by Larry Brody
NOTE FROM LB: Last week’s paean to Howdy Doody was so much fun that I can’t resist a few words about the first adult show I ever saw on TV. (Um, for the record, “adult” back in 1948 “adult” didn’t mean what it means now, so don’t be expecting too much, okay?)
Television wasn’t always the cultural giant it became.
But it didn’t take long – only a few years – for it to bestride the country like the Collassis of Rhodes.
All because of Uncle Miltie.
AKA Mr. Saturday Night.
And, later, just plain Mr. Television.
Howdy Doody sold tons of Bosco in the course of his career, but Milton Berle sold flatcar-loads of TV sets.
His popularity made advertisers and pundits, reporters and social critics stand up and take notice. Television is real. Television is here to stay.
Yes, Virginia, back in the early days of TV Luddites and naysayers abounded. They said television was a fad people would soon tire of. They said the audience would return to its “proper” sources of entertainment–radio and, of course, theatrical films.
Milton Berle, whose televised behavior often looked more chimp-like than human made monkeys out of them all.
Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle moved from CBS radio to NBC television in June of 1948. I was introduced to the show a few months later, at the home of my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle George.
Aunt Dorothy and Uncle George have never struck me as the pioneering type, but they were the first people I knew who had a TV set and my first television viewing experience was in their living room after a family dinner.
My cousin Janie and I were either playing together or fighting with each other. (It’s difficult to remember which because our families were very close and we spent so much time together that the two activities were interchangeable.) Suddenly Aunt Dorothy’s voice broke through our noise. “Oh my God! It’s seven o’clock. Somebody turn on the TV!”
Uncle George took up the cry. “Hurry! Turn it on! Turn it on!”
Janie’s sister Ila, who was several years older than we were and closing in on teenage-hood, joined in. “What’re you waiting for, Larry? Turn the television on!”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, but Janie did. “I’ll do it!” She shoved me aside and ran to a big box up against the wall behind me. I hadn’t noticed it before, but now I saw its looming presence and, in its center a tiny screen.
At one end of the room someone switched off the overhead light. At the other Janie turned one of the thick dials below the screen with a ka-chung and slowly but surely the TV screen rezzed to life, its darkness replaced by the illuminated man who created what two generations later was called “Must See TV.”
How can I describe this iconic presence?
How about this:
A hulking troglodyte in a long blonde wig, his face heavily rouged, his lips darkened and made enormous by thick lipstick, his body covered from chest to foot by a ruffled evening gown whose design emphasized padded breasts that strove to create an illusion only a starving baby hippo could love.
Yep, that was Uncle Miltie in drag. Traipsing around and smacking people. Being smacked and tripping and falling and bouncing back onto his feet—-just in time to catch a pie with his monstrous parody of a woman’s face while the studio audience howled.
If Howdy Doody was to become my childhood saviour, then Milton Berle for me was the Anti-Christ. The terror I felt later at the sight of Froggy the Gremlin was a pale shadow of the sheer horror struck into me by my first look at television’s first major star.
But all around me my family was laughing. My mother, my father, Aunt
Dorothy, Uncle George, Cousin Janie, and Cousin Ila were having even more fun than the folks in New York City who were at that very moment, live, falling out of their tiered seats.
I’d never seen anything like it. A grown man acting dumber than any dumb kid, doing things that if I had done them would’ve resulted not in gales of laughter but in a spanking.
Even though I was grossed out I was fascinated. There was something truly mesmerizing about the experience. Every mind in my vicinity was captured in a way I’d never seen before. Everyone I loved most was being sucked into the Texaco Star Theater world, along with a whole crowd of strangers.
What excruciating delight!
“Delight” because for the first time in my short but alienated life I saw a way to belong. I didn’t have to be alone. All I had to do was let go of my fear and let myself become part of the Milton Berle Overmind and I’d be one of the family, finding comfort and hilarity as a member in good standing of the greater whole.
I admit it. I succumbed. Not even in kindergarten yet, and I was already selling out. I sat down between my parents and giggled and chortled and barked.
Two weeks later the Brody family had a TV set of its own.
Literally millions of people across the country were introduced to television this same way and bought sets of their own so they could introduce others. Apocrypha based on Uncle Milie’s popularity abounds. No, it was more than mere “popularity.” It was total dominance.
Restaurants in cities across the U.S. closed Saturday nights because no one was going out to dinner. Instead they were staying home to watch you know who.
High schools switched basketball games from Saturday night to Friday night for the same reason. No one wanted to leave the house.
Movie theaters came up with outrageous giveaways to try and lure film fans in after five or six in the afternoon on Saturdays. And failed.
Saturday night bridge parties were either cancelled or held with the TV set on. Businesses that had used being open Saturday nights to gain an edge over the competition gave up the attempt. Even crime, it was rumored, went way down.
Bottom line: For three hours every Saturday (an hour before the show to settle in, the hour of being caught in the spell of the show, and an hour afterward to unwind) America stood still.
And it didn’t end there.
On Sundays friends talked to each about Uncle Miltie’s antics the night before, sharing their impressions and feelings about what they liked most. These conversations were held before Church. After Church. In Church.
On Mondays co-workers went at it, reminiscing and acting out their own versions of the skits in which Uncle Miltie, ever the victim, performed pratful after pratful for our sins.
On Tuesdays everyone was still feeling the reverberations of the latest show.
And making plans to watch together the coming Saturday night so that those poor unfortunates who didn’t yet have TV sets wouldn’t be deprived.
To be sure, variety shows weren’t new. The basic format of stand-up comedy, skits, songs, dances, and more comedy and skits (and songs and dances) was as old as the English Music Hall and a staple of American vaudeville and even radio.
But never had this kind of entertainment–or any other, succeeded on such a large scale.
The country usually referred to as, simply, America, became in all ways cultural, truly the United States.
And even a terrified little kid named Larry Brody was delighted to at last feel part of the crowd.