Memorable Times With Milton Berle
March 30, 2002|GLENN SCHWARTZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
Milton Berle was my first client when I started my public relations firm in 1985. To outsiders, he called me Mr. Schwartz. Privately, he called me “kid,” “son,” “what’s his name,” “my PR” and words you just can’t print in a family newspaper. He wasn’t just a client, he was like a familiar relative–cranky and funny.
I was 25 years old when I did my first campaign for him. After it was over, he sent me a cashmere sweater. He used to tell me that he had underwear older than me. I am 43 now, and I still have that sweater. It no longer fits.
We worked together more than 12 years, and the thing about Berle was that every time you were with him, you never forgot. And everyone who met him, even for scant seconds, felt the same. The waiters, the cabdrivers, the bellhops, clerks at the 7- Eleven and everyone walking down the street that just happened to glance his way.
I didn’t learn everything from Milton. But I learned a lot–all with the Berle spin.
Buying cigars, clipping cigars, smoking cigars. I even pretended to like cigars. It did, however, come with a price. Limo rides were windows up, no air-conditioning, even in summer. I knew that he cared for me when he allowed me to crack the window. But only once or twice.
My clothes always reeked–but it reminded me of our hours together.
He taught me card tricks; he taught my daughter card tricks. I learned to eat lox with capers, tell a joke, slide first into the limo, travel with my own pillow, wear a raincoat in the summer, cut off the ends of the white bread, not to top him with jokes, not to interrupt (“Ah, ah, ah! I’m talking. The king is talking,” he would say), and to listen and wait. Lots of listening and waiting. All well worth it.
We spent a lot of time together. The lunches at the Friars Club were five, six hours long. I just couldn’t leave. The stories were priceless.
I sat with him in his den one morning and he sang the music from his Broadway show, “Milton and Me,” that never opened– the entire show. I remember just sitting and listening, smiling the whole time. I’ll never forget that.
It wasn’t just the show business stories that stuck. It was the other stuff, the personal stuff.
I remember having Chinese food in a restaurant in New York one evening. Milton had dry skin, and he was doing a lot of itching. We talked about that, insomnia and sinus infections. I told Milton that everyone in the restaurant must have thought we were talking about Jolson, Hope or Carson. He just had an itch. Just like a normal person. I remember the dinners with famous people. Schwarzenegger and Shriver, Dan Rather and Leontyne Price, Muhammad Ali and Captain Kangaroo. Even in that company, he always had a seat for me at his table. Did I mention Tiny Tim?
I sat next to Colin Powell at a White House function, met the first President Bush and took home my place card. All because of Milton.
When Milton found out Billy Barty died I was again in his den. He got a lot of those calls. He was the “go to” guy for funny Hollywood eulogies. I offered to help write it on index cards. Then I got yelled at because I wasn’t union. Being yelled at by Milton Berle is an honor.
My parents finally had a chance to meet Milton when he performed at Westbury, N.Y. He told my mother that she looked like my sister, and took a picture with them. He was in his bathrobe at the time, cooling down from his show. The picture is still on their refrigerator and it still looks like they were visiting him in the hospital.
He remembered my birthday; he even bought me a Piaget watch–a fake. I didn’t let on I knew it was a knockoff. I was touched by the idea that he actually stopped on the street to buy me anything. That day we watched the major league All-Star Game together. He loved baseball, and so did I. That was a good birthday.
Or as Milton would say, “That was a good “Berleday.”