A True Cigar Man:
|The author and Milton Berle share a light at one of the many Friars Club Celebrity Smokers they both attended.
On March 27th, the world of entertainment and the world of cigars lost one of their most prominent icons, a comedic genius named Milton Berle. For those of us who knew him, Milton's passing, at age 93, symbolized the end of an era - an era where a cigar was as much a part of an act as the celebrity himself.
By Richard Carleton Hacker
Like my friend the late George Burns, Milton was rarely seen without a cigar, but unlike George, Milton smoked Havanas. However, he never lit his cigar on stage, because, as Burns once told me, "When you light a cigar on stage, you lose your audience." It was Milton who told George to put a black mark on the wrapper of his ever-present El Producto so that he would be able to time his act. When the ash burned down to the black mark, it was time to get off the stage.
I first met Milton in the 1980s, when we were both attending a Tinder Box trade show in Las Vegas. Berle was in the audience as I was giving a marketing presentation in the guise of a magician named Tobak the Great. As part of my opening, I produced a large sheet of paper that purportedly had my speech written on it (the paper was actually blank). After "reading" some inappropriate remarks about canned tuna and the current state of affairs in Philadelphia, I "realized" it was the wrong speech, crumbled up the paper and threw it on the floor. Without missing a beat, Berle jumped up and grabbed the wad of paper, shouting, "Wait, I can use that!" referring to his well-earned reputation of stealing jokes. His timing was so perfect that everyone in the audience thought that it was part of the act. It wasn't. Up until that moment, I had never met Milton Berle.
We became friends and smoked many a cigar together at the Beverly Hills Friars Club, where Milton always held court at his special table. Often, when I was just passing through, Milton would call me over and say something like, "Hey, Ricky," (he always called me "Ricky," something no one but my mother ever did) "what do you think? Is this a real Havana or did I just get screwed?"
Milton loved his cigars. He began smoking them when he was 14 and never stopped. He often carried two cigar cases, one filled with Havanas and the other filled with, shall we say, less-than-premium stogies. Whenever he offered a cigar to someone he didn't care for, it was always from that second-rate case. I remember one night at a black tie celebrity smoker at the Friars, Milton sent his good friend and producer, Buddy Arnold, over to my table. A young comedian was performing and except for the spotlight, the room was dark.
"Milton has to see you right away," Buddy whispered urgently.
With a certain sense of alarm, I made my way to his table.
"Hey, Ricky," Milton said, taking out his two cigar cases and pulling me closer so that no one else could hear, "it's too dark in here to see anything. Tell me, which of these has the Havanas? I don't want to give the jerk sitting across from me a good cigar."
On another occasion, when Consolidated (now Altadis) was launching their Playboy by Don Diego cigar, Berle and I were invited to the press party at the Playboy mansion in Holmby Hills, California. As the TV cameras rolled, Milton and I were asked to light up our Playboy cigars. I took out my gold Dunhill Unique butane lighter. Milton produced a ragged-looking book of paper matches. I immediately started chiding him on the error of his ways. But when I flicked the lighter, it merely sparked; it was out of butane. Milton then cupped his hands and lit one of the paper matches.
"See?" he smiled into the camera through the curling smoke, "this is better." Since that day, I always carry a backup butane lighter.
Milton started in show business at age five, when he posed as the Buster Brown Boy who lived in a shoe. He honed his talents in vaudeville throughout his teenage years, and in 1934 he entered radio. But it was television that brought him everlasting immortality. He was the first TV celebrity, headlining in Texaco's Star Theater in 1948, when there were less than 500,000 television sets in America. But his popularity was so great, people started buying TVs just so they could watch his antics. Those who couldn't afford the new electronic entertainment device would crowd into department stores, where TVs on display were always tuned to Berle's popular NBC show. Restaurants experienced a dramatic loss of business on Tuesdays between 8 and 9 p.m., because that was when people stayed home to watch Milton Berle. By 1954, there were more than 26 million television sets in America, and all of them were tuned to Milton. Although he never was overly fond of being called Uncle Milty, he was justifiably proud when people and the press referred to him as Mr. Television.
Much has been written about Milton's career on stage, radio, TV, the movies, and as publisher of more than 400 songs, but it is as a cigar smoker that we in the industry most readily identify with him. He wasn't a celebrity that lit up just for the cameras. Cigars were a part of his life. He was never without one, in his hand or in his pocket. Humidors filled his home and later his high rise condominium in Los Angeles. During the cigar boom of the 90s, Milton's wife Lorna asked me to help design a limited edition replica of the humidor he gave to President John F. Kennedy back in the 60s. Each had a personalized brass plaque and the inside of the lid was autographed by Milton. Very few were produced, and they are now quite collectable.
It was also during the boom that Lorna started a short-lived magazine called Milton, dedicated to fine cigars, good drinks, and the lifestyle that Milton loved. Although he was then at an age when most men would have long retired, Milton loved the stage; he couldn't quit. He became a popular speaker at many of the cigar dinners around the country, where he was rediscovered by a new wave of young cigar smokers who laughed at punch lines that were so old they were new. Indeed, Milton had a repertoire of over 50,000 jokes, most of which he readily admitted stealing from other comedians. I remember sitting with Red Buttons at a club where Milton was performing.
"I can't believe it," Red said to me, "I'm sitting right in front of him and he's telling every one of my jokes!"
While some comedians could do double takes, Milton could effortlessly pull off triple takes and better, a feat he delighted in demonstrating for me and others, on cue, during many a Friars Club lunch. He would also offer gems of comedic wisdom to younger writers who stopped in from shows such as "Seinfeld." As generous as Milton was with his knowledge, he was just as demanding with his profession. He knew exactly what he wanted and would accept nothing else. For example, although he was in his 80s when I wrote The Ultimate Cigar Book, Milton insisted that I use a much younger picture of him for the Celebrity Smokers chapter.
"It looks better," he said to me, matter-of-factly. And that is the picture that appears in the book to this day.
Mentally, Milton never slowed down, but physically, age began to take its toll. After a heart attack in 1998, he stopped performing, but he still held on to his cigars. And having the memory of one of the entertainment world's greatest cigar smokers is something we should all hold on to as well.
SMOKESHOP - June/July, 2002