June 15, 1949; by that time, Milton Berle was wowing audiences on TV…even if he had to often don drag to do it.  At Radio Spirits, we think you’ll agree that while Uncle Miltie wasn’t the sensation on radio that he was on TV he was every bit as hilarious.  If you check out our Comedy Goes West collection, an October 7, 1947 broadcast of The Milton Berle Show (“A Salute to the Old West”) will back up our assertion that Berle could certainly bring the funny.  On The Voices of Christmas Past, the frantic funnyman continues with the laughs with a broadcast from December 23rd of that same year, “A Salute to Christmas.”  Milton thanks you…and his mother would, too, once she stopped laughing.

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