Jul 4, 2013

Milton Berle: Television's First Drag Queen

In an October 26, 1967 episode of Batman, Batman and Robin ran afoul of Louie the Lilac, who trapped them in a man-eating lilac bush and later got them. . .um. . .all wrapped up in each other (Batgirl was in the melange, too).












He wore a lilac suit, liked perfume, and had henchmen named Azalea, Petunia, Lotus, and Sassafras.   I was too young to recognize gay stereotypes, but I knew feminine-coding when I saw it.

Later I saw Louie the Lilac, aka Milton Berle, as a desk clerk on Get Smart (1968), a fast-talking used car salesman on Here's Lucy (1969), a tv clown on Mod Squad (1971), and another used car salesman in The Muppet Movie (1979), without ever realizing that he was Mr. Television.

In 1950, there were 500,000 tv sets in use in the United States.  By 1956, 30 million.  And when the millions of new viewers turned on their new tv sets, they were watching Milton Berle, a former vaudeville performer and radio comedian, on Texaco Star Theater (1948-56).

Not many episodes have survived, but apparently it was a musical-variety program with Berle, or Uncle Miltie doing stand-up comedy and sketches, including frequent drag numbers and the lisping catch phrase "I'll kill you a million times."  Sounds gay-coded to me.







For the first few years, it regularly trounced its competition (to be fair, its competitors included The John Hopkins Science Review and Uptown Jubilee).  Then sitcoms took over, and musical variety was passe.  But Milton Berle continued the format in Kraft Music Hall (1958-59), and he appeared in drag frequently through the years, even at the end of his life: on an episode of  Roseanne (1995), he catches the bridal bouquet at the gay wedding that Roseanne arranges for her boss.

Oddly enough, he was homophobic in real life, throwing around the words "fag" and "queer" with abandon.  In 1993, he was scheduled to present an award with drag performer RuPaul, and a backstage incident caused a well-publicized feud between Old and New Drag.  According to RuPaul, Berle made rude comments and inappropriately touched her breasts.

Hollywood rumors give Uncle Miltie another claim to fame: he was widely recognized to have the largest endowment in the business, surpassing a foot in length.  Apparently he was not shy about displaying it to anyone curious, as long as they weren't "queer."