Milton Berle Roast
What better time to roast the master of mirth himself, Milton Berle, than 1969–the year America put a man on the moon! Always ready to break new ground it makes sense that the Friars would roast this larger-than-life king of television the same year the Concorde broke the sound barrier and kids danced naked at Woodstock. If it’s silliness you’re looking for–Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired in England; and the infamous “Heidi Game” incident happened in which NBC cut off the final moments of the Oakland Raiders/NY Jets game for the pre-scheduled Heidi special! Ok one more joke for the year–Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President!
Known to a generation of viewers as “Uncle Miltie” or “Mr. Television,” Milton Berle was the undisputed king of TV during its golden age. His popular variety show, NBC’s “Texaco Star Theater” helped to sell more TV sets in the early days of the medium than any other individual. During his tenure as head of the Friars Club he was the master of the Roasts. Nobody was safe from his skewering–or his legendary wit.
One of the leading entertainers of the 20th Century, Jack Benny’s comic timing remains legendary. Be it his signature pregnant pause or his exasperated “WELL!” audiences adored the most famous cheapskate in town. His radio and television family: Eddie Anderson aka Rochester, Mel Blanc, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, and his real life wife Mary Livingston, formed one of the most beloved ensembles of the sitcom format. They were his foils to laughter and his deadpan expressions spoke volumes. Forever 39, Benny hit just the right notes in comedy-his attempts at violin playing notwithstanding.
After starting out in vaudeville at the age of 18, Jan Murray made a name for himself working his standup magic in the Catskills. Eventually taking his unique humor west he worked Vegas and then California, becoming a popular guest on variety shows and hosting several game shows. He was a frequent and funny guest on “Hollywood Squares” and hit his mark every time at Friars Club roasts.
Comedy’s court jester, Red Buttons, plied his trade from the Catskills’ Borscht Belt to Broadway. He was even on stage the night they raided Minsky’s-Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s famous crackdown on the risque burlesque house. One of the few comics to crossover to drama, Buttons won an Academy Award for his 1957 performance in “Sayonara” and also starred in such films as “The Longest Day,” “The Poseidon Adventure” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.” His television credits are as diverse as his career, having appeared in “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” “ER” and “Roseanne” to name a few. But it was really all about the comedy and his “Never Got A Dinner,” or “I Was There” sketches received howls with every telling.
Best known as one half of the singing duo Steve and Eydie, Steve Lawrence, has proven his mettle as an all around entertainer. His pop music hit “Go Away Little Girl” was number one on the charts and he and his wife Eydie Gormé have earned Grammy and Emmy Awards. Lawrence was also a television staple and earned nods for his work on “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Night Gallery,”, “Murder, She Wrote,”, “The Nanny,” and “CSI” among others, not to mention his own variety turn with “The Steve Lawrence Show.”
Called “Big D” by his fans, Don Drysdale is one of baseball’s legends. A pitcher for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers he made a name for himself along with teammate Sandy Koufax as the top pitching duos in baseball history. After leaving baseball due to a shoulder injury the Cy Young Award winner turned to broadcasting, eventually working for ABC sports. His fame transcended baseball and Drysdale was equally recognizable in various television roles on shows such as “Leave It To Beaver,”, “The Brady Bunch,” and “The Greatest American Hero.”
Legendary standup comedian Alan King was one of the new wave of comics who found humor in his personal family life and every day experiences. His often angry but humorous rants earned him a special place in audiences’ hearts as he mirrored their own personal struggles. As a serious actor King appeared in such films as “Casino,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” and “Memories of Me,” among others. He became the Abbot of the Friars Club after Frank Sinatra’s reign of 20 years.