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TV History: Milton Berle

by Christine Becker

This clip was uploaded for an assignment in Christine Becker's FTT 30461: History of Television class at the University of Notre Dame in Spring 2019. Check the commentary dropdown menu for a student's analysis of the clip.

by Jack Emory

Where's Frankie? Where's the Audience?

by Jack Emory

Mr. Television, Milton Berle, dominated early television programming by way of hosting The Texaco Star Theater. The variety show ran from 1948 until 1956 on NBC. This 1953 episode featuring Frank Sinatra is typical of the series and the variety show genre. The vaudevillian influenced variety show was “highly popular on radio [in] the 1930s and was especially popular in early television” (Spigel 20). Audiences would enjoy songs, extravagant costumes, large sets, jokes and quips, and direct address from the performers; all of which can be found in this short clip. The Texaco Star Theater paved the path for variety shows on TV, and three years after its debut, variety shows accounted for one-third of all primetime programming (Edgerton 117). Those other programs also starred veteran vaudeville performers. This particular episode exists at a threshold for the genre and The Texaco Star Theater. The variety show, while not losing popularity altogether, slowly became less fashionable. The Texaco Star Theater was the nation's number one program for its first three seasons, however, it was the nation’s fifth top program by season five in 1953 (Edgerton 114). This episode, and this clip, exemplify why audiences were drawn to the show initially and why audiences were slowly leaving it behind. Early season popularity was due to two main factors. The first is that the program was perfectly produced for its early audience. The show was being shot in New York City, which happened to be the location of most television viewers. Early television audiences were located in urban areas, they were relatively diverse, and they were social (often watching in shop windows or bars). Vaudevillian tradition and Berle did not struggle appealing to this demographic. The clip beings with the second half of a song that featured three characuratures of immigrants (an Italian woman, a French man, and a Scottish man) singing the praises of “America, God’s Country” as they disembark the boat. The clip shows the largely diverse chorus, led by Frank Sinatra, singing to the tune of “America the Beautiful”. An analogue for ethnic populations being connected and assimilated in New York City. A further appeal to an urban demographic is the presence of Frank Sinatra. His banter, in particular, implies an informed, cosmopolitan audience. For example, Sinatra uses the word “paisan”, slang for an Italian person, to reference Christopher Columbus. Berle retorts by insinuating that Sinatra meant Vincent Impellitteri, the mayor of New York City at the time. Another gag includes a reference to Sinatra’s then wife Ava Gardner and confusion around her status as a mother. These are not jokes reflecting a relatable domestic life, they require the urban audience. The second reason for Berle’s early popularity is the pairing of vaudeville variety acts with the liveness of television. The excitement of a vaudeville show, with musical acts, timed gags, and an unpredictable flow of skits, is heightened by liveness. Not only was The Texaco Star Theater live, but it was exceedingly joyful and friendly. The clip shows what seems to be a much anticipated reunion of two old friends, Berle and Sinatra. Later, musician Bobby Sherwood joins the reunion. The authenticity of these relationships is irrelevant; it is important to realize that the liveness and the intimacy of television invites the audience into a friendship with these stars. Early television strove to sustain “the spectator’s imaginary sense of being placed on the scene” (Spigel 16). Audiences were drawn to television for its intimate liveness, and they were rewarded with front row seats at a televisual live theater. In this case, the audience is rewarded with a front row seat to a Frank Sinatra show. When Berle sings “I’m waiting for Frankie, now where can he be?”, the answer may be “America” or “ the boat” or “The Texaco Star Theater”. However, Frank Sinatra is also in front is massive television audiences; television audiences that benefit from liveness. This episode’s production was perfect for an early, urban television audience. However, that is exactly why the program began to slip in popularity. Just a few years after The Texaco Star Theater debuted, television began its journey to become a national medium (Edgerton 124). As Americas migrated into suburban spaces, television households spiked from less than one million in 1948 to nearly 35 million in 1956, the exact run of The Texaco Star Theater (Edgerton 124).This episode ran in 1953, but other programming was adjusting to television’s shifting audience by 1951-1952. Meaning, other variety acts were incorporating domestic narratives into their shows (Spigel 20). Domestic audiences were no longer satisfied with cosmopolitan jokes, ethnic representations, and an oversaturated variety show market. Instead, suburban audiences wanted television to represent their own lives; representation that would eventually come in the domestic sitcom. Burn and Allen blended the variety show with the domestic sitcom by performing in a domestic set on a stage (Spigel 17). There were still fourth wall breaks and skits, but the stories were driven by domestic conflict. Most of the new television viewers to come from the early 1950s boom were suburban families, and their representation in hybrid variety shows, like Burns and Allen, or domestic sitcoms helped push the variety show out of fashion. Television’s ability to represent its audience is what makes it popular and profitable. Milton Berle was excellent at exciting early, urban audiences through his live, vaudevillian variety show. However, as suburban households became the dominant TV viewers, Berle’s style, seen in this episode of The Texaco Star Theater from 1953, was unable to adapt to new audience demands. Thus, through the 1950s, the variety show lost its popularity to programming for domestic audiences. Works Cited Edgerton, Gary R. The Columbia History of American Television. Columbia University Press, 2009. Spigel, Lynn. “Installing the Television Set”. Private Screenings. University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Excerpt From Texaco Star Theater

This clip is an excerpt from an episode of Milton Berle's TEXACO STAR THEATER featuring Frank Sinatra.

from Texaco Star Theater - Frank Sinatra 2/2/1953 (1953)
Creator: Milton Berle
Distributor: YouTube (User: balsamwoods)
Posted by Christine Becker