Milton Berle, the Wayward Youth, and his mother Sadie
Elsie Janis was so dependent on her domineering stage mother that she remained in some senses a “child star” until well after her fortieth year. Ma Janis did everything for her: coached her on her performance, kept her schedule, made the bookings, selected her material, chose her wardrobe, and chaperoned her dates. Irene Castle called Ma Janis Elsie’s “ringmaster” and “Svengali”. “for pure drive and ambition,” she said, “no mother manager…ever approached Ma Janis.”
Liz Bierboner (Ma’s real name) was a born entrepreneur and a frustrated performer. At first she sold real estate, and gave elocution lessons in the Columbus, Ohio area, but when Elsie came along in 1889, she became her main project. Precocious Little Elsie first performed publicly at age 5, debuting at a church entertainment. In 1897 she went professional, specializing in impressions of famous vaudeville stars, but also singing and dancing well enough to pull them off.
Elsie’s (Liz’s) big break came in 1900, when Elsie was 11. It so happened that she had known President McKinley from his days as Ohio governor. Based on this old connection, Elsie was booked for a “command performance” at the White House. Following that engagement, she was truly in demand. At Mike Shea’s Theatre in Buffalo, she started out in the number two slot. By the following week she was headlining. Her 1905 performance at New York’s Casino Theatre Roof Garden set the town abuzz, with her impressions of Weber and Fields, Faye Templeton and Lillian Russell. Later that year she played London and Paris. Her repertoire grew over the years to include: Vesta Victoria, Eddie Foy, Eva Tanguay, Ethyl Barrymore, Anna Held, Harry Lauder, Irene Franklin, Pat Rooney, Frank Tinny, George M. Cohan, Sarah Bernhardt, Nazimova, Bert Williams, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, etc etc
To say that her mother was overprotective would be an understatement. Her insistence that “Elsie must not be overworked” ensured that Elsie would be weak, sickly and frail throughout her life. Worst of all, she kept Elsie away from suitors, protecting her career, but insulating her also from the satisfactions of marriage.
Nevertheless, she spent World War I patriotically entertaining the troops, sometimes quite close to the front. “The war was my high spot” Elsie said, “and I think there is only one peak in this life.” While she continued to perform after the war, the spark had sort of gone out, and her career was not as successful again. She retired in 1932 upon the death of her mother, without whom she was effectively helpless in show business.
MAMA ROSE HOVICK
Well known to fans of Gypsy, it was Rose who, fresh from a divorce, contrived to support her girls June and Louise in vaudeville. In order to escape the grind (and Rose’s iron will), June eloped at age 15, leaving Louise — who wasn’t as skilled as her sister — to carry the load. Louise couldn’t get bookings and vaudeville was dying anyway, so by age 17 Louise found herself working at Minsky’s burlesque, where she became a headliner as Gypsy Rose Lee.
“My childhood ended at the age of 5, ” Milton Berle said in his autobiography, but, in some ways, his childhood extended well into his middle age. He started out as a child performer; his domineering stage mother Sarah (a.k.a Sadie) was one to rival both Ma Janis and Rose Hovick. Sadie would be looking over Milton’s shoulder well into his reign as Mr. Television.
In the teens, Berle worked with kids acts like that of E.W.Wolf, one of countless Gus Edwards imitators. He worked principally in the Philadelphia area, to avoid New York’s greater scrutiny by the Gerry Society. In the act he did his first sketch comedy and worked up an Eddie Cantor impression that was to be one of his staples for many years. His mother, who was not only pushy, but also sort of crazy and desperate, finagled him into Cantor’s dressing room once and forced him to do the impression. Cantor’s response was reportedly something like “That’s good, kid. So long.” Even more brazenly, she bullied their way past a stage manager at the Wintergarden and pushed Milton onstage during an Al Jolson performance. Through gritted teeth, Jolson permitted the obviously insane boy to do his Jolie impression and then dismissed him, all to the hearty amusement of the audience. Most perversely, when Milton was cast in a prominent revival of Floradora she made him start off his dance number on the wrong foot on opening night, screwing up the routine. She said it would get him “attention.” With attention like that, what’s so bad about obscurity?
Adolescence for performers is not only an awkward time, but strange. Berle’s mother demonstrated her eccentricity yet again by picking up girls for him. She’d sit the in the audience and strike up conversations with girls in their twenties, then bring them backstage to meet Milton, who was still a teenager. Then she would leave them alone. Berle’s theory was that this was her way of providing for an inevitable need of his while keeping him out of trouble. At the same time, she let him pal around with fellow kid performer Phil Silvers because “he’s a good boy”. Silvers brought him to meet his first prostitute. Happy Mother’s Day!
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.