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":Don Rickles "From the first days of my career, he was one of my comedic heroes. He was always a great mentor. His style of comedy will never be replaced."
David Bianculli, TV critic, New York Daily News "There will never be — there never was — anyone quite like him."
Sid Caesar "Milton Berle will be sorely missed. He was 'Mr. Television' and also a friend."
Buddy Hackett "He was always fun to be around. And if you listened, you could always learn. He just cared about the show. He only thought show business. Everything was show business. Opening and closing and everything in between."
Irwin Schaefer, president of the Friar's Club "Milton Berle put it all together. This was Milton's home away from home and he came here to relax. Milton held court every day (and) he was here up until three weeks ago."
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan "He brought a special brand of talent that will never be forgotten. We thank him for all the memories. My love and prayers go to his family."
Bob and Dolores Hope "What a remarkable man, what a remarkable career. Eighty-eight years in show business, a brilliant comedian, an accomplished actor, a lifelong friend."
Johnny Carson "Milton Berle had a great influence on most of the comedians today, including me. He was a true original."
Robert Bianco, TV critic, USA Today "Milton Berle didn't just dominate early TV. He helped TV dominate the entertainment world."
Bob Wright, NBC's chairman and CEO "NBC's first TV superstar, Milton Berle did more than any other individual to bring television to the nation. In the early years, there were Tuesday nights when virtually every television set in the country was tuned in to see 'Mr. Television,' a phenomenon never to be repeated. We mourn his passing and offer our sympathies to the Berle family and to his legions of fans."
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."Even after his passing, the clapping is sure to continue.