Texaco Star Theater, a comedy-variety show (radio, 1940-48; television, 1948-56), was one of the first successful examples of U.S. television broadcasting. Remembered best as the show that made a household name (and "Mr. Television") out of comedian Milton Berle, the show's root was radio---first, in a manic late-1930s version starring Ed Wynn; then, the classic 1940-44 version, hosted by radio titan Fred Allen; and, later, in a new version brought to ABC (the former NBC Blue) in the spring of 1948, before Texaco (now Chevron Corporation) first took it to television on NBC that June 8. And it would be on television that the show made its greatest pop culture impact.
Allen got Texaco Star Theater after his previous sponsors, Ipana toothpaste and Sal Hepatica laxative, decided to cease their tandem sponsorship of Allen's previously-successful hour, Town Hall Tonight. He presided over Texaco Star Theater from 1940-42 as an hour-long show on Wednesday and then Sunday nights, to 1942-1944, as a half-hour show, until Allen withdrew from work for over a year on his doctor's advice. (The humourist and ad-lib master battled hypertension/high blood pressure for much of his later life). It was during the half-hour version of the show that the more cerebral (if barbed) Allen premiered the continuing comic sketch for which many remember him best: the ensemble, topical takeoffs of "Allen's Alley."
Though some believe the title Texaco Star Theater was retired temporarily, in favour of Texaco Time, after Allen scaled the show back to half an hour, the show retained the Texaco Star Theater title officially, the confusion likely stemming from the announcers' first words of introduction: "It's Texaco time starring Fred Allen." They customarily continued the introduction, as the opening music continued, by referring to Texaco Star Theater. Before Jimmy Wallington held the slot, the show's announcer was first the future sidekick of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Harry Von Zell, and then a budding radio personality who would soon enough become another of the nation's beloved radio and television stars: Arthur Godfrey.
"Oh, we're the men of Texaco
We work from Maine to Mexico
There's nothing like this Texaco of ours!
Our show is very 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 may be showmen
Tomorrow we'll be servicing your cars!
We wipe your pipe
We pump your gas
We jack your back
We scrub your glass
So join the ranks of those who know
And fill your tanks with Texaco
Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief
You'll find that Texaco's the finest friend your car has ever had
...And now, ladies and gentlemen... America's number one television star... MILTON BERLE!..."
They didn't settle on Berle---who hosted a freshly-revived radio version in spring 1948---as the permanent host right away; he hosted the first television Texaco Star Theater in June 1948 but was originally part of a rotation of hosts (Berle himself had only a four-week contract), until he was named the permanent host that fall.
He was a smash once the new full season began, Texaco Star Theater hitting ratings as high as 80 and owning Tuesday night for NBC from 8-9 p.m. ET. And, as the show landed a pair of Emmy Awards in that first year (the show itself, for Best Kinescope Show; and, Berle as Most Outstanding Kinescoped Personality), Uncle Miltie (he first called himself by that name ad-libbing at the end of a 1949 broadcast) joked, preened, pratfell, danced, costumed, and clowned his way to stardom, with Americans discovering television as a technological marvel and entertainment medium seeming to bring the country to a dead stop every Tuesday night, just to see what the madcap Berle might pull next.
With Berle at the helm, Texaco Star Theater was credited heavily with driving American television set sales heavily; the number of TV sets sold during Berle's run on the show was said to have grown from 500,000 his first year on the tube to over 30 million when the show ended in 1956. Texaco Star Theater was also the highest rated television show of the 1950-1951 television season, the first season in which the Nielsen Ratings were used.
Uncle Miltie was far from alone in keeping the show alive and kicking. His support players included Fatso Marco (1948-1952), Ruth Gilbert (1952-1955), Bobby Sherwood (1952-1953), Arnold Stang (1953-1955), Jack Collins (1953-1955) and Milton Frome (1953-1955). The show's music was provided by Alan Roth (1948-1955) and Victor Young (1955-1956).
As phenomenally popular as Texaco Star Theater was, it was hardly an undisturbed appeal. "Berle presented himself as one part buffoon and one part consummate, professional entertainer--a kind of veteran of the Borscht Belt trenches," the Museum of Broadcast Communications would observe decades after the show left the air. "Yet even within his shows' sanctioned exhibitionism, some of Berle's behavior could cross the line from affability to effrontery. At its worst, the underlying tone of the Berle programs can appear to be one of contempt should the audience not respond approvingly. In some cases, this led to a surprising degree of self-consciousness about TV itself--Texaco's original commercial spokesman, Sid Stone, would sometimes hawk his products until driven from the stage by a cop. But the uneven balance of excess and decorum proved wildly successful."
Part of the problem was variety shows becoming costlier to produce, compared to the Texaco days when, among other factors, name guest stars didn't mind the low appearance fees they got for appearing, because they could bank the exposure they got from even one appearance on the Berle show; or, with Fred Allen and Ed Wynn in its earlier radio incarnations.
But part of the problem was Berle himself: with competition crowding him more and more as the years went on, as more television performers and creators found their camera legs, and brought new or at least more polished ideas to the air, Berle tried refining his camera persona and evolving from the freewheeling, manic style he cultivated so successfully in the Texaco years. The net result: The balance between excess and decorum now weighted more toward decorum, which wasn't exactly what Berle represented at the height of his popularity. He began losing many of his former fans, who preferred when he kept things more unpredictable, and it would be years before his kind of manic balance would find a television home again.
Note: Each U.S. network television season starts in late September and ends in late May, which coincides with the completion of May sweeps.
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As often happens those it inspired soon out-performed it, and Berle---once television's biggest single star---also became, as the Museum of Broadcast Communications phrased it, "the first TV personality to suffer from over-exposure and burnout." But for being there at the birth, and cutting the umbilical cord with such immediate and memorable effect, weaning a country from radio as its primary home entertainment medium, Texaco Star Theater earned its legend.