I'm probably the only person in the world who has the Milton Berle Tin Wind-Up Crazy Car personally autographed by Milton Berle himself. I'm also probably the only person in the world who cares that I'm the only person in the world who has the Milton Berle Tin Wind-Up Crazy Car personally signed by Milton Berle himself.
Please allow me to indulge myself:
I have been a comedy entertainer for the past thirty years and have collected vintage toys for about twenty years. My show business career has allowed me to work with some of the most talented stars in the United States. Among those stars was legendary Milton Berle. (If you care to visit my website please do. There's a link on my home-page to my toy collection. My website is: www.jackswersie.com)
The date was December 4, 1993 and the event was the Milton Berle 80th Anniversary Roast, celebrating Milton Berle's 80th year in show business. The location was the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island in New York. Also on the show were comedians Sid Caesar, Norm Crosby, Jack Carter, and Jesse White. (You may remember Jesse White as the original Maytag repairman in the Maytag television commercials.)
Milton Berle had a reputation among stage hands and technical crews as being tough to work with. He was known to yell and complain quite a bit and that night he did have all the technical people in an irritated state of mind. My first contact with him was when I was doing my sound and lighting rehearsal. When I was introduced to him he asked me if I used taped music in my show. I told him that I had music that I used when I exited the stage at the end of my show. He asked me what I used when I entered the stage and I told him that I just walked out with no music. He started complaining about that to me and then firmly said, "I won't get into that now!"
"Hmmm," I thought. (I was always a deep thinker.)
As the other comedians entered the theater I introduced myself to them. They were all pretty cordial. Sid Caesar seemed nervous. Norm Crosby was very warm. Jack Carter and Jesse White really didn't seem to care one way or another about me. Among themselves they were a rather cranky and bickering bunch, especially Jack and Jesse. In fact there was even a shoving match between Jack Carter and the guy who was emceeing the event, whose name I do not recall. I was not aware of the reasons why the conflict occurred. I presume it had to do with old, sensitive, and fragile ego's combined with pent-up hostility and repressed performance anxiety. (I should have been a shrink!)
My show went well enough although I don't feel as though I brought the house down that night. Norm Crosby did compliment my show. Jack and Jesse still didn't seem to care and said nothing. Other people backstage were quite complimentary.
When Berle was about to walk out to the stage I shook his hand and wished him well. He said, "I'm sorry I didn't get to see your show." Then he started to walk away and turned around, adding, "on purpose!" A family friend who was with me backstage, later told me that he thought Milton was being rude to me when he said that but I felt that Berle was just joking around. He had a biting edge to his sense of humor that could be misinterpreted. I saw it for what it was. I think.
The roast was not really a roast in the traditional sense. Sure, the comedians spent some time putting each other down but it was very tame because there was a public audience. I'm sure that if the roast was held at their own private function there would have been a lot more risqu© things said and done.
They spent most of the time doing their usual shtick. Jesse White told old jokes. Sid Caesar did a hilarious Yiddish routine that the audience loved. Crosby stole the show with his word substitution bit that he does so well. Jack Carter did whatever it was that he does.
It was a very long show and when Berle got up to do his segment the audience was tired and really didn't respond to him as they would have had they not already seen two hours of comedy. In fact about 150 people left while he was on stage. That was embarrassing to watch, but Milton Berle was an old and true professional and he just kept going. It didn't seem to faze him.
After the show, Jill (my girlfriend at the time and now my lovely wife) and I were invited into Berle's dressing room where he sat relaxing in his bathrobe. He beckoned me over to him so he could see the tin wind-up Milton Berle toy car from my antique toy collection. I brought it with me in the hope that he might autograph it. He was thrilled that I owned the toy and impressed that I spent $500 on it. (I told him $500 to make him feel good, even though I really only paid $350 for it. Yes, I lied to Milton Berle!) He said it was worth at least $1000! I didn't argue about that although I knew that it only had a book value of right around $500. He was kind enough to sign the plastic hat on my tin toy.
Milton proudly told everyone backstage that the toy was manufactured in the 1950's and sold for a nickel. He said he owned one at one time but didn't know where it was. He asked me where I got mine and if I could get him another. He gave me his address in Los Angeles and asked me to let him know when I found one. I told him I would start looking around.
He posed for some pictures with Jill and me and then we left. He was very gracious to us in his dressing room. It was a complete flip-flop from his attitude prior to the show. He was like a different person.
Before we left we got pictures of us with the other comedians on the show. It was a real evening to remember. How many people got to hang out with such legendary entertainment figures as Milton Berle and Sid Caesar? I was so lucky to have experiences like these. At that point in my career it didn't look as though I would ever achieve celebrity for myself so to be rubbing elbows with fame was the next best thing for me. I had the opportunity to be backstage with some of the most celebrated show business figures of the 20th century and it was always invigorating for me.
Incidentally, I did find the antique toy for Berle, and I did write him at his office. I got a call from Berle's secretary, who told me that Berle was sick with the flu but said he would make a decision as to whether I should buy it for him when he was feeling better. He said I'd hear from him the following week.
I waited to hear from him for nine years! After he passed away in 2002, I figured the chance of hearing from him was somewhat diminished.
Tags: Tin Toys