June 3, 2015

Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle: January 16, 1961

It's been said that there are few things more painful than watching a great athlete who sticks around for too long.  Look at footage of Willie Mays playing in the 1973 World Series, unable to track down a fly ball without falling in the outfield - for fans who grew up with Mays as one of the greatest players of all time, the sight makes you want to close your eyes and turn away.

Much the same can be said about entertainers.  Bob Hope has often been cited as an example of someone who didn't know when to quit, with the result that his final appearances on television can be pretty embarrassing.  And yet for those who love what they do, how difficult it must be to turn away, to admit to yourself what others might be saying behind your back, that you're all through, you don't have it any more.  Bill Bradley, who was an all-star basketball player before going to the U.S. Senate, once said that an athlete owes it to himself to experience the entirety of his career, the downs as well as the ups, and that the worst thing he can do is walk away before he's sure there's nothing left in the tank. Put that way, it's hard for me to criticize anyone for staying too long at the fair.  I just trust that when it becomes obvious I don't have it anymore as a writer, one of you out there will tell me.

All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to this episode of Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle from January, 1961.  There's something just painful about the whole concept of this - Mr. Television reduced to being a warm-up act for a bowling show - and it doesn't get any better as the episode starts.  The look and feel of it is all wrong: you've got a band, a live audience, a celebrity guest - everything you need for a variety show, except that your backdrop is a bowling alley.  Then Berle walks out to great applause and starts in on his monologue, which has absolutely nothing to do with bowling; this one, just four days before the inauguration of John Kennedy, has a lot of political jokes.  You wonder, watching it, whether Berle loved the limelight so much that he simply couldn't walk away, even to the point of fronting for a couple of bowlers.*

*This may well be; Berle wasn't known for having a small ego.  However, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, it was NBC, "desperate to burn off its 30-year contract with Berle" which the network had entered into during the peak of Berle's popularity, that insisted on putting Berle into the show.  Berle himself had had enough after six months and left the show.

Berle's monologue carries with it the whiff of desperation, of a big-league comedian trying to fight his way out of the minors.  (Of course, I've never been Berle's biggest fan, so I could be wrong here.)  But the show actually isn't as embarrassing as all that.  Chick Hearn, who would go on to great fame as the announcer for the perennial champion Los Angeles Lakers, does a very good job announcing the bowling matches that follow, and while the bowling isn't great compared to the power bowlers of today, it's not horrible.  Between matches Berle interviews a celebrity, who then goes on to roll for his or her favorite charity.  He then presents checks to the winner and loser at the end of the program.

The show I've included below is one of five that exist from Berle's time as host.  The celebrity of the week is the British blonde bombshell Diana Dors, with her then-husband Richard "Dickie" Dawson in the audience.  The interview is standard TV patter, nothing that you wouldn't see on Bob Hope's show, with Berle winding up as the butt of most of the jokes.  The final match, between "King of the Hill" Jim St. John and challenger Al Thompson, generates some real tension, as the two trade strikes into an extra frame.

In short, the show isn't nearly as bad as the concept sounds, but there's something sad about it all the same.  I suppose you could say that it indicates the growing maturity of television, that a man who was once the medium's biggest-ever star could, a little over ten years later, be reduced to this.  And there's nothing wrong with looking at it that way, I suppose, but I'll close this with the same thought which I expressed at the beginning - it's painful to watch someone who's stuck around too long.  Milton Berle would be a fixture on television for years afterward as a guest star on programs that belonged to others, but with the exception of an ill-advised comeback in 1967, he would never again helm a show of his own.  "Mr. Television" was, indeed, long gone, as were the early days of TV.


  1. I haven't seen any episodes from the 1966-67 ABC variety show, but it was heavily promoted in the Fall Preview. ABC was in third place every year until the mid-1970's and tried to promote the Berle show as a big splash, with Batman and Robin making a big deal out of the show during the Fall Preview special. Berle also guest starred on a really funny episode of F Troop early in that season as part of the promotion, but the variety show was gone by mid-season.

    It had to be a step up from this bowling show!

    1. "It had to be a step up ..."

      It was.

      Milton assembled a top-level team for this comeback show; he was intent on proving that at age 58, he was far from washed up.
      Berle's producer and head writer was Bill Dana, who'd held the jobs for Steve Allen for that gentleman's most recent show; many of the writers of that show came with him.
      He had Bobby Rydell and Donna Loren for singing, plus whatever acts Dick Clark could provide. He also time-shared The Hollywood Palace with their own show (and Mitchell Ayres's orchestra).
      Milton was always popular within the Hollywood community, so getting name guests was no problem.
      Also, he called on old reliables like Irving Benson (as uber-heckler Sidney Shpritzer) and Cully Richards (who I mentioned a few posts back).
      There was no stinting on this show - Berle wanted a hit.
      So what happened?
      On his last show, Milton started off with a musical medley, which included the following:

      What kind of fool was I
      To go on Friday night
      With movies on my left
      The Man From UNCLE on my right?

      That pretty much sums it up.

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