Milton Berle faces a room full of people in tuxes and gowns. He thanks them for coming and for bestowing on him this, his zillionth honor.
Then he recalls that he was in this very Manhattan banquet room a year ago.
“But not to entertain,” he says, teeth bared in his rabbity grin. “It was for a seminar. A seminar on premature ejaculation. I left early.”
At age 88, Milton Berle just won’t quit.
With some 20 minutes of such gags and shtick did Berle return the favor, as the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences last week gave “Mr. Television” its first Lifetime Achievement Award.
Attendees, each of whom had paid several hundred dollars to pay homage, heard Berle lionized by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former “Golden Girl” Bea Arthur, even-older-than-Berle funnyman Henny Youngman and veteran comic Joey Adams.
Berle played an infant in silent films and modeled as the Buster Brown shoes kid. He headlined in nightclubs, made a few films and had several radio series.
But the real reason for this Emmy gala, the real reason for Berle’s unshakable status as a legend and a pioneer, came down to a pivotal phase of his hamsmanship that began long ago, when Harry Truman was president, and barely lasted into Dwight Eisenhower’s second term.
These days, “Mad About You” and “Something So Right” occupy NBC’s 8-to-9-p.m. Tuesday slot, just as lots of shows have lighted there in seasons past.
But no one has outright owned that TV hour, or any other, like Berle, who on Sept. 21, 1948, became host of the “Texaco Star Theater.” And an instant sensation.
Berle brought with him the boisterous, anything-for-a-laugh tradition his vaudeville years had taught him. Then, he delivered it to the public en masse, as if by magic, on their television screens. Maybe vaudeville was dead, but “vaudeo” was born.
Successful? Early on, about three-quarters of all TVs were tuned to Uncle Miltie on Tuesday nights. By comparison, last week’s top-rated series, “E.R.,” won about 20 percent.
Granted, the total number of TVs was minuscule in those days. There were only a half-million when Berle went on the air; today, the number of homes with at least one TV totals 97 million.
But if Berle’s reach seems small by today’s standards, his impact helps account for why today TV is everywhere. It was Berle who lit the fuse.
Back then, he guaranteed viewers something irresistible to watch and gave everyone who didn’t own a TV a powerful incentive to buy one (by 1951, when his show’s popularity crested, almost one in every four homes had acquired a set).