Milton Berle, A night to remember!

Milton Berle, the comic who came from Vaudeville, radio and films, can truly be called “Mr. Television.” From 1948-54 he captured 80% of all T.V. viewers nationwide each Monday night. His influence was so overwhelming that nightclubs nationwide changed their closing night from Monday to Tuesday.

Restaurants were empty on Monday night and according to Berle In Detroit, an investigation took place when the water levels took a drastic drop in the city’s reservoirs, on Tuesday nights between 9 and 9:05 p.m. according to Berle “it was because everyone waited until the end of the Milton Berle Show before going to the bathroom.”

He had a wonderful comic mind, saying things like: 

“We owe a lot to Thomas Edison: If it wasn’t for him, we’d be watching television by candlelight.”

“Laughter is an instant vacation.”

“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”

“Money can’t buy you happiness, but it helps you look for it in more places.”

In the 50s and 60s, insult comedy was quite popular. The “king” of that genre was Don Rickles, whose razor sharp wit at times was borderline hurtful.

Berle tended to be more humorous in an insulting sort of way. Having a star like Berle as headliner on the Lowell Showboat was a big deal. He packed the grandstand, night after night.

Unfortunately, the Showboat Chorus was the act that preceded Milton. Each night we sang our medley of show tunes, accompanied by the Showboat Stage Band. It was a typical medley, with a spectacular “Hollywood” type ending and the chorus had learned it well. When we finished, we received thunderous applause from the appreciative thousands of spectators in the stands. It made The Chorus, the Band and I, very happy.

Opening Night

Next, the Interlocutor (the M.C.) stepped up to the mike and gave his introduction, ending with “And now ladies and gentlemen, direct from Hollywood, for your pleasure and entertainment, here is Mr. Showbiz himself, Milton Berle!” Enthusiastic applause greeted the Star.

His first couple of “jokes” were of the insult kind and they were aimed at the chorus who had just finished their “big” number. The audience and the chorus did not react well. These were their kids, their friends and their neighbors!

Insult comedy might work in sophisticated Hollywood, but in Lowell, in America’s heartland, the singers deserved applause, not ridicule! 

Instead of leaving it alone and changing his approach, he tried a couple more “insult lines” with the same result. He finally gave up and went to some of his other, safer material.

From where I was sitting I could see that the chorus members were really upset. Somebody had to try to mellow the situation. I decided to talk to Milton’s manager and see if he would talk to Uncle Milty to change his opening routine.

I tried, but the next night, and the night after that, Uncle Milty continued to open his monologue with the same insult comedy of the chorus, and they were getting angrier each night. Each evening as we made our little journey down the river to the front of the grandstand, I did my best to “settle everybody down” telling them that this was “Showbiz” and that’s the way it was done in Hollywood. They grumbled but promised me that they would behave.

Finally it was Saturday night; closing night. 

Coming down the river I was making my usual rounds on the showboat, checking that all was in readiness for our opening number. A fairly large wicker basket, stowed away in a corner, caught my attention. Curious, I asked someone standing nearby, “what’s in the basket?

I was told that “it just contained some street cloth for some of the guys who were going to a party after the show, and they didn’t want to go in their showboat outfits.” It sounded reasonable and considering that we were approaching the grandstand, there was no time to further investigate.

We pulled up in front of the grandstand, and the chorus did their choreographed procession to their seats.

The show moved along like clockwork. Everything clicked.

The Chorus Number went spectacularly well and the applause was the longest and loudest of the whole week. I was so proud of my group! 

As the M.C. began with his usual introduction, I began to hear the sound of ducks; but I dismissed it, thinking, “Why not ducks; after all, we are on a river.” Milton came out and started, one more time, with his insult comedy, denigrating the chorus.

There was some snickering and muffled laughter coming from the grandstand. It was then that I saw them, a whole bunch of baby ducks waddling across the stage, happily quacking away. Uncle Milty’s reaction was instantaneous. He used some very non-humorous barnyard language and stormed off the stage into the safety of the showboat, yelling to everyone who could hear that he was not going back out there, and that he was going to sue the showboat.

Fortunately, the showboat manager, normally a soft-spoken man, was on the boat, and he told Uncle Milty, in no uncertain terms, to “get your———back on the stage, if you expect to get paid! (I did not hear this personally, but I heard it from a very reliable source.)

Money speaks loudly, and Milton came back on stage and finished his act.

I later learned that one of the kids in the chorus had a relative that raised and sold ducks. The kids had purchased a couple dozen baby ducks for their “project” and promised that they would try to catch them after the show and release them in the Plat River.

I suspect that Uncle Milty never forgot that night on the Lowell Showboat, and neither did the chorus and (or) I.

Quack, quack!


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