NEW YORK - Milton Berle faces a room full of people in tuxes and gowns. He thanks them for coming and for bestowing on him his zillionth honor.
At age 88, Milton Berle just won't quit. In his astringent, blaring voice, he goes on to recount an exchange between "two guys over 90," one of whom is recently remarried. No, the man admits, his bride is hardly a looker, she can't cook and she's none too great in the bedroom.
"So why did you marry her?"
"Because she drives at night!"
With some 20 minutes of such gags and shtick did Mr. Berle return the favor, as the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recently gave "Mr. Television" his first Lifetime Achievement Award.
Attendees, each of whom had paid several hundred dollars to pay homage, heard Mr. Berle lionized by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Golden Girl Bea Arthur, even-older-than-Berle funnyman Henny Youngman and who-knew-he-was-funny Hugh Downs, who made special mention of Mr. Berle's generosity.
"Earlier this year, I had surgery for double-knee replacements," Downs said. "Milton Berle was my donor."
Then veteran comic Joey Adams weighed in.
"There's only one Milton Berle," he declared. "I found that out by looking in the telephone directory."
But dust from ancient jokes like that had no time to settle. There was too much to unearth from Mr. Berle's long career.
He 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 Mr. Berle's unshakeable 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, but which 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. But no one has outright owned that TV hour, or any other, like Mr. Berle, who on Sept. 21, 1948, became host of the Texaco Star Theater. And an instant sensation.
Mr. 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, winning 16 percent a few weeks ago made ER the top-rated series for the week.
Granted, the total number of TVs was minuscule in those days. There were only a half-million when Mr. Berle went on the air; today, the number of homes with at least one TV totals 97 million.
But if Mr. Berle's reach seems picayune by today's standards, his impact helps account for why today TV is everywhere. It was Mr. Berle who lit the fuse.
Back then, he guaranteed viewers something irresistible 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). Meanwhile, his riotous acceptance demonstrated to other, more chary entertainers that television was the Promised Land after all.
"From Burns to Benny to Gleason, they asked me at first, `What are you doing this for?"' Mr. Berle tells a reporter. "I said, `Well, we gotta go with the progress.' I'm proud of having the guts, or whatya call chutzpah, to be the first one to jump into TV and take a shot."
But it's more than that and always will be, which is why Milton Berle is worth remembering (as if he would ever let us forget).
It's why he's Mr. Television. Mr. Berle does nothing less than help explain TV for all of us who watch it. He helps explain the viewer in us to ourselves.
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