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Mr. Television Turns Another Channel

by Michael Aushenker

July 26, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Red Buttons almost fell down while approaching the podium. But the master of the one-liner quickly rebounded, both physically and comedically. Buttons took the mike and ad-libbed, "I'll see you next fall."

If the spontaneous slapstick felt like a variety show from the early days of television, it was only fitting, as the occasion was last Sunday's birthday gala for Milton Berle, who turned 93 on July 12. Some 250 people attended the black-tie affair, which celebrated the cigar-chomping comedian and his legendary place in the annals of entertainment history.

The wheelchair-bound Berle, recently diagnosed with a small, inoperable tumor in his colon that is not of any immediate threat, held court at the event with wife Lorna ever present at his side.

Known alternately as "Mr. Television," "Uncle Miltie" and "The Thief of Bad Gags" (which in itself, it should be noted, is a bad gag), Berle is no stranger to such tributes. He pioneered television with his blend of sarcasm and sight gags on "The Milton Berle Show" in the late 1940s. The toothy comedian's wiseacre persona even became one of the inspirations for Bugs Bunny.

Following highlights from Berle's seminal variety show, Patti La Belle belted out "That's What Friends Are For," and Little Richard rocked with "Good Golly, Miss Molly." Ed McMahon hosted the star-studded celebration.

There was no shortage of comics -- old and new school -- to pay homage to the legend: Whoopi Goldberg said a few words; Sid Caesar did his dialects, and Shecky Green did some impersonations. Harvey Korman and Jan Murray were among the many guests. Buttons closed the birthday bash with 20 minutes of zingers: "Jimmy Carter -- who said to the pope, 'Next time bring the missus!' -- never got a dinner."

Buttons' son Adam said, "I'm not saying this because he's my dad. I'm saying this as a fan -- the man stole the show. He had the biggest standing ovation of the entire night."

By evening's end, the still-spry Berle, who has a star for radio and for TV on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6771 and 6263 Hollywood Blvd., respectively), stood from his wheelchair and thanked his well-wishers.

Buttons told Up Front, "Forget Mr. Television, Miltie was Mr. Energy. He was a tremendous performer.

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