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Cigar Culture

Milton Berle

J. Bennett Alexander Alexander's picture

J. Bennett Alexander

You might not be old enough to know who Milton Berle was. He is worth getting to know a little bit for a couple of reasons. First, he was a true cigar lover and smoked until he passed away at the age of 93. Second, he was the first big – mega – star of the television age.

MR. TELEVISION

Berle, widely known as “Uncle Miltie” and “Mr. Television,” started in Vaudeville in 1920 and became a stand-up comic by 1932. Moving to television, Berle ruled the airwaves from 1948 to 1955, the height of what was known as the (first) “Golden Age of Television.” TV had not really been around long and not every household had a set. Berle ruled the ratings as the host of NBC’s Texaco Star Theater, a comedy-variety show. Quite often, 97 percent of the viewing audience was tuned in to watch Berle. So, that’s the second thing.

MILTON BERLE’S CIGARS

Perhaps more interesting to us is that Berle was a supreme cigar smoker. Once he’d made it big, getting a contract from NBC for 30 years at $200,000 a year (more than $2 million today), he favored H. Upmann, Romeo y Julieta and Cohiba, all Cuban. He started, like many of his contemporaries, quite young.

"I was a kid actor of 13 when I tasted my first Havana cigar," Berle told Cigar Aficionado. "I remember it well. The year was 1921. I was a kid actor. I sang...danced...told jokes. And I was handled by a man who used to book cruises with entertainment. Well, he booked me on a cruise to Havana in 1921. My mother, Sarah, also came along and brought my baby sister, Rosalind. Mama went everywhere with me; managed me. She was your basic stage mother.”

Berle disembarked in Havana and was surrounded by Cuban children hawking cigars.

"Cigarro...cigarro...try...try!" they shouted.

"OK, give me one," Berle said.

"No give...buy!" Berle handed over 12 cents and started puffing. He liked it, but he didn’t know he shouldn’t inhale and became quite ill. His domineering mother saw what he was doing and smacked him in the back of the neck.

“She wouldn't slap me on the face because if I was going to be an actor I needed my face. That was Mama. Always thinking about what was best for my career."

SHOW BIZ MOTIVATION

In addition to truly liking cigars, Berle thought they were a sign of success. In that way, he was copying other successful Jewish Vaudeville stars, especially Groucho Marx and George Jessel. Berle, however, never used a cigar as a prop onstage unless his part called for it.

"Back in the States I started smoking Cuban Rey del Reys...Perlas. (Today, the Rey del Rey cigar is made in Jamaica.) They cost me 20 cents apiece,” Berle said. “I used to buy them at United Cigar Stores. I also bought cigars from a place on 48th and Broadway (in Manhattan) called the I & Y Cigar Store. The 'I' stood for 'I make 'em' and the 'Y' for 'You smoke 'em.' "

CIGAR BANTER

The big stars of the day tended to get together socially, and the banter often centered on cigars. Berle recalled that one day, over lunch, Groucho Marx had finished his corned beef sandwich and lit up his favorite cigar, a Dunhill 410. Berle, sitting at the same table, didn’t mind other people’s smoke except when he was eating. Groucho blew smoke in Berle’s direction.

"Don't you ever inhale?" Berle, irritated, asked Groucho.

“Not when you're around," Groucho cracked.

During a gathering at their country club in Los Angeles , Berle remembered that George Burns was smoking one of his El Producto Queens, which Berle considered a cheap cigar. Berle had tried to get Burns to smoke a Cuban cigar. Berle was unhappy about the El Producto’s aroma.

"You must be smoking one of those Lawrence Welk cigars,” Berle said to Burns.

"What's a Lawrence Welk cigar?" asked Burns, playing the straight man.

"A piece of shit with a band around it!" quipped Uncle Miltie. (See, Lawrence Welk was a bandleader.... Oh, just Google it.)

STOCKING UP

Berle was fond of telling the story of how, when he caught wind of the coming embargo on Cuba in 1962, he went to several cigar stores and tried to buy as many of his beloved H. Upmanns as he could. At one store, he asked to sample one of the Upmanns and was not pleased after taking a couple of puffs.

“This is not an Upmann,” Berle declared. The salesman insisted that it was. 'Well, it doesn't taste like an Upmann,' Berle countered.

“Now there was a guy with a little moustache sitting on a couch nearby,” Berle explained. “He interrupted me and said, 'that's an Upmann.' Well, I got testy and cracked, 'who asked you? I'm buying cigars, and I'm an expert on Upmanns. And I can tell you this is not an Upmann. I don't know what it is, but this is not an Upmann.' The guy on the couch said, 'but I can tell you it is an Upmann.' Finally, I turned at him and yelled, 'will you shut up? I've had enough of you. Who the hell are you, anyway?' And he turned to me with a straight face and said, 'my name is Upmann. H. Upmann. And my father started the Upmann Cigar Company.'

"I was never so embarrassed in my life. I felt like crawling out of the place."

ONE LAST TIME

Berle apparently never gave up trying to get George Burns to smoke better.

"George, I can't stand it any longer,” Berle said on another occasion at the country club. “I want you to try a good cigar for a change." Berle pulled an Upmann Amatista from his pocket and handed it to Burns. "Here, smoke this."

Burns examined the Cuban cigar and asked, “"How much does this one cost?"

"Two dollars and fifty cents," Berle said.

"Two dollars and fifty cents!" replied the stunned Burns. "Why, before I'd smoke this I'd first have to fuck it."

Ya can’t make this stuff up. Well, I can’t.

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