If you are ever introduced to Milton Berle, don't say, "I'm pleased to meet you." Because Berle, who is a comedian at all times, will probably turn on you and growl, "Why?"
Right now, one reason you might want to meet this thirty-four-year-old comic is that he has snagged the starring role in Broadway's new Ziegfeld Follies. Moreover, Berle, a product of New York's tenement district, is now a movie star and radio personality who can make $10,000 a week in vaudeville any time he wants to work that hard.
Having risen to this dizzy eminence, he wishes that people would forget that he used to have a reputation as a gag stealer. It was, however, a far-flung reputation. One comedian, passing a theater where Berle was working several years ago, remarked to a companion, "Let's go in here and catch my act." Fred Allen once sent Berle a bundle of pictures and a note that said, "You're using my act. You might as well put my photographs in the lobby, too." And when Berle was performing at what was once the vaudeville players' heaven, the Palace Theater in New York, some of the older comedians sent him angry telegrams saying, "Please eliminate such and such a routine from your act. I originated that." Finally, Comedian Phil Silvers dispatched Berle the following wire: "Please eliminate breathing first three minutes of your act — I've been doing that for years."
Berle used to enjoy being called The Thief of Bad Gags. He finds it a little irksome now. He is, however, so slavishly devoted to laughs that he will continue to call himself a gag burglar if it will get a laugh. After the Ziegfeld Follies opening recently, he was sitting at the ringside in a plush night club. He had just been lamenting that he couldn't shake the gag-stealing notoriety. Suddenly the master of ceremonies in the club lured him to the floor and after some ad libbing, mentioned Jack Benny's radio program of a few nights before.
"Was he funny!" roared Berle. "I laughed so hard I almost dropped my paper and pencil!"
It was one of his older jokes, but he couldn't resist using it, because he knew it was sure-fire still. Much of the gag-stealing legend was deliberately invented by Berle to keep his name before the public. Now he needn't rely on such methods. The former poor boy named Milton Berlinger now smokes expensive cigars, frets about salary ceilings, takes comfort in his annuities, and lives in swank surroundings. His mother, Mrs. Sarah Berlinger, a former store detective at Wanamaker's who used to be his manager, has maids, diamonds, ermine, mink, and sables.
Berle continues to get his greatest pleasure out of making up gags. He employs a whole stable of gag writers — pale-looking fellows who work at night and seldom see daylight.
Berle leaned heavily for his Follies material upon a writer named Joe Arons. Another contributor is Doug Whitney.
During an argument Berle once threatened to fire him. Yelled Whitney:
"You know what'll happen if I leave you?"
"What?" Berle yelled back.
"You'll go back to working for $7,500 a week."
Berle liked that gag so much he shrugged the argument.
When his writers convene these "nights in New York, an insane session ensues. They come into Berle's hotel suite carrying newspapers, for headlines are gag material. They look like the unfunniest people in the world. Without a word of greeting, they pile onto chairs and couches, open their collars, loosen their ties, and look sad. Berle stalks around the room. "What's topical?" he says.
"Lissen," says one of the gag men. "I don't have to sit here and let you tolerate me!"
"I resemble that remark!" growls another.
Those are just warm-up pitches, old malaprops Berle would hardly use except in the divest ad lib emergency. Berle scarcely notices them.
He is reading from a newspaper that a panhandler died leaving bank deposits of $50,000.
"I can use that as a build-up for a gag," he tells his stable. "I'll say I met a panhandler on the street the other day and he asked me for $20 for a cup of coffee. I asked him why he wanted so much. What does he say back?"
Immediately the gag writers chime in with answers. All are sour and unfunny. "How about you?" Berle says to Arons, whose nostrils quiver when he is about to utter a gag. Arons looks lost in thought. "I'm trying, ain't I?" he growls. "Keep punchin'," replies Berle.
Suddenly Arons starts quivering. "I got it," he says. "You ask him why he wants twenty dollars for a cup of coffee, and he says, 'Because I always take two lumps of sugar."'
The other gag writers nod approval. But not Berle. "Too many sugar gags," he says. "I got it — sssh! — nobody talk — I'll lose my thought. Here it is. I ask him why he wants twenty dollars for a cup of coffee and he says, 'Because I'm a heavy tipper."'
"A great line," says Arons. The others agree. Berle looks pleased. Arons scribbles the gag on a pad.
"Here's another one about the panhandler," says Berle. "I met him on the street — and recognized him as an old actor friend. I asked him if I could buy him some lunch. He said, 'But I haven't had breakfast yet.' I said, 'What's the difference?' He said, 'Listen. What are you trying to do — interfere with my schedule?"'
They write that down, too, and then go on gagging about panhandlers until they have about fifteen laughs — four of which must be very good. Then they arrange them in a fairly sensible sequence. The finished product is Berle's next radio monologue. It takes until dawn to complete it and the work is hard. Sometimes Berle shuts his eyes and pounds his forehead with his fists trying to bring out the gag. And when it does come forth, the others frequently sneer:
Berle stars in these gag sessions because he hates to be "topped." If one of his writers produces a good line, he struggles to do a better one. "It's the ham in me," he says.
Always they're trying to develop a "switch" on some old gag. Thus the oldest of the oldies becomes, "Who was that knight I saw you with last, lady?" Berle's specialties, though, are surprise jokes. For example, he tells about a fellow saying good night to his girl. "Darling," says the fellow, "since I've been having dates with you, I can't eat, I can't even sleep." The girl says, "Why?" The fellow replies, "Because I got no money."
Berle's really big success — leading up to his current triumph in the Follies — started a little over two years ago when he got his nose bobbed. Up to then he hadn't been very handsome. So he went to a plastic surgeon — "one of these guys that runs a clip joint for noses," Berle called him. He didn't try to keep the operation a secret. In fact he proclaimed the news to the world. Again it was anything for a laugh.
"It's a pretty good nose as noses run," he screamed at the audience the day he introduced the new fixture in a Newark theater. "Now that I've got this, I'm going to Hollywood to do some nosereels. One girl I know told me I look like Taylor. 'Sure,' I said, 'my tailor.' Anyway, I have a lot of fun on my own hook!"
In his dressing room that day he continued to kid himself about the new nose. Every time the phone rang with a local call he grabbed the receiver and shouted, "Yes, Hollywood. Oh, yes, Mr. Goldwyn ..." Yet, curiously enough, Hollywood did soon discover that he was pretty good-looking, and within a few weeks he was given a contract.
After an assortment of minor assignments he was finally starred in two pictures, Margin for Error and Over My Dead Body. But his pictures didn't give him enough chance for his special kind of comedy, so he came East and got in the Follies.
For Berle, Hollywood was one more place he could write gags about. When he returned to New York he said, "Things are certainly slow out there — Abbott and Costello haven't made a picture all day. And did I make pictures out there! Look at these snapshots! Hollywood gave me a swell new contract. Asked me if I would mind delivering it to Jimmy Cagney. What a trip I had coming in from California! I kissed Betty Grable so much my face went right through the picture frame. We made one stop while I went to an army camp, and what a welcome I got! The whole regiment got down on their knees. Boy, did we have a crap game!"
Berle can go on for hours like this — and invariably does. He is able to do it because he has a file of 850,000 jokes and a good memory for about 500 gags that he can call into play instantly. His conversation is filled with gags — or attempted gags. To the world that lies outside of gags and show business he doesn't pay much attention. The only books he reads are joke books.
For several years Berle was identified in the minds of many people as the comedian who had his mother sit in the audience and applaud his jokes. It's true that his mother was usually there. The largish grayhaired woman with the pince-nez was anxious to get the audience reaction to his material. But she was also part of the material. When there was a mere patter of hand clapping from one side of the house, Berle would say, "Thanks, mom." Sometimes that would bring a giggle from the other side. Jerking his head, he would say, "Oh, you moved!"
In that way Berle perpetuated the idea that his mother was out there working her palms to the bone. It wasn't good publicity — but it was publicity. The gag-stealing reputation, he says, came as a result of a meeting with a fellow comedian, the late Richey Craig, Jr., in the old Dave's Blue Room on Broadway. They discovered they were wearing identical suits.
Craig said, "You're not satisfied stealing my gags — now you're stealing my suits!"
Some one thought it was a good line and sent it to a columnist, who printed it and later tagged Berle The Thief of Bad Gags. Berle didn't care: anything to keep his name before the public. He knew he was going to be a great comedian some day. He seems to have been convinced of this since he was about five years old.
Recalling that childhood period now, Berle says, "Boy, those were hectic times, and when I say hectic, I mean exciting, because I don't know what hectic means. I won a cup for imitating Charlie Chaplin. It was worth one dollar, and was I proud! I used to take my relatives down to the pawnshop to see it."
The Berlingers were really poor. There were five children, and when Milton was still a baby his father was taken ill. His mother earned twentyfive dollars a week as a store detective, but that wasn't enough for a large family. They lived in a tenement building in Harlem.
Little Miltie clowned almost from the time he was born. When he was six his mother took him to the Vitagraph Studios, where he got his first acting job — a Little Lord Fauntleroy part. He was the child who was tied to the railroad tracks in The Perils of Pauline, and the one Marie Dressler clutched to her heart in Tillie's Punctured Romance.
He earned as much as fifty dollars a week. When he was thirteen he and a girl named Elizabeth. Kennedy formed a vaudeville team that toured the country. On his return to Harlem, Milton showed the neighbor kids pictures of Milton Sills and other big stars — with Miltie somehow squeezed into the photograph. He became a neighborhood big shot.
Soon he hired himself a "secretary" — another kid — whose job it was to clip and file jokes. Milton branched into a "single." When he was fifteen he was commanding up to $150 a week. He studied gags, both his own and other comedians', and finally made the Palace when another comic became ill. He was an enormous hit and stayed for several weeks. He was then twenty-two.
Since then Berle has often astonished theater managers in the larger cities with his drawing power. In Chicago once, the management of the Oriental hesitated to meet his demand for $10,000 a week and asked him to take 50 per cent of the receipts instead. Berle was willing to gamble. The gross for the week was $39,600 — so Berle got $19,800 for the week instead of $10,000. Today his earnings from stage, screen, and radio approach the fabulous. He is receiving a fat percentage of the gross receipts of the Follies.
Berle is married to beautiful Joyce Mathews, a former Hollywood actress. A friend maintains that when Berle proposed to her he said, "I want you for my wife," and, before she could answer him, quickly followed through with the old vaudeville punch line, "What on earth would your wife do with me?"
The Berles have a home in Beverly Hills. Milton has a total of fourteen people on his weekly payroll, but seldom has a dime in his pocket. It's the job of one of the employees to pay all bills. Though Berle is old enough now to manage most of his affairs, his mother — who's sixty-five — is still constantly asked for advice.
People who have followed the Berle career feel that it's the devotion — and shrewdness — of his mother that have brought him along the road to fame. And they tell a good story in that connection. One night, they say, she discovered there was a man in the front row taking down Milton's gags in a notebook. Leaving her seat, she marched down the aisle, snatched the notebook from the man, and chased him out of the theater. "Trying to steal Milton's jokes!" she cried. "Shame on you!"
Publication Date: March 20, 1943