Anyone taking an objective look at Milton Berle’s career before television has to ask how he was able to forge any kind of radio life at all. Over some fourteen years’ effort, he’ll have only two top fifty seasonal ratings’ finishes to show for it. He’ll be known as either radio’s best-known failure (as John Dunning would phrase it) or “Tuesday’s Poor Relative” by Jim Ramsburg (in Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953), the latter a nod to Berle’s most frequent night of trying and falling too far short.
It certainly hasn’t been for lack of trying. But it certainly will prove confounding. Berle’s been one of the nation’s most popular draws in live performance, but on radio he’s been a bust for the most part. And his eventual television success prompts the question of why.
The one-time boy wonder of vaudeville and silent film began his radio life in earnest in 1936, when he was cast aboard Gillette Community Sing (CBS), whose professed stock in trade was heavy on the studio audience singalong. The show would be remembered for one reason: Berle was part of it. Which didn’t exactly help his resume, unfortunately. Gillette Community Sing finished ninth on Sunday nights and nowhere near the season’s top fifty. Its 6.8 rating was seven points below the Sunday night average and five below the season’s average.
Berle couldn’t possibly be blamed for that failure. He didn’t get another crack at radio, never mind as a host, until 1938, when Quaker Oats hired him for NBC’s Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One. This comic panel show (Harry Hirshfield, Jay C. Flippen, and guests filled the panel) was the near-direct inspiration for the later, far more successful Can You Top This? But it lacked the later offering’s more direct audience-participation charm and spontaneity; Berle himself read the jokes chosen by the show staff for the panel to consider.
What looked good on paper didn’t work right in execution, so far as Quaker was concerned; the sponsor stopped it before they’d heard it once too often after twenty-six weeks. This may have been slightly unfair: the show actually placed fourth on Sunday night with its 11.4 rating, and gave Berle his first of only two top fifty seasonal finishes (number 42), it wasn’t even close to a blockbuster performance.
Berle’s next radio patron was Ballantine Ale, as he hosted the brewer’s Three Ring Time. (The title derived from Ballantine’s famous logo; “Purity, body, flavour,” the rings represented.) Mutual made the show its first to originate from the West Coast. But teaming Berle with Charles Laughton, who’d tired of playing heavies in film and wanted to make people laugh, proved lethal. As Dunning would put it:
[T]hings went wrong from the beginning, and the show was the most prominent bust of the season. The cast was basically incompatible: Laughton was miffed when co-star Milton Berle presumed to direct him in comedy; Berle was miffed when he felt Laughton was stepping on his best lines. They soon came to a point of open antagonism . . . In his autobiography, Berle dismisses the entire series in a line: Laughton, he said, “decided that playing for laughs with Berle wasn’t his favourite ego massage.”
Laughton left before the season was half finished. Ballantine moved Three Ring Time to NBC (over which Mutual sued), then to CBS. On CBS comic poet Ogden Nash took over as host and Guy Lombardo’s was the house orchestra. And it disappeared after one more season. Once more Berle was a key figure in a ratings flop, though in fairness once again you can’t say the show did any better when it had its chance without him.
He returned once again for 1943-44 hosting another audience-participation show, Let Yourself Go, this time for Eversharp. The Blue Network, newly-liberated from NBC following an antitrust action, sought to try a weekly offerings at 7 p.m. It put Let Yourself Go on Tuesday night, never mind that Berle didn’t exactly have a track record as a smash in front of the audience participation style.
The idea behind the slapstick Let Yourself Go: let contestants make fools of themselves fulfilling their fondest desires—even at the host’s expense. The actuality: It made fools of Berle and of Eversharp, instead. The show might not have done much better even if it had been higher quality. As it was, it delivered a 3.0 rating on a night Bob Hope, Fibber McGee & Molly, and Red Skelton were killing listeners with ratings in the 30s and the average Tuesday night rating was 18.3. Moving the show to Wednesday nights on CBS the following season only made things worse.
In 1946-47, Philip Morris put Berle at the hub of his own comedy half hour on NBC. Despite Berle’s best rating (9.3) in years, The Milton Berle Show finished out of the top ten and couldn’t get anywhere near the night’s average 16.7. Not even close to a seasonal top fifty finish, either. But the following season Berle will finally pick up and hit the top fifty for the only time in his radio career.
He’ll finish 1947-48 with a 15.4 rating—still below the Tuesday night average (19.0 this time) but enough to get him a 46th place seasonal finish. Itll be his best ratings showing since he began in radio. And it still won’t make him anything close to a radio star, though it may make him the butt of other comedians’ gags from time to time.
Think about that. Over fourteen years, across all the major radio networks, with multiple sponsors taking chances with him, Milton Berle never finished with even an average rating on his night and never finished higher than 42nd in any season’s ratings survey.
The answer should have been obvious. Of all the comedians who migrated from vaudeville and/or film to radio, and continue making big dollars performing in nightclubs, Berle was among the least able to adapt to the blind audio medium, even if he did last somewhat longer than, for example, Ed Wynn, who came from vaudeville likewise but enjoyed far wider radio success for part of the 1930s. But Wynn in the 1930s was a radio novelty; Berle in the 1940s really wasn’t.
Red Skelton also came from the stage and screen world. But Skelton was a comparative smash on radio. A no-questions-asked classic visual clown, Skelton had a none-too-obscure secret—he developed a kind of effective verbal slapstick out of his kit bag of voices and vocalisms, a kit bag Berle never thought to develop. Berle was simply too much the no-rest, no-breath, no-pause, can’t-stand-still loudmouth who’ll get in your face and bludgeon you until he gets even one laugh from you to consider the thought.
He was, in short, just made for network television’s toddlerhood.
The problem was that network television as a mass concern was born a little too late to give Berle the appropriate medium sooner. (He once appeared in an experimental television program, in Chicago in 1929, and said later that he figured he’d been seen by all twelve people with access to a television set at the time.) On radio, unless you were in the studio audience to see Berle’s half-cracked mugging and gyrating the way you saw in a nightclub or theater, you just couldn’t figure out what the hell was so damn funny.
Notwithstanding, his final radio show makes just enough impression for NBC to take a chance and install him as one of a rotation of hosts for its new Tuesday night television variety hour in September 1948, Texaco Star Theater. (The other hosts: Morey Amsterdam, Henny Youngman, and Peter Donald, long familiar as Ajax Cassidy in Fred Allen’s “Allen’s Alley” routines.) At the same time, Texaco puts Berle back on radio—this time, on ABC—for one more round on Wednesday nights.
That final radio gasp bombs (Berle will be murdered by Duffy’s Tavern and the CBS music recital program Your Song & Mine) . . . but the following September, on television alone, Berle will have wrested the others out of the host rotation and become Texaco Star Theater‘s sole television host.
Now he’ll be the no-questions-asked leader of the gang, with much of his gang (including Arnold Stang, Pert Kelton, and Ruth Gilbert) migrating with him from his final radio show. And Berle will earn a whopping 80.0 Hooper rating in his first full year of television without radio. Outrating his entire radio career.
After all those years, his vaudeville-bred mugging, gyrating outlandishness finds the right way into the homes that finally got the full idea, the idea Berle simply wasn’t able to project verbally. Radio’s best-known failure will suddenly become television’s first unquestioned superstar. So much so that Texaco Star Theater would be the only program not to be pre-empted for presidential election night coverage in 1948.
The bad news is that the very thing that finally makes him on the air will also break him on the air.
With too little changing until it’s too little too late, and a newer, somewhat less maniacal comedy style beginning to emerge—a style to which Uncle Miltie just wasn’t suited, which his own viewers will see when Texaco presses for changing to something near a situation comedy atmosphere—Mr. Television and his audience will burn each other out within six years.
TUNE IN TODAY . . .
Berle frets over his weight, rummages through his file of fat jokes, then takes up the recent elections and the current state of Washington, “the eastern headquarters of Howard Hughes,” a benign reference to the industrialist’s soon-to-be-legendary battle with a Senate investigating committee over war contracts.
You need more evidence that, in radio, Berle had the perfect pace (never mind face) for television?
Cast: Pert Kelton, Jack Albertson, Mary Shipp, Charlie Irving, Johnny Gibson, Frank Donato. Announcer: Frank Gallop. Music: Ray Bloch Orchestra, Dick Forney. Writers: Hal Block, Martin Ragaway.
Further Channel Surfing . . .
Fibber McGee & Molly: Premiere of Look Who’s Laughing (NBC, 1941)—Jim & Marian Jordan, Bill Thompson, Isabel Randolph, Gale Gordon. The McGees can’t wait for Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy to join them for the premiere of their film—any more than they can wait for the reaction from the movie house audience. The banter between McCarthy and Teeny is classic enough. Writer: Don Quinn.
The Goldbergs: Rosalie is Given What For (CBS, 1941)—Gertrude Berg, Roslyn Siber, John R. Waters, Alfred Ryder. Rosalie gets an unwelcome advisory against taking too much interest in Oriane’s romantic dilemnas. Quietly effective. Writer/director: Gertrude Berg. (Advisory: Tinny sound quality.)
The Great Gildersleeve: Teaching Marjorie Homemaking (NBC, 1945)—Harold Peary, Mary Lee Robb, Walter Tetley, Earle Ross, Lillian Randolph, Shirley Mitchell, Richard LeGrand. The teaching begins when Gildersleeve thinks Marjorie should take a more realistic view of her ballet career hopes—and the helm for the evening meal. Bon appetit. Writers: John Whedon, Sam Moore.
The Couple Next Door: A New Coat for Betsy (CBS, 1958)—Peg Lynch, Alan Bunce, Francie Meyers. Betsy objects to wearing a hand-embroidered blouse she considers repulsive, but Father is mildly amused to learn the real reason the seven-year-old is suddenly so fashion-conscious. The usual gentle domestic wit. Writer/director: Peg Lynch.
The Whistler: The Deadly Penny (CBS, 1946)—Betty Lou Gerson, Wally Maher. One cent is the sum by which an investment firm’s books prove out of balance, which unbalances the plan of an ex-racketeer’s estranged wife (Betty Lou Gerson)—who works there and has embezzled a sizeable sum of bonds she needs him to help her launder. Trust me, this isn’t a washout. Writer: Bernard Gerard.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Adam Kegg Matter (CBS, 1950)—Edmond O’Brien, Stacy Harris, Lamont Johnson, Jeanette Nolan, Jack Moyles, Hy Averback, Paul Victor, Raymond Burr. Probing robbery of jewels belonging ot a suspicious producer’s wife, Dollar has two dubious suspects and a trip to a New Jersey fence for his only early substantial leads. Dubious, indeed, though it has its moments. Writer: Gil Doud.
The CBS Radio Workshop: Report on the Weans (CBS, 1956)—June Foray, Byron Kane, Daws Butler, Edgar Barrier, Jay Novello, Joseph Kearns, Joe DeSantis, Hans Conreid. News-style treatment, and an effective one, of Robert Nathan’s fantasy of how a mere few artifacts can mislead any future archaeologists, including those unearthing some of the wrong impressions about the early Cold War. Writers: William N. Robson, Fran van Hartesveldt.
Suspense: Muddy Track (CBS, 1948)—Edmond O’Brien, Ann Blyth. O’Brien shines as a down on his luck newcomer from Chicago whose first day on the job as a bookie takes a deadly twist, when a kindhearted woman whose friend hired him turns up dead and the new bookie’s been set up for the fall. Don’t let go of it. Writers: Buckley Angell, Bob Shelly.
Suspense: Three Skeleton Key (CBS, 1956)—Vincent Price, Ben Wright, Lawrence Dobkin. Price—who featured in the best-remembered radio interpretation of this story on Escape in 1950—features again in this series’ second crack at the story, which details three lighthouse keepers on the coast of French Guyana suddenly under siege by a swarm of large rats surviving a derelict shipwreck. It has its own virtues. Writer: James Poe, based on the story by George Toudouze.
Gunsmoke: Pretty Mama (CBS, 1956)—William Conrad, John Dehner, Jean Bates, Georgia Ellis, Butch Bernard, Howard McNear, Parley Baer. Rancher/farmer Hank Marvel has been shot dead on a far patch of his land, and Dillon suspects jealousy after learning Marvel ran a rival ranch’s rider off his land who’s rumoured to have more than a passing interest in his pretty young wife. Writer: Les Crutchfield.
WORLD WAR II: VETERANS’ DAY
News Special: Armistice Day Ceremony (Mutual, 1942)—All networks cover a ceremony commemorating America’s dead in previous wars, led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gen. John J. Pershing—who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I—at Arlington National Cemetery, but only Mutual’s coverage will survive to be heard in the next century. Known originally as Armistice Day because the formal end of World War I occurred on 11 November 1918, the holiday will be re-named Veterans’ Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth after World War II.
WORLD WAR II: FURTHER WAR NEWS . . .
CBS World News Special: Eleanor Roosevelt Dedicates a Seamen’s Club (CBS, 1942)—At the opening of a new merchant seaman’s club in Glasgow, Scotland, the first of its kind during World War II for American seamen in British territory, the First Lady is the opening’s guest of honour following a brief trip to Ireland. And she’ll take the microphone to thank seamen for working so hard to make the seas safe for the world once again, and to suggest Axis sea domination is beginning to end. Correspondent/moderator: Robert Trout.