“Mr. Television” Hosts the

As host of the Texaco Star Theater, the most popular variety show in the history of television, Milton Berle earned the sobriquet “Mr. Television” and helped define early television stardom.

Summary of Event

During the early years of television, the most popular hour of the week arguably was Tuesday night from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m. It was during that hour that Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, was broadcast by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Texaco Star Theater (television program)
Television;variety shows
Variety shows, television
[kw]”Mr. Television” Hosts the Texaco Star Theater (June 8, 1948-Spring, 1953)[Mr. Television Hosts the Texaco Star Theater]
[kw]Texaco Star Theater, “Mr. Television” Hosts the (June 8, 1948-Spring, 1953)[Texaco Star Theater, Mr. Television Hosts the]
Texaco Star Theater (television program)
Television;variety shows
Variety shows, television
[g]North America;June 8, 1948-Spring, 1953: “Mr. Television” Hosts the Texaco Star Theater[02540]
[g]United States;June 8, 1948-Spring, 1953: “Mr. Television” Hosts the Texaco Star Theater[02540]
[c]Radio and television;June 8, 1948-Spring, 1953: “Mr. Television” Hosts the Texaco Star Theater[02540]
Berle, Milton
Stone, Sid
Gilbert, Ruth
Marco, Fatso
Stang, Arnold

Early television was a medium dominated by humor. Television;comedies
Comedies;television In 1952, for example, nearly half of network programming was comedy based, either situation comedies or comedy-variety shows. Much of the comedy was heavily influenced by the styles and formats of vaudeville. The perception of those watching the small screen was that they were observing a theatrical performance.

Beginning in the early days of radio, most programming involved production by single sponsors or advertising agencies. In 1948, Texaco, a leading oil company, was interested in sponsoring a show. Myron Kirk Kirk, Myron of Madison Avenue’s Kudner Agency contacted Milton Berle on Texaco’s behalf. The result was the Texaco Star Theater, Texaco Star Theater (radio program) which aired on Wednesday nights on American Broadcasting Company (ABC) radio.

Berle already had his eye on television. Berle had spent most of his life as an entertainer, starting at the age of five, and he saw the potential in television as a medium of entertainment. He had been among the first to perform on television, having appeared in experimental broadcasts as early as 1929. Berle pushed for a television show, and Texaco agreed to sponsor one.

The program as originally envisioned by the sponsor was to be a seven-act vaudeville show performed on television. Hosts would rotate weekly until a permanent headliner was chosen. Berle hosted the first show, on June 8, 1948. Programs were performed before a studio audience. During the early years, cameras were mounted on portable platforms, and the studio audience often could not even see the stage. It was not until 1952 that the studio audience was provided with monitors.

The first show was aired on NBC’s flagship station in New York, WNBT, and the seven station affiliates on the East Coast. Other performers who hosted the show, on a rotating basis, during the summer of 1948 included Morey Amsterdam, Jack Carter, Peter Donald, Georgie Price, Harry Richman, and Henny Youngman. Clearly, however, Berle was the most popular. By September, Berle had become the permanent host.

During the first year of the show, Berle hosted thirty-nine Tuesday-night shows for NBC in addition to thirty-nine shows for ABC radio on Wednesday nights. The basic format for the show varied little from week to week and mimicked the old vaudeville style. Generally, a half dozen or so guests appeared each week. They might be comedians, singers, or acrobats. Each show began with the four “Texaco Service Men” singing the Texaco jingle. Berle would then come onstage, usually dressed in an outlandish costume of some sort.

Berle’s performances were the highlights of the show. With his rubbery face and broad slapstick humor, Berle instinctively brought to the new medium what was needed to increase its popularity: innovation. One week he would be a Mexican bandit, the next a cancan dancer or Carmen Miranda’s sister. He wore elaborate evening gowns, accompanied by layers of makeup. Pies were thrown in his face. He was a master at pratfalls. He sang with his guests, danced with his guests, and once even ate the fruit from Carmen Miranda’s headpiece during her act.

Berle’s joke file was said to contain between fifty thousand and two million bits of material, much of it in the form of outlandish puns. Since not all of it was original, Berle also earned the title of “Thief of Badgags.”

The show was aired live and was not infrequently the victim of faulty props or defective plots. Once, when playing the part of a June bride, Berle’s bridal train was caught on the backdrop as it rolled up. Fatso Marco, playing the groom, was left speechless, so Berle ad-libbed his way through the scene. During another show, on which the guests included an elephant act, the animals did what animals often do after a meal. The elephant show was followed by a dancing act, in which the performers slid their way through their performance.

The finale of the program generally ran about sixteen minutes. During this period, the guests would sing, play the piano, or carry out some other performance. The show would then conclude with Berle singing his theme song, “Near You.” During an ad-lib at the conclusion of one show, Berle referred to himself as “Uncle Miltie,” another sobriquet with which he would be associated.

From 1948 to 1952, the format of the show changed little. More emphasis was placed on Berle and his gags, but since the show earned top ratings in its first three seasons, there seemed little reason for the format to be altered. By 1951, however, other shows and performers had entered the medium, and ratings began to drop. Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts became the top-rated program of the 1951-1952 season. In the fall season of 1952, Berle changed the form of the show. Fewer guests appeared, and each show was built around a central comedy plot. In 1953, Texaco dropped its sponsorship, and the show became the Buick-Berle Show. From 1954 to 1956, the title was simply The Milton Berle Show. Milton Berle Show, The (television program) It alternated with various other programs in its time slot. By 1956, the show was dropped from the Tuesday-night lineup, as the interests of the viewing public moved into other areas.


When Milton Berle made his debut as host of Texaco Star Theater in 1948, television was an entertainment medium primarily for the rich. Mass marketing of sets was still in its infancy. Fewer than 190,000 televisions were believed to be owned by the general public, and programming offered little variety.

This all changed with the weekly appearance of Berle. Viewers who saw his program in bars or on displays in stores decided that they too should own a set. At least one magazine reported that during the years of Berle’s show more than twenty-one million sets were purchased by the general public. It was estimated that at the show’s peak, more than 80 percent of television sets in use while the show was on were turned to Texaco Star Theater. It became clear that television was an entertainment source in its own right, one that could compete effectively with films or other means of relaxation. One could justifiably argue that the American national obsession with television began with Milton Berle.

The Texaco Star Theater was only the first of a long line of comedy and variety shows. Other networks and other sponsors, observing the success of Berle’s form of slapstick, developed show formats that bore a striking similarity to that developed by Berle. Among the most successful of these shows, also on NBC, was Your Show of Shows, Your Show of Shows (television program) featuring stars such as Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Carl Reiner and young writers such as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen. All would later make a significant impact in the entertainment industry. In a sense, the presence of comedy-variety shows on NBC was the continuation of a tradition, since the most popular comedy-variety shows on radio had also been found on NBC.

The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was to offer its own version of comedy-variety show, initially titled Toast of the Town. First broadcast in 1948, it became The Ed Sullivan Show in 1955. With his stiff gestures and no-nonsense approach, Sullivan Sullivan, Ed by no means imitated the visual comedy associated with Berle, but the variety format represented a continuation of that initiated by the comedian.

Other successful comedy-variety shows first shown on CBS included those hosted by Ed Wynn, Red Skelton, and Jackie Gleason. Although the presence of these shows was in part a response to Berle, it was also only natural that the style and format associated with decades of stage or vaudeville entertainment be carried over to television.

For a variety of reasons, mostly economic, both CBS and the newer ABC network evolved toward situation comedies in response to the success of NBC. The late 1940’s and early 1950’s saw the first appearance on television of shows such as The Goldbergs, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and I Love Lucy on CBS and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Make Room for Daddy on ABC.

The situation comedies Situation comedies , or “sitcoms,” differed in significant ways from the comedy-variety form of entertainment. Each sitcom episode was based on a recurring theme, such as a home, workplace, or family. The same characters appeared each week, and the comedy was based on the interactions between the stars. Guest stars played a secondary role to the main characters.

Situation comedies were generally produced on film rather than broadcast live. Since most sitcoms involved a package of thirty-nine episodes each season, they could be shown as repeats during the summer break or sold to other television market areas. It was some years before variety shows such as Berle’s were filmed, and most of these early shows are forever lost.

One cannot ignore the impact of success on Berle himself. Berle had been a moderately successful vaudeville, movie, and nightclub entertainer for thirty-five years when he began his radio program for Texaco. Once he began hosting Texaco Star Theater, however, his became a household name. Among the items marketed under the Berle name or face were comic books, T-shirts, and chewing gum. His appearance on other programs cost the sponsor up to $1,000 per minute.

In 1951, NBC signed Berle to an exclusive thirty-year contract. Under the terms of the contract, NBC had the exclusive rights to Berle’s acting, producing, directing, and writing. In return, Berle was guaranteed an annual income of $200,000, whether or not he worked. The contract actually was the result of a compromise. Berle had hoped to have his shows filmed, allowing for later telecasting of the reruns, with appropriate residuals for its host. The network refused, but the thirty-year contract assured Berle of the financial security he desired. The downside, not initially apparent, was that when NBC decided not to use Berle, he could not work elsewhere.

Berle continued with his show on NBC, under different names and different formats, until 1969. Texaco continued its sponsorship until the end of the 1952-1953 season, when it dropped Berle’s show in favor of one starring Jimmy Durante and Donald O’Connor on alternate weeks. Buick became the sponsor of Berle’s show. For the 1955-1956 season, The Milton Berle Show moved its operation from New York to Hollywood, becoming one of the first color variety shows being broadcast from California. RCA Whirlpool and Sunbeam signed on as sponsors. Among the guest stars appearing on the show was a new singer named Elvis Presley.

It is easy to forget that the success of television was by no means assured in its early years. The Texaco Star Theater was an experiment. Its success came about because the visual comedy of the host meshed so perfectly with the vaudeville concept of the program. The modern variety show was probably inevitable and would no doubt have evolved even in the absence of Milton Berle, but there can be no doubt that its appearance was significantly hastened as a result of Berle and that his success on television speeded the acceptance of television as entertainment. Texaco Star Theater (television program)
Television;variety shows
Variety shows, television

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. 8th rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. Contains descriptions of all prime-time shows from the inception of television. An excellent description of Texaco Star Theater is provided, including a list of major entertainers associated with Berle’s shows.
  • Fireman, Judy, ed. TV Book. New York: Workman, 1977. An entertaining book that consists of discussions on the history of television and reminiscences of scores of stars. Milton Berle provides a number of anecdotes associated with Texaco Star Theater. Numerous photographs.
  • Lyman, Darryl. Great Jews on Stage and Screen. Middle Village, N.Y.: Jonathan David, 1987. A collection of biographies, including that of Berle. Contains a succinct description of Berle’s show business career, including a list of major stage, screen, and television performances.
  • McCrohan, Donna. Prime Time, Our Time. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima, 1990. Provides a decade-by-decade description of the development of television programming. Much of the book is presented as social history.
  • MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. An excellent history of the medium, particularly of the early years. An entire section is devoted to the history of early vaudeville-type shows and the evolution of the situation comedy. Much space is devoted to a description of Berle’s impact.
  • McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. Provides a thorough yet succinct description of all major television programs from 1948 on.
  • Rose, Brian G., ed. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Describes various television genres, such as police shows and Westerns. A thorough discussion is provided on the historical development of each area of programming. Bibliographical surveys and videographies.
  • Slide, Anthony. Eccentrics of Comedy. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1998. Profiles of a dozen major figures in comedy, of whom Berle is the first. Written by a major film and television historian. Filmography and index.

FCC Licenses Commercial Television

ABC Begins Its Own Network Television Service

Variety Shows Dominate Television Programming

Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity

Golden Age of Television

I Love Lucy Dominates Television Comedy

Seven of the Top Ten Television Series Are Westerns

Situation Comedies Dominate Television Programming