Milton Berle was like a father to me. I first met him when I was a young kid. I played piano in a nightclub where he was performing. It was my first week on the job. At the rehearsal Milton was real tough on me. He really worked me over, but I got through it and I made him laugh besides. After the rehearsal he sent his brother to bring me to his dressing room. I really thought I was going to get fired. I was petrified. I walked into his dressing room and he asked me to sit down. I remember looking up at him and seeing what I thought was about a three foot long cigar sticking out of his mouth. He said “I know I was tough on you Artie, but I need my music to be a certain way, otherwise I can’t do my act properly. Besides I could tell in five minutes you’ve got what it takes to be a pro. You didn’t crumble under the pressure, and in addition you cracked me up.” He then wrote something on a piece of paper and said “here’s my phone number. Give me yours, and we’ll be friends forever. After this engagement, I’m going back to California. However I’ll be back in a few months and we’ll have lunch.”
I could not believe what had just happened. A few months later, Milton called me and invited me to have lunch with him at his office. There I was eating tuna fish with Milton Berle and his friends as they sat around telling jokes and stories. He told me that along with my musicality, my sense of humor would be an invaluable tool to get through life and show business. He and his friends could not have been nicer. They treated me like they knew me for years. I never forgot it. In 1975 I was in Las Vegas conducting for Neil Sedaka at The Riviera Hotel and Milton was on the bill. Each night after the show, Milton held court in the coffee shop until four or five AM. Every comic who was in Vegas came to hang out with Milton. On any given night there was Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, George Burns, David Brenner, Buddy Hackett, Jan Murray, Jack Carter, etc. They all showed up. Each night was another history lesson in show business.
I remember one night in particular at about 5 AM it was just Milton, Henny Youngman and myself. I could not stay up any longer, so I said goodnight and left the two of them sitting there. At 11:30 AM I came down to the coffee shop for breakfast and I saw Milton and Henny sitting there. I asked them what time they got up. They said “got up? We’re first going to bed.” They were unbelievable. In later years I traveled with Milton as his conductor. How I treasure the hundreds of hours together. The plane rides, the limos, the many dinners at my house and the nights in his suite after the show just laughing and eating and talking about life. Milton’s show business stories were priceless. I learned that Milton was also a great director. On numerous occasions I watched how he directed the loading of luggage into a limo. He turned it into a full Hollywood production. It was all part of what made him unique. Our friendship will be special to me forever.
On March 27, 2002, Milton Berle passed away. America lost a true treasure and an honest to goodness pioneer. I lost a great friend. Milton was the most professional and dedicated person I have ever met. He did every show like it was his first job. At times he was tough and drove me crazy, but the end result was always worth that drive.
I will always be grateful to Milton for sharing his huge heart with a kid piano player from Brooklyn, and thankful for what he taught me about being dedicated to my music. I am forever indebted to him for teaching me how to survive in this crazy yet wonderful business. Milton loved his audiences, and his audiences loved him. I know, I was there hundreds of times. There will never be another Milton Berle. He was truly an original.