Today in History: June 8

For several years in a row, if one encountered a television set on a Tuesday night in America, and if that television set was turned on, it was tuned to NBC and Texaco Star Theatre hosted by Milton Berle. On June 8, 1948, when the show and its new host made their debut, finding a television set was easier dreamed about than done: fewer than a million were owned in the entire country.

By the end of Berle’s run in 1956, some 30 million sets had been purchased in the subsequent years and many sources pay him at least partial credit for this sales success. The show had been a hit on NBC radio with Fred Allen as host; on TV, it was career-defining, for Berle certainly, but for the executives who hired him as well.

When television ratings were instituted in 1950, Texaco Star Theatre came in first and was earning an astonishing ratings share of between half and two-thirds of the available audience every week, records that will not be touched by any regularly scheduled program. Thus it is believed that in 1948 and 1949 the show was topping 90 percent of the audience share.

In the summer of 1948, Berle was one of two full-time hosts; the late Jack Carter (he died last June) was the other host, but audience response for Berle, a 40-year-old show business lifer who had not quite yet hit the big time, made the decision for NBC executives and he landed the hosting job for himself permanently for the next several years. And then by 1956, he was the television era’s first has-been, a victim of that rarest sort of failure: too much success.

Here is an entire episode, from March 1949, when the show was at the height of its popularity:

 
It is almost an hour long. Today’s trivia: when Berle makes his entrance, at around 1:55, one hears a woman’s uproarious laugh, and Berle addresses her: “Lady, please.” It was a weekly ritual between Berle and his mother, Sadie, who was the woman who laughed too hard.

* * * *
Joseph Walker, a pilot who twice took the X-15 above 62 miles and thus into space, died 50 years ago today. NASA awarded him astronaut wings, posthumously, in 2005.

* * * *
Frank Lloyd Wright was born on this date in 1867. Francis Crick was born 100 years ago today. George Kirby was born on this date in 1923. Joan Rivers was born on this date in 1933.

* * * *
Barbara Bush is 91 today. Jerry Stiller is 89 today. James Darren is 80 today. Bruce McCandless is 79 today. McCandless was the astronaut who in 1984 flew a one-man unit in orbit:

 
Nancy Sinatra is 76 today.

 
Boz Scaggs is 72. Emanuel Ax is 67. Griffin Dunne is 61 today. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is 61. Keenen Ivory Wayans is 58. Mick Hucknall is 56. Julianna Margulies is 50 today. Representative Gabrielle Gifford is 46 today. Lexa Doig is 43. Lindsay Davenport is 40 today. Kanye West is 39.

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