"For a guy who never made it big on radio," famed vaudeville comedian Milton Berle once jokingly remarked, "I was always on." Indeed, Berle starred in a slew of different programs under various formats over a thirteen-year span on radio, but it would take television's The Texaco Star Theater to make "Uncle Miltie" a household word. John Dunning succinctly sums it up when describes the popular comedian as "radio's best-known failure."
Milton's first foray into radio was The Gillette Original Community Sing, which ran on CBS from September 6, 1936 to August 29, 1937 as a Sunday night comedy-variety program. It was here than Berle demonstrated his patented "machine gun comedy" shtick, a style very similar to that of Bob Hope's but with a heavier emphasis on slapstick. (Both Berle and Hope have both acknowledged that they patterned their stage personas after Ted Healey, a sadly neglected comic who - for better or worse - was responsible for unleashing The Three Stooges on an unsuspecting world.) Berle recalled in his autobiography that the program's theme song (which he sang in the show's opening) was "Let's All Sing Like the Birdies Sing," which would require the audience to respond "Tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet, tweet!"
Milton later went on to host NBC's Stop Me If You've Heard This One in the fall of 1939 - a comedy panel show in which its members would attempt to finish the jokes sent in by the show's listening audience. He then resurfaced in 1941 for Three Ring Time, a comedy-variety program for Ballantine Ale that ran for a season on both the Mutual and Blue networks. Though the program received favorable critical buzz, it turned into a complete bust - much of it due to the internecine squabbling between Berle and co-star Charles Laughton. Milton 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 Razors); and a summer series over CBS in 1946, Kiss and Make Up, a gimmick program in which "judge" Berle presided over a mock court. (This turkey was created by writer-producer Cy Howard, later responsible for My Friend Irma and Life With Luigi.)
1947 found Berle seriously wanting to succeed in radio, so much so that he canceled several lucrative nightclub appearances that would have netted him $25,000 a week in order to break his radio jinx with Philip Morris' The Milton Berle Show, a Tuesday NBC program beginning March 11, 1947. Though the show barely made a dent in the ratings - its Hooper was a dismal 11.6 - it's probably Berle's best radio work.
The Milton Berle Show took a weekly satirical look at prominent pop-culture phenomena; one week it might be "a salute to relaxation," the next "a salute to high finance." Its format rarely deviated from week to week; after his monologue, Milton would interview a few individuals with some connection to the show's topic, more than likely members of his supporting cast, like Jack Albertson (pre-"Chico and the Man"), Ed Begley, and Arthur Q. Bryan. Next, he would conduct a hilarious interview with "expert" Al Kelly, a comedian/second banana whose specialty was "double-talk" routines. Announcer Frank Gallop would then introduce with a ringing bell the weekly "forum" (similar to Fred Allen's "Allen's Alley"), in which questions would be taken from "members" of the audience. Among the participants were Arnold Stang, playing a quarrelsome character always out to pick an argument with Berle, and Pert Kelton, who invariably introduced herself as "Tallulah Feeney, I'm a homemaker." The show would then conclude with a segment entitled "At Home With the Berle's," in which Milton, his wife (Mary Shipp), and his bratty son (Stang) would be featured in a sketch again related to that week's topic.
The Milton Berle Show was a very underrated program which benefited tremendously from both a fine supporting cast and well-written scripts from veteran scribes Nat Hiken (a former writer for Fred Allen who later created the TV classics The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where are You?) and Aaron Ruben (The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, USMC). Announcer Frank Gallop was the perfect foil for Berle (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."), and vocalist Dick Forney and orchestra leader Ray Bloch found themselves the frequent target of Milton's barbs. But what ultimately made the show click was Berle himself, his boorish stage persona (described by Gerald Nachman as "the manic comic who won't shut up until you laugh") and self-deprecating manner blending seamlessly with Hiken and Ruben's broadly-written satire. Known to many in the business as "The Thief of Bad Gags," Milton frequently used this reputation to his advantage; on a September 16, 1947 broadcast he quips: "Tonight, Bob Hope's coming back on the air and why, in a couple of weeks, I'll have more jokes than I can stea...handle!" Berle demonstrated with this series - though admittedly, the radio audience appeared to have a dissenting opinion - that he didn't need his trademark visual gags and slapstick to create a rapport with listeners.
The Milton Berle Show was axed by NBC on April 13, 1948, and Milton moved to ABC in September with a radio version of The Texaco Star Theater, bringing along with him Stang, Kelton, Gallop, and writers Hiken and Ruben, who were joined by two then-unknown scriptwriting brothers named Danny and Neil Simon. In later years, Milton remembered it as "the best radio show I ever did...a hell of a funny variety show." It, too, was doomed to last only one season - but by that time, it scarcely mattered. Milton was already wowing audiences with the TV version on NBC, a program that became the stuff of legend - and bestowed upon him the kingly title of "Mr. Television."
A Salute to Thanksgiving
Tuesday, November 25, 1947 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Christmas
Tuesday, December 23, 1947 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to the New Year
Tuesday, December 30, 1947 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to High Finance
Tuesday, January 20, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to New York
Tuesday, January 27, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Gambling
Tuesday, February 3, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to California
Tuesday, February 10, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Communications
Tuesday, February 17, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Women
Tuesday, February 24, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Literature
Tuesday, March 2, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Income Tax
Tuesday, March 9, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Politics
Tuesday, March 16, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Music
Tuesday, March 23, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Horse Racing
Tuesday, March 30, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Motoring
Tuesday, April 6, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes
A Salute to Health And Relaxation
Tuesday, April 13, 1948 - 30:00 - NBC, sponsored by Philip Morris Cigarettes