Until recently, the oldest entertainment program known to survive on color videotape was NBC’s An Evening with Fred Astaire, broadcast live on October 17, 1958.
But now, a rare color videotape of the Kraft Music Hall Starring Milton Berle that predates the Astaire special by nine days (airdate October 8, 1958) has been discovered. The tape will be shown at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood on Saturday, February 24th at 7:30 PM in a program that is free and open to the public.
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“The Berle Kraft tape is the oldest known color videotape of an entertainment program,” said Mark Quigley, the John H. Mitchell Television Curator at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. “Entertainment” is a key distinction. The oldest known color tape is of the NBC Washington studios dedication ceremony on 05-22-1958.
“With the introduction of videotape technology in the broadcast industry starting in 1956, one of the main virtues of videotape for producers, networks, and local stations was that tapes could be reused repeatedly to save costs,” Quigley said. “Many important programs were simply taped over, as no anticipated future use was envisioned. It was common practice for networks and stations to erase programs. For that reason, every 2-inch tape that survives is something of a happy miracle and a time capsule.”
Quigley called the Berle tape “a unicorn” to have survived.
The rare two-inch videotape surfaced thanks to the efforts of television distributor and executive producer Paul Brownstein (The Greatest Night in Pop) and independent archivist and documentarian Dan Wingate (Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On).
Milton Berle’s widow, Lorna Berle, protected and safely stored the historic color debut and numerous other rare Kraft Music Hall videotapes for many years.
The historic debut episode has been recovered and preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Additional color and black and white videotapes of the Kraft series were preserved by UCLA with their long-time collaborator, music footage licensing agency and vintage television footage archive Retro Video, in Glendale, California.
Milton Berle made his TV debut hosting NBC’s The Texaco Star Theatre in 1948. That landmark series was so successful that in 1951 Berle signed an unprecedented 30-year contract with NBC, granting the network exclusivity to his talents.
From October 8, 1958 – May 20, 1959, Berle continued his hosting duties on NBC with the launch of the live, half-hour Kraft Music Hall variety series, videotaped in the still-evolving technological wonder of “living color.” This debut episode boasts cameos from Bob Hope and Gene Barry, and the big band sounds of musical director Billy May–all under the direction of Selwyn Touber and Hal Kanter.
The program is titled Preserving Historic Color Videotape: Mr. Television (a.k.a. Milton Berle) and Friends.
Highlights of the episode’s screening evening will include an introduction by video engineer David Crosthwait, who will give a presentation outlining the significant technical challenges of this preservation project executed by DC Video. The screening will also showcase additional Kraft Music Hall surprises, with superstar guests including Sammy Davis, Jr., Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Jerry Lewis, Harpo Marx, Peter Lorre, and more.
Paul Brownstein Productions distributes artist owned network series and specials, including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and Cher.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive event is co-presented by the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies.
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