16 September: Nibbling the hand that can’t feed you

The Milton Berle Show: Salute to Radio (NBC, 1947)

Milton Berle, who never got vaudeville out of his blood. (Photo: NBC.)

Milton Berle, who never got vaudeville out of his blood or his brain. (Photo: NBC.)

It seems perversely appropriate that the nation’s Uncle Miltie-to-be delivers a good-natured satire of radio a year before he becomes Mr. Television. For all his radio years, Milton Berle will probably be the luckiest man alive to land his Texaco Star Theater television job and legend—because he’s actually known as old-time radio’s biggest prolonged failure.

The problem, of course, is that the home listeners can’t see most of what’s making him funny in the first place. They can’t see the maniacal mugging, the literally big mouth, and the outlandish costumery that he still can’t surrender, going back to his vaudeville days, using it for his studio audience. Unlike many of the vaudevillians who began migrating to radio in the early 1930s, Berle has been unable to adapt completely enough to the spoken medium.

He’s hardly the only radio fixture who works better visually, of course. Joan Davis comes across better in her film roles than on her often deceptively simple radio shows. (She’ll be done a television disservice herself, alas, when she’s worked into a shameless I Love Lucy generic called I Married Joan.) Red Skelton is snappy enough with dialogue and vocalisms, but there’s a reason why he builds a legend for having the funniest post-air, studio-audience-only performances in the business—and he’ll get to prove it when he, too, moves to television. (Where he’ll continue, alas, to reject anyone but himself getting the credit for more than half his creations.) Lucille Ball isn’t doing half as well with My Favourite Husband (it’s good, not great, and seems more like a training exercise for herself and her soon-to-be-formidable writers) as she’ll do when television lets her fly with everything she has in perfect balance, including her own visual genius.

Berle more than the others needs to be seen to be believed and to be funny. And he knows it, almost as much as his critics. He’ll remember it in his memoir in due course:

Reading from a script didn’t feel as good to me. I was too used to winging it in front of a live audience . . . I did okay, but I never felt I was getting across at my best. [But] for a guy who never made it big in radio, I was always on the air.

But while he might become Mr. Television and that medium’s earliest incontrovertible superstar, Berle will flame out almost as fast as he takes hold of the American public. His kind of manic vaudeville throwback has only so much shelf life. Unlike Ed Wynn, a smash on radio in the 1930s but a badly-bruised has-been from the 1940s until he reinvents himself as an effective dramatic actor, Berle will prove as suitable to structure and decorum as a piranha is to a knife and fork.

And when he elects to try structure and decorum, he’ll become a near no-factor, amidst the rise of more mind-over or mind-meets-matter comedians. Ironically, it may prove to be that his original audience actually missed his original small-screen idiocies and manias. (In our family, we use Uncle Miltie as a threat. If the little so-and-so doesn’t go to bed this minute, we’ll make him look at Milton Berle. That sends him, scampering.—John Crosby.) The man whom television makes its first legend also becomes its first notorious burnout.

Which makes you feel as though Uncle Miltie deserves your sympathy for having been so unable to refine himself just enough for radio that he might have a resource on which to fall when television spits him out as swiftly (so it will seem in any 21st Century retrospective) as it sat before him.

Cast: Arnold Stang, Pert Kelton, Jack Albertson, Mary Shipp, Arthur Q. Bryan, Ed Begley. Announcer: Frank Gallop. Music: Ray Bloch Orchestra, Dick Forney. Writers: Nat Hiken, Aaron Ruben.


Tune in Today, Continued . . .


Lum & Abner: The First Day of School; a.k.a. Stranger Looking for President of the Mine (NBC Blue, 1935)—Lum has a new problem on his hands: fighting accusations of neglecting the mine business and returning stockholders’ money after Squire’s bilking, all while courting the returning schoolmarm. Writers: Chester Lauck, Norris Goff.

The Comic Weekly Man: Remembering Alice, Hoppy, and the Prince (NBC, 1951)—Lon Clark. Little Miss Honey appreciates meeting the film voice of Alice in Wonderland;the comics today: Hopalong Cassidy, Prince Valiant, Flash Gordon, Blondie, Roy Rogers, Alice in Wonderland, Dick’s Adventures, Rusty. If you like the old comics, this is cute stuff. Writer: Lon Clark.

You Bet Your Life: The Secret Word is “People” (Season premiere; NBC, 1953)—Groucho Marx, George Fenneman. A housewife and a police officer; a Russian immigrant furniture dealer and an Oklahoma woman descended from Poland and Lithuania; and, a West Point cadet and a young art student. The usual Marxism. Writers, presumably just in case: Ed Tyler, Hy Freeman.


Crime Drama

The Whistler: The Brass Ring (CBS, 1946)—Doris Singleton, Eddie Maher, William Conrad, Bill Forman (as the Whistler). A carnival dancer has eyes for and marries a big-tipping regular for his fortune, but chafes under her new, tony existence. Don’t let go too readily. Writer: David Gillespie.


Drama/Dramatic Anthology

Words at War: Since You Went Away (NBC, 1943)—Margaret Buell Wilder’s novel—based on her newspaper column writing actual letters to her husband deployed in Europe—gets surprising understatement despite its potential for soapish melodrama: A wife wants to keep her daughters balanced while coping with her husband’s war service and her wariness over working herself and the bitter divorcee who befriends her. Adapted for radio by Nora Sterling.



Lights Out: The Sea (NBC, 1936)—A dutiful son’s words to his mother before going on a fateful sea operation (The sea has made me fortune, and the sea will bring me back) come to haunt the woman, who was torn between the dutiful son and the shiftless, fanciful, brawling son who lured his brother into the dangerous job. Who says “Chicken Heart” or “Cat Wife” were the best of this series’ legendary stories? Writer/director: Arch Oboler.

Suspense: The Kettler Method (CBS, 1942)—Roger DeKoven, John Gibson, Gloria Stuart, Guy Repp, Marha Falkner, Winifield Hoeny, Ralph Smiley. Unsuccessful surgery commits a neurosurgeon to a sanitarium, but he’s convinced professional jealousy over an unusual surgical technique he pioneered is the real cause. Gripping. Writer: Peter Barry. (Recording begins with a network announcement urging war bond support.)

Suspense: The Cross-Eyed Bear (CBS, 1943)-a—Virginia Bruce, John Loder, Ted Osborne. A young thrill seeker hires on to help find the second son of a wealthy mining enterpreneur whose will divides between three sons he despised—knowing one, a Nazi sympathiser, would kill the other two. This one is a real twister. Writer: Dorothy B. Hughes.


World War II

Special Report: War of Words (Czech European Radio , 1938)—The Nazi propaganda machine ramps up over the Sudetenland crisis despite President Benes’s reluctant martial law order having restored a fair semblance of order, according to this news report by an unidentified English-speaking reporter.



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