Saturday, July 12, 2008

HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY TO UNCLE MILTIE




Most people in my age group know that Milton Berle, bar none was the King of comedy. Tuesday nights on NBC were his property. Everybody watched the Texaco Star Theatre (Texaco is now a big part of Chevron today) At one time, NBC offered him a thirty year exclusive contract beginning in 1953 that paid him a whopping one hundred thousand dollars a year- whether he worked or not. Lucille Ball and he were very best friends in a friendship that went back to 1937. He always had the best writers including Danny and Neil Simon. And today would have been his 100th birthday. In 1947, Milton Berle founded the Friars Club of Beverly Hills at the old Savoy Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Other founding members included Jimmy Durante, George Jessel, Robert Taylor, and Bing Crosby. In 1961, the club moved to Beverly Hills. The club is a private show business club famous for its celebrity members and roasts, where a member is mocked by their club friends in good fun.Unlike many of his peers, Berle's off-stage lifestyle did not include drugs or drinking, but did include cigars, a "who's who" list of beautiful women, and a lifelong addiction to gambling, primarily horse racing. Some felt his obsession with "the ponies" was responsible for Berle never amassing the wealth or business success of others in his position."Uncle Miltie" was also notorious within show business for the rumored size of his penis. Phil Silvers once told a story about standing next to Berle at a urinal, glancing down, and quipping, "You'd better feed that thing, or it's liable to turn on you!" Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel, who had written many Friars Club jokes about Berle's penis for other comedians, described being treated to a private showing: "He just takes out this— this anaconda. He lays it on the table and I'm looking into this thing, right? I'm looking into the head of Milton Berle's dick. It was enormous. It was like a pepperoni. And he goes, 'What do you think of the boy?' And I'm looking right at it and I go, 'Oh, it's really, really nice.'" At a memorial service for Berle at the New York Friars' Club, Freddie Roman solemnly announced, "On May 1st and May 2nd, his penis will be buried." Milton was known to have a colorful vocabulary and few limits on when it was used. Surprisingly, however, he "worked clean" for his entire onstage career, except for the infamous Friars Club all-male, private celebrity roasts. Berle often criticized younger comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin about their X-rated humor, and challenged them to be just as funny without the four-letter words.
Hundreds of younger comics, including several comedy superstars, were encouraged and guided by Berle. Despite some less than flattering (and true) stories told about Berle being difficult to work with; his son, Bill, maintains that Berle was a source of encouragement and technical assistance for many new comics. Uncle Milty's son Bob backs up his brother's statement. He was present many times during Berle's Las Vegas shows and television guest appearances. Milton aided Fred Travelena, Ruth Buzzi, John Ritter, Marla Gibbs, Lilly Tomlin, Dick Shawn and Will Smith. At a taping of a Donny and Marie hour, for example, Donny and Marie Osmond recited a scripted joke routine to a studio audience, to little response. The director asked for a retake, and the Osmonds repeated the act, word for word, to even less response. A third attempt, with no variation, proved dismal — until Milton Berle, off-camera, went into the audience, pantomiming funny faces and gestures. Ever the professional, Berle timed each gesture to coincide with an Osmond punchline, so the dialogue seemed to be getting the maximum laughs.Berle was well known among his peers to have one of the largest joke collections in the world, which Berle estimated to be between five and six million jokes. Berle had a reputation for stealing material from other comedians, which eventually became known to the public. Bob Hope quipped onstage with Berle, that he "never heard a joke he didn't steal." "Uncle Miltie" would then mug for the cameras with an exaggerated innocent face. On more than one occasion, Berle would commend a co-star for a punchline, saying, "I wish I'd said that," to which the co-star would invariably reply, "Oh, you will." Columnist Walter Winchell famously labelled Berle with the unflattering nickname "The Thief of Bad Gags." Upon being accused of stealing jokes from Berle, Jack Benny once quipped, "When you take a joke away from Milton Berle, it's not stealing, it's repossessing."Occasional claims by Berle and others that these jokes were transferred to computer media are suspect, as a member of Berle's family verified that the majority of them were on sheets and scraps of paper and index cards in a vast, disorganized collection amassed over decades, well before personal computers. The books Milton Berle's Private Joke File and The Rest of the Best of Milton Berle's Private Joke File each contained 10,000 of these jokes. At any rate Happy Birthday! Well, I continue to write during my layover and now I'm even re-writing the really old scripts to put them into the proper script format. I was amused by the doomsday people eho have now set the date for the end of the world-- it's December 21, 2012. I'll be sixty-five by that date and ready to retire.

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