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Farewell Uncle Miltie

GOOD MORNING AND GOODBYE, UNCLE MILTIE: I’m sure you must have loved that farewell at Hillside Monday. Natch, it was SRO. I know you were comfortable, since your hat and raincoat were right there with you. (You always did feel any room was too cold. Even when the rest of us were sweating in shirtsleeves, you’d wear that fedora and coat.) Well, you surely were warmed by all that was said. Danny Welkes, your agent, manager and pal of over a half-century, booked a helluva show, including appropriate musical background: songs you wrote like “Near You” — which we all felt. For those who couldn’t get there, I’d like to share the show. And, of course, Miltie, you’re free to use any of their lines — which I’m sure you will … President Clinton faxed a letter to Lorna Berle saying, “I was deeply saddened by Milton’s death and I wanted you to know I’m thinking about you. Milton Berle uplifted and entertained billions of fans across the world with the quality of his performances, the generosity of his spirit and an incredibly human wit that enabled us to look at ourselves and others from a fresh perspective — like millions of Americans, I loved him.”

NORM CROSBY, WHO HAD BEEN asked by your wife Lorna to m.c. the show, said: “For those of us who were privileged to know and work with Milton, he will never be gone because he left a legacy of laughter that will never disappear. Every memory of him, of something he did or something he said, will bring a chuckle, and his memory will continue to bring laughter forever.” Norm called you “an innovator, a creator, one who perfected the art of standup comedy, and there is not a comedian of today or yesterday or of tomorrow who does not have something in his act that came from you, Milton” … Longtime pal Larry Gelbart had some words worth repeating (then again, what words of Larry’s aren’t?). He asked, “Why is it we are always sold on the idea that the John Waynes and the Ronald Reagans of the world are somehow the best examples, the real representatives of what is best about this country? Why is it the West is supposed to represent the embodiment of American strength and courage? To me, Milton, your Eastern cheekiness and your complete unflappability were as American as stage mom and apple pie … No one who ever saw you perform ever saw you give less than 110% of yourself. The Morris office surely must have collected 11% of your earnings,” he laughed. Seriously, Gelbart reminded, “Offstage there was a surprising courtliness about you, a personal grace completely at odds with your professional garishness” … Jan Murray told of his 66-year friendship with you and got everyone to applaud you, Milton.

BEFORE STARTING HIS REMARKS, Don Rickles warned Lorna, “I would like to be paid for this.” Rickles reminisced about his early days in Florida at the Eden Roc and then in L.A. at the Slate Bros. nitery on La Cienega, where he’d be appearing — and you would get onstage. “I thought you, Milton, were appearing and I was the guest.” On a serious note Rickles said, “Milton was my hero. He was like a father to me” … Your entire family was on hand, including son Billy Berle, from whom you had been estranged. And your son-in-law, actor Richard Moll, reminded us all of what a loving family man you were. He called you “the best father-in-law a guy could have.” Rabbi Jerry Cutler reminded us of your deep love for your fellow man while also telling a few jokes involving you.

YOUR USUAL SPOT, CLOSING ACT, was given to Red Buttons. He winged in from Toronto (his recurring role in Showtime’s “Street Time” series) to tip his fedora. He recalled: “In the ’30s when you appeared at Loew’s Stage on B’way, you were a testament to the Messiah, arriving to spread the gospel. Every show was a Sermon on the Mount to your true believers. We sat, we watched, we laughed, we learned, and we were awed by this hurricane of talent and energy as your raucous verve ripped through the house. You sent us out of the theater with our dreams intact and more determined to dedicate our lives to the noble endeavor of making them laugh.” Red said you had “a special significance.” And Red told of the hysterical incident when you carried him onstage at the Famous Door and did your entire act with Red draped around your neck? … Red remembered your entire act as well — for future references! He concluded: “As you take your seat in the pantheon of the comedy greats, you will be at peace amongst the folks who had one thing in common: They loved to perform — they just loved it — and no one loved it more than you, Milton.” All of your friends who had such warm remarks also made special thanks to someone else — your dear wife, Lorna, who made you so happy … So, Miltie, I’m reminded of something else Gelbart told us: “Before you go, one last lesson you taught us today — It’s a whole lot easier saying I love you at the beginning than it is at the end.” But it was great being near you.

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