You think NBC's current Thursday night lineup is Must-See TV? Well, you clearly weren't around from 1948-1953, when Milton Berle's NBC variety hour Texaco Star Theater owned Tuesday nights. How popular was his outrageous shtick? When the city of Detroit investigated why water levels dropped dramatically at 9 pm on Tuesdays, they discovered that people waited until Texaco concluded to go to the bathroom. Store owners across America put up signs that read: "Closed tonight to watch Milton Berle." And Texaco was the only show not dropped to make room for coverage of Harry S. Truman's upset victory over Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 presidential election.
However, the biggest indication of Berle's phenomenal appeal is in this little factoid: When Texaco debuted in 1948, there were 500,000 TV sets in the U.S. When the show ended in 1953, there were 26 million.
Indeed, there was no bigger TV star than Berle who died Wednesday at the age of 93 after a year-long battle with colon cancer. His wife Lorna and other family members were by his side.
Berle's nine decade-long career included stints in vaudeville, movies, Broadway, nightclubs and radio. However, it was TV where he left his biggest mark. Dubbed "Mr. Television," he was known to most Americans simply as "Uncle Miltie."
"Milton literally reigned over TV from its earliest day to his dying day and he always looked better in a dress than Vivian Vance or Doris Roberts," notes Emmys author Tom O'Neil. "The one thing that was never a joke to Berle was TV making it hilariously perfect."
Here's how the rest of the entertainment community is remembering "The Thief of Bad Gags":
In a January 10, 1959 TV Guide cover story, Berle admitted he had an addiction to performing. "I'm the kind of greasepaint bum," he said, "not 'bum'; make that 'ham,' who likes to hear the sound of applause."