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A Look Back At How Milton Berle And Ed Sullivan Captivated Audiences With Variety


This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli is usually looking ahead, offering previews of new shows. But today he's looking back - way back - to remember the anniversaries this month of two of the earliest and most significant shows in TV history. One starred a vaudeville comic named Milton Berle, and the other was hosted by a New York newspaper columnist named Ed Sullivan. Here's David.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: On TV these days - whenever someone comes up with an unexpected hit, imitations are sure to follow. That was true on TV in those days, too - way back at the beginning in the late 1940s after the end of World War II. Fred Allen, a top-rated radio comedian who never figured out how to transfer his popularity to the new medium of TV, used to say imitation is the sincerest form of television. And television proved just that 70 years ago by having not one but two major hits in a new genre premiering within weeks of one another.

On June 8, 1948, the NBC network launched a variety series sponsored by an oil company. It was called "Texaco Star Theatre," and the original plan was to have a series of rotating hosts. But from the very first time the initial host, an old vaudeville comic named Milton Berle, took the stage and stood in front of the NBC cameras, the show became his. So did the new medium of television. Variety shows back then were an old staple of radio. Hosts made jokes and made room for guest stars who sang or joked or both not only with them but often with the show's resident company of supporting players.

Yet Milton Berle became known as Mr. Television because he was the reason most people back then bought their first TV sets. And he did that because he didn't just transplant the variety show from radio. He adapted it, too, by making it intensely, intentionally visual. You had to see Milton Berle's show to really enjoy the full impact, and that even went for the crisply uniformed men of Texaco who introduced each episode of "Texaco Star Theatre" by singing about the services they'd provide if you drove your car into one of their gas stations. Boy, was that a different era.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) Oh, we're the men of Texaco. We work from Maine to Mexico. There's nothing like this Texaco of ours. Our show tonight is powerful. We'll wow you with an hour full of howls from a shower full of stars. We're the merry Texaco men. Tonight we might be showmen. Tomorrow we'll be servicing your cars.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) I wipe the pipe. I pump the gas. I rub the hub. I scrub the glass.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) I touch the clutch. I mop the top. I poke the toke. I sell the pop.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (Singing) I clear the gear. I block the knock. I jack the back. I set the clock.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #4: (Singing) So join the ranks of those who know and fill your tanks with Texaco.

BIANCULLI: The men of Texaco were there quite literally to sing the praises of the show's sponsor. But they also were there to introduce the host who started each week's live show by walking onstage in front of an excited and expectant studio and TV audience in some crazy sort of elaborate costume. This was no radio gag. It was purely visual, and fans bought TV sets by the millions just to see what Berle might wear next, like the time he was escorted onstage in full makeup, carrying a bouquet and wearing a wig and a wedding dress. You can hear by the studio audience's reaction they were seeing something fresh and outrageous. So were the viewers at home.


UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: And now, ladies and gentlemen, introducing America's number one television star...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Your June bride...



BIANCULLI: Berle's connection to his audience was immediate. They loved his ad-libs, his unpredictability, his sense of fun. For example, it wasn't long after he walked out in that wedding dress that he threw his bouquet right at the studio audience.


MILTON BERLE: Before I go any further, the girl who catches the lucky bouquet is going to be the next bride. Mother, will you put down your hands?


BERLE: Here we are now.


BERLE: That's a girl?


BERLE: Adam (ph), that's a good catch. Don't you wish you were? I...

BIANCULLI: By the end of that year, Milton Berle's show was seen each Tuesday night by an estimated 80 percent of all people who owned televisions. That's astounding, which explains why - within a few weeks of the premiere of NBC's "Texaco Star Theatre" - the brand new CBS network quickly unveiled a variety show of its own. It was hosted by Ed Sullivan. It was called "Toast Of The Town." It premiered on June 20, 1948, and essentially was a TV version of an old vaudeville show with one act following another. A comic telling jokes, a singer from her Broadway musical, a guy spinning plates - they all had a place on Ed Sullivan's show. That recipe proved so popular that in 1955, "Toast Of The Town" was renamed "The Ed Sullivan Show." And it lasted throughout the '60s, including - in February 1964 - the episode that, at the time, was the most viewed entertainment show in TV history, introducing a new rock group from England.


ED SULLIVAN: The city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves the Beatles. Now, tonight you're going to be twice entertained by them - right now and again in the second half of our show. Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: One, two, three, four, five.

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Close your eyes, and I'll kiss you. Tomorrow, I'll miss you. Remember I'll always be true. And then while I'm away, I'll write home every day. And I'll send all my loving to you. I'll pretend...

BIANCULLI: Today, the variety show on TV is dead, even though every couple years someone valiantly tries to revive it. One reason these modern attempts have failed is that they have the wrong hosts or formats or both. Martin Short and Maya Rudolph on NBC came closest a few years ago but not close enough. And the other reason is that in this modern TV universe, where viewers can and do watch what they want and when they want to watch it, sitting through a variety of unfamiliar acts can seem less like entertainment than a waste of time. But 70 years ago this month, Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan led the way, entertained the nation and exemplified the potential and powerful reach and impact of this medium called television.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and author of "The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific." He teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. On Monday's show, the powers, perversions and potential of heredity. New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer tells us how current, state-of-the-art genetic research can help us understand the absurdity of racism, change the genetic makeup of an embryo before it's implanted and potentially eliminate some diseases. His new book is "She Has Her Mother's Laugh." Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR''s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Terry Gross returns Monday. I'm Dave Davies.


David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.