Channeling Those ‘Pioneers’

If Milton Berle looked comfortable in a dress, why not a coonskin cap?

As one of the "Pioneers of Television," Uncle Miltie of the millions was a Jewish Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier that was the Philco TV in our house, where "Our Crowd" was crowded into the living room, family and friends jamming in to see the only TV set on the street.

And there he was, the toothy tomcat of a comic who wore his Borscht Belt belt loosely around his drop-the-pants humor that would make the Texaco Star Theatre — and Star of David Berle — a weekly Tuesday-night obsession.

See for yourself Wednesday night, when "Variety" gets its spice-of-life spot in the PBS series produced and directed by Steve J. Boettcher and broadcast by WHYY-TV12.

"Berle was the first person I interviewed for the series," recalls the producer, whose other TV credits include "The Gold Rush" before he struck gold with this four-part series ("Game Shows" is the focus of the fourth and final episode on Jan. 23.) "What I noticed about Berle was his tenacity; you couldn't ask for someone more tenacious."

He thinks for a minute. "Well, maybe his mother," he kibitzes of the woman who was a legendary influence on the comic.

"Milton and I had a grandfather-grandson kind of relationship; we hit it off well" back in 1996 for their interviews, he says.

Did Berle, as famously as he did with others, hit Boettcher up for some jokes to pass off as his own?

"No," says Boettcher with a laugh, "I didn't have anything worth stealing."

Ah, but the stolen moments of TV history are many in this series, with Sid Caesar showing why his "Show of Shows" still places as a perennial classic.

"I was humbled by him," notes Boettcher of the "man who was truly the epitome of pioneering."

The "Variety" segment features a variety of talents, many noticeably Jewish. After all, there was Caesar's salad of sidekicks: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, the treasured triple-play of punchliners.

"There was something about this Jewish … tenacity," recalls the producer of the writers as pie-in-the-sky pioneers, "and their deep, deep love for theater."

But there were others, of course, whose talent — or, in the case of Ed Sullivan, talentlessness as a performer — helped shape the unrefined medium into something well done. (The Smothers Bros. refused to smother controversy, which may explain why their show was gone in the blink of a CBS eye.)

Others made history and, on occasion, hateful histrionics.

"I did hear stories" about Arthur Godfrey's anti-Semitic penchants, "but, when I broached the subject, his estate didn't want to say anything about it."

Say what you will — and many of the variety hosts did, with Jack Paar above par in his sensitivity to what the networks would not allow him to say on stage — but some finger-lickin' news was made live on air. No, there's nothing on the series about Jackie Mason's firing from the Sullivan show for "misuse" of finger — for which the Catskill comic was later exonerated and invited back on — but there was the sense, as expressed by comedian Jerry Stiller on camera, that, when it came to Sullivan's sense of propriety, "you had to tread lightly."

Boettcher is treading triumphantly, leaving some proud footprints in the TV sands with this series. What's he game for after this four-parter ends with game shows next time out?

"Another series that would cover sci-fi, crime dramas and Westerns," says the man who's magnificently mined the bonanza that is pioneering TV. 



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