There were a series of light taps on the front door of my parents’ home in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a Tuesday night in late November, 1950. I opened the door and was greeted by my aunts and uncles who entered the room without their usual hullabaloo and seated themselves. The room was a bit warm and stuffy but a November chill was in the air.
Everyone directed their attention to the television at one end of the room. They understood the unstated rules for this weekly rendezvous, the most important of which was that no idle chit-chat. Everyone had come for one purpose. This was serious business. So what was everyone waiting for?
They were huddled together to watch a very special television show of that era, the Texaco Star Theater starring Milton Berle. Berle was often referred to as Mr. Television or, often, Uncle Miltie. Exactly at the 8 o’clock hour, Leon, my Dad, glanced around the room to make sure everyone was seated with their snack plates on their laps. We were all about to be entertained for one hour by Uncle Miltie and his show deserved our undivided attention. Dad got up and turned on the television. The screen came alive with the show’s opening, blaring musical number.
How to describe this weekly television show so that you can understand the scene? It was one of the major highlights of the week for my family and for Americans in general. It was also so popular that the number of TV sets sold during its era was said to have grown from 500,000 during the first year to over 30 million at the height of its popularity.
City sewage systems across the country were stressed on these Tuesday nights with millions of toilet flushes immediately after the end of the program. People wouldn’t leave their screen for even an urgent call of nature. Berle’s antics were also endlessly discussed the next day around the water coolers at work. The show represented the last vestiges of vaudeville shifted to the “boob tube."
At the start, there was Berle’s opening monologue which would be familiar to all nighttime television fans these days. Following this was a broad assortment of acts including gaggles of poodles in skirts jumping through hoops, ventriloquists with their wooden friends sitting in their laps, tap dancers such as Peg Leg Bates sporting a wooden leg, acrobats careening around the stage and spinning china plates on sticks, and busty, scantily-clad dancers parading about.
Here’s a fact that today’s readers will absolutely not understand. The show’s commercials were often the best part of the show. Simply put, they were pure entertainment, consisting of a male chorus line dressed in gas station uniforms. The star of the commercials was a comedian named Sid Stone who pitched the benefits of Texaco gasoline, the sponsor of the show, with rousing songs and dance routines.
My Grandfather Harry, who was 75 years old but still a little bit of a “man about town,” had brought his new friend Stella to share Uncle Miltie with the rest of the family. And who was this Stella you might ask? All of us had asked the same question? No one seemed to know. Few specific details were available despite the family’s sometimes frantic efforts to learn more about her. She was an enigma.
On this particular night in November, the program totally went off the rails toward the end of the hour. Uncle Miltie came onto the stage with a bunch of other men dressed in drag and with their bodices stuffed with balloons. Miltie and the other members of the male chorus line were wildly scampering around the stage and bursting each other’s balloons with pins, shrieking all the while. Everyone in our living room was convulsing with laughter.
Stella stood up abruptly and, without any warning, shouted: STOP. TURN OFF THE TELEVISION. THIS IS DISGUSTING. I CAN’T WATCH THIS ANY MORE AND NEITHER SHOULD ANY OF YOU. The room suddenly grew quiet. Stella stared icily at Grandpa Harry who then, somewhat reluctantly, stood up, walked over to the set, and switched it off. Everyone in the room was in an instant state of shock. The silence was deafening.
Unfortunately, she was not done with us and then exclaimed: “Harry and I will be visiting this house every Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. from now on but no more Texaco Star Theater and Uncle Miltie for any of you. It’s moral corruption. You have a record player so I will be bringing some of my opera records with me next week. We will enjoy them together for a more refined musical evening.”
Immediately after her little speech, she grabbed Harry’s hand and pulled him out of the living room and through the front door without ceremony and with him offering little resistance.
All of my aunts and uncles, mumbling quietly, stood up, found their coats, and shuffled out the front door, saying little. What was there to say? Harry was the family patriarch and seemed to go along with Stella’s edict, banishing Uncle Miltie from our house for some unknown amount of time.
Remaining in the room after everyone had left was myself, my Dad, and his younger brother Seymour. My father was quiet and studious, a salesman for a line of ladies’ garments. He seemed to be in a state of shock.
Uncle Seymour was often correctly described within the family as a gambler, a loafer, and a layabout. He had never held a steady job for more than a year and had been connected to get-rich-quick schemes that usually collapsed. Oh, and one more thing. I personally worshipped Seymour. He cracked me up and could do no wrong in my eyes. I hung onto his every word. I was waiting for him to provide some perfect and perhaps wacky solution to our problem, a looming Uncle Miltie deficit.
Seymour looked around the room to make sure that there were no prying eyes present, took a deep breath, and said: “Stella has to go. Her anti-Miltie edict will not stand. She's an immediate danger to the family and to our sense of justice and tranquility.”
“What do you mean she has to go,” my father and I muttered simultaneously.
“What don’t you understand about it. She needs to be absent, terminated, expurgated, caput,” Seymour added.
“What specifically is going to happen to Stella,” I asked, pressing for more details. “What’s the plan?”
“I know a connected guy in the neighborhood for whom business is a little slow these days. He might be willing to do a contract for us.”
“I know a lawyer who can help us with any of the specific contract details,” Dad added.
“It’s not that kind of a contract, Leon! It’s more like an understanding between two parties about a job that needs to get done but nothing is written down.”
Dad seemed to be more interested in Seymour’s idea than I would have anticipated. I must have underestimated his love of Uncle Miltie.
“What would all of this cost us?” Dad asked. He tended to focus on the bottom line, being a salesman and all.
“At least a couple thousand.”
“And where would this ‘couple thousand’ come from,” Dad continued. "I’m thinking that you. in particular, have never had this amount of cash in your bank account at any one time except perhaps in some of your more flamboyant dreams.”
“I agree with you, Harry. I am a little light on ‘ready cash’ at this specific time. How about passing the hat at some of the local stores for the money. We could say that it's a fund to clean up the trash in the neighborhood.”
All of us immediately turned our thumbs down on Seymour's new idea.
After some quiet musing in the group about what seemed to be an insurmountable barrier to our plan, money, Seymour continued: “Leon, how about hocking your TV. It’s the most valuable thing you own .”
“Seymour, you’re not thinking this thing completely through. You need to concentrate, perhaps for the first time in your life. If I hock my TV, we can’t watch Uncle Miltie that was the reason for trying to solve our 'Stella problem' in the first place.”
It then dawned on all of us sitting around in the living room that planning to kill Stella was not one of Seymour’s best ideas even though there was a lot of competition in the past. Our collective thinking thus turned elsewhere. And Seymour was again far ahead of the pack in terms of creativity.
“Stella needs to suffer some sort of bodily harm, short of murder, that will keep her and her opera records out of our living room for the immediate future,” he said.
We all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now apparently off the table was the first degree murder caper and perhaps a long vacation to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. We began to focus on the meaning of the phrase “bodily harm.”
Dad said to Seymour: “What exactly did you have in mind in this bodily harm department?”
Seymour stood up, rocked back and forth pensively on the balls of his feet and then said: “I am thinking about some kind of serious bone fracture. One of her thigh bones to be more specific. She would need to stay in bed for months. This will give us time to come up with a more lasting solution to our problem.”
Seymour continued: “I did entertain for a nanosecond the idea of food poisoning for her, leading to intestinal collapse. Remember those canned tamales you served me when I came over for dinner last month. I had a serious ‘control problem' after I left. However, I rejected this idea straight away for Stella. She does not look like a tamale person.”
Both dad and myself, thinking along the same lines, said to Seymour: How is Stella going to fracture a leg bone. Do we need to push her in front of a city bus or off the roof of the house?”
“No, not subtle enough,” Seymour responded quickly.
I then piped up, getting more deeply into the idea: “What if Stella were to slip on the icy front stoop of our house when she and Harry come over next Tuesday? Ever the gentlemen, Harry will let her enter the house first.”
“We would probably miss the whole Uncle Miltie show then, calling an ambulance and getting Stella to the hospital and whatnot," Dad said worriedly.
“All of our team needs to take this one-time hit for Miltie. It’s unavoidable and a small price to pay,” Seymour responded.
“He then turned to my Dad and said: “Leave the garden hose connected to the faucet by the front stoop. I will come over next Tuesday morning and water the stoop down, giving us six or eight hours for it to freeze over. She’ll slip on it when she arrives.”
The three of us sat back in our chairs and smiled contentedly. We had hatched a workable plan. We hoped that our Tuesday evenings would soon return to our normal routine. We could enjoy Uncle Miltie again without any outside interference.
The next Tuesday arrived and we were all in a state of high anxiety. Seymour sprayed water on the front stoop and produced a sheet of thin, slippery ice that morning.
Unfortunately, when Grandfather Harry arrived with Stella close to eight o’clock that night, he stepped on the stoop ahead of Stella to escort her inside in a gentlemanly way. He, of course, slipped on the ice, fell over, and broke his hip. We missed the whole Uncle Miltie show that night. Harry had his hip pinned the next day in the hospital but managed to survive the episode.
Stella told the family by telephone the next day when Harry’s condition had stabilized that she understood how much we would miss his presence every Tuesday and that she herself would correct this vacuum. True to her word, she did show up by herself a week later, and also in subsequent weeks, to play her opera records for us and provide us with a running commentary about the various arias and the opera story lines.
Listening to Stella's records every week, I grew to love the performances and went on to attend and graduate from the Juilliard School of Music in New York, a student of vocal arts. I then spent my entire adult career touring in Europe as a tenor specializing in Italian operas by Verdi and Puccini. The Milton Berle show ended in 1956, its audience searching for more modern entertainment.
I look back at this particular Tuesday night I have described for you with a sense of wonder. Would I have ended up selling ladies’ garments if Stella had taken the planned accident on our icy front stoop?