THE EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW
Read G. Burgan
If you look up "Ventriloquism" in Volume 22 of the 1972 Encyclopedia
Britannica, you'll find the following: "Ventriloquism -- the art of
"throwing" the voice; i.e.: speaking in such a manner that the sound seems
to come from a distance source other than the speaker... A figure or dummy
is sometimes used by the ventriloquist to assist in the deception. The
ventriloquist animates the dummy by moving its mouth while his own lips
remain still, thereby completing the illusion that the voice is the dummy's,
Instructive, but pretty dull stuff. The short article goes on to discuss
ventriloquism's ancient roots. What it fails to mention is the greatest
ventriloquist of the twentieth century: Edgar Bergen.
Before you close the book, look very closely at the parenthesis at the end
of the article. That's right, at the three letters: "E.J.B." What do they
mean? They're the initials of the article's author. In this case they stand
for... Ah, you guessed. "Edgar John Bergen."
And herein lies the irony that characterized Edgar Bergen. He created one of
the brassiest characters of radio, film and theatre, but remained so shy and
retiring that he didn't even mention himself in a scholarly article
dedicated to the craft that few have mastered as well as he.
Edgar Bergen was born on February 16, 1903 of Swedish parents. His original
family name was actually Berggrren. His early boyhood was spent on a farm
near Decatur, Michigan, his adolescent years in the Chicago area. He
discovered his facility for ventriloquism quite by accident at the age of
eleven. One day as he called out to a friend walking down the street, he
noticed the boy directed his answer elsewhere.
Bergen soon discovered that he had a talent for vocal misdirection. Before
long he was entertaining classmates and frustrating his parents and other
adults with his newfound skill.
A 25 cent book on ventriloquism helped hone his skills. Harry Lester, a
famous ventriloquist reluctantly agreed to give the eager Edgar three months
of ventriloquism lessons. Bergen also learned sleight of hand skills and
A serious ventriloquist needs a dummy. Bergen had one specially carved of
white pine material by a bartender named Theodore Mack at a cost of $35. The
face of his dummy was modeled after an Irish newsboy Bergen had seen on a
nearby street. Bergen himself carved the body.
Before long, Bergen was a hit at school assemblies and parties. Even his
school teachers recognized he possessed an extraordinary talent to
Bergen entered Northwestern University as a premed student. To pay expenses,
he performed as a combination ventriloquist and magician at various private
parties. Summers were spent earning even more money on the Chautauqua and
He never finished college. From 1926 until 1936 he and Charlie traveled over
several continents playing the vaudeville circuits and perfecting his craft
as an entertainer. His travels included Iceland, Sweden, England, Russia and
South America where he even entertained at a leper colony.
It was a hard life. Long miles and low pay. Eventually both his pay and his
stature as an entertainer grew until he became a headliner. Bergen
considered his first performance at the New York City's Palace Theatre in
1930 as his coming of age.
Six more years passed before the entire country would become his audience.
In the fall of 1936 he played a private party in New York City where he came
to the attention of Rudy Vallee. At that time Vallee had one of the most
popular network variety programs in the country. Vallee asked Bergen to
appear on his December 16th broadcast on NBC. Bergen gratefully agreed.
But soon after both men had second thoughts. A ventriloquist on radio?
Ridiculous. They each concluded that it was a bad idea. In the end, Rudy
Vallee decided to risk it and persuaded Bergen to appear.
Bergen and McCarthy were an instant success. Vallee paid him $150 for that
initial appearance and invited him back repeatedly to the increasing delight
of his audience.
In May of 1937, Bergen and McCarthy came into their own. Chase and Sanborn
signed a contract with them for a weekly one hour radio program on NBC. For
years to come, the Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen program ranked at or
near the top of the ratings.
W.C.Fields was featured as Charlie McCarthy's foil during the first few
months of the program. It was a marriage made in radio heaven. Their running
radio feud evoked the nastiest barbs that radio censors would allow. The
audience loved it. Here's a sample of their running dialogue:
CM: Mr. Fields, is that your nose or a new kind of flamethrower? WCF: Quiet
you termites' flophouse! CM: Why you bugle beak! Why don't you put helium up
your nose and rent it out as a balloon? WCF: Quiet you animated hitching
post or I'll sic a beaver on you. CM: No wonder Mr. Fields nose looks like a
flame, he's an alcohol burner. WCF: I'll saw his leg off & beat the sawdust
out of his head with it! CM: You won't say that when I grow up WCF: When you
grow up I'll string telephone wires on you. CM: I've never seen my father,
Mr. Fields. WCF: Go out and look in my woodshed.
Bergen played the straight man to Charlie McCarthy. Charlie was radio's
original bad boy. Bergen kept his age at fourteen. He was cheeky, sneaky,
mouthy, clever, outrageous and much more. Although he actually had many
costumes, his most familiar included top hat, tails and a monocle.
He was also a womanizer. Over the years Charlie's leading ladies included
Dorothy Lamour, Mae West and Marlyn Monroe. His Adam and Eve skit with Mae
West elicited thousands of letters from offended listeners, caused the FCC
to threaten to pull the licenses of stations carrying the program and
incurred a fifteen year network ban against Mae West.
Charlie stood 38 inches high and weighed 40 pounds. Ultimately there were
several Charlie McCarthy's, consisting of several heads and nearly half a
dozen bodies. While the later creations provided Charlie with a variety of
moods and appearances, none matched the original which Bergen insured for
thousands of dollars and kept in its own private bedroom.
In the late thirties and early forties, Bergen added two more dummies to his
stable of characters. Mortimer Snerd joined the cast in 1939. He was an oaf
-- a farm fellow with buck teeth and pieces of straw sticking out of his
hat. Mortimer and Charlie were dead opposites. Mortimer was as dumb as
Charlie was smart. A psychiatrist said that the reason people liked
Mortimer, was that he made them feel more secure then before they heard him
because he was so stupid.
Effie Klinker, a man crazy old maid was added in 1944. While Bergen
experimented with other characters, these three were the survivors, and
Charlie remained the most popular.
How did Bergen parlay a ventriloquist act into a successful radio series?
Why did people embrace a dummy they couldn't even see? Sam Pierce was the
producer for the Bergen McCarthy radio series for many years. He concluded,
"The reason Edgar was loved so, is because people believed the dummies. They
really did believe the dummies, because on radio you didn't see them. Even
the audience in the studio believed them."
Just how believable were Bergen's dummies? Sam Pierce recalled an almost
unbelievable example: "I was doing a series of spots with Edgar Bergen and
the dummies at CBS one afternoon. All the cast were there. Edgar had
completed two or three spots that we put on tape, and asked, 'Do you need me
any more, Sam?' I seriously said, 'No, I don't think so, Edgar. I've got a
couple of little things I'm going to do with Charlie and one I've got to do
with Mort. So I don't need you. You can go.'
"He picked up, walked out of the studio, and out to his car in the parking
lot. And I swear he knew exactly what he was doing; he just sat down in his
car and waited for me. Pretty soon I said, 'Mort, let's do the Mort
stuff...' And all of a sudden I realized what I had done. I had sent the
voice of Mortimer and the voice of Charlie right out into the parking lot. I
believed in them so much!"
With Bergen's abilities to create such believable characters, you'd assume
that he was a consummate ventriloquist. Sam Pierce remembers, "He wasn't
that good a ventriloquist as far as moving his lips. Oh sure, he was better
than the average. But half the jokes in the show were Charlie's saying,
'Your lips are moving, Bergen.' And then we'd do a whole routine on his lips
being moving. We made something of it."
On the radio programs, Charlie McCarthy's witty responses were razor sharp.
His seeming adlibs came so fast and furious that listeners readily concluded
that Edgar Bergen was the master of the quick comeback.
"Not so," says Sam Pierce. "Edger Bergen was a very quiet man who would have
loved to have had the command of the adlib, but who really didn't. You see
the writers had never written anything funny for Edgar; he was the straight
man. Even though Edgar got big laughs because of being a foil with Charlie
and Mort, he was lost with out something having been written that he could
remember. He had a great memory. With the dummies he was bright and
brilliant. He could really wow them. But alone, without them, he was lost.
It was an odd thing to see."
Pierce recalled a vivid example of this: "One year we were back in Chicago.
Edgar had been appearing in person in a nightclub. We had done the radio
show there. We had some spare time, so we decided to take the train instead
of flying. We went back to the club car on the train. There were five or six
young girls who were just wild because they recognized him. He began talking
to them, trying to quip and make them laugh. But he got lost. He was
struggling and the girls were looking a little disappointed.
"Finally he said, 'Look Sam, hang on a minute and I'll be back. Buy the
girls a drink.' He was back in about five minutes and had brought Charlie
and Mort back with him in the suitcases. He pulled them out and sat Charlie
down on his knee. Then he started adlibbing with Charlie. In two minutes he
had the place in hysterics. He had the place falling down with laughter,
because he had Charlie sitting on his lap. Then he pulled Mortimer out,
started talking with Mortimer, and the same thing happened. It was a graphic
example to me, that here was a man who depended on this combination, the
wizardry of these dummies."
During the thirties and forties, Bergen and Charlie starred in several
movies, including: You Can't Cheat An Honest Man (1939); Charlie McCarthy:
Detective (1939); Look Who's Laughing (1941); and Fun And Fancy Free (Walt
Disney 1947). None of these films were particularly memorable, but they did
serve to enhance the illusion of Charlie McCarthy being a real person. In
the movies, it was easy to create scenes in which Charlie alone was featured
with Bergen nowhere to be seen.
By the mid 1940's, Bergen was paid $10,000 a week for his radio show, earned
$150,000 per motion picture and received yet another $100,000 a year on
royalties from Charlie McCarthy dolls and toys.
Over the years Edgar and Charlie received numerous accolades. In 1938 the
Motion Picture Academy awarded Bergen a special wooden "Oscar" for the
comedy creation of 1938. The most unusual award was when Northwestern
University gave Charlie an honorary degree: The Master of Innuendo and
Snappy Comeback. The citation read: "Prince of parasites, violent in
company, churlish in behavior, acid in conversation, wooden faced in all
relationships, and thus in many respects a typical product of higher
education in America."
Bergen's radio program ran from 1937 until 1956. When it ended, he continued
to play nightclubs and theatres, but gradually faded into near obscurity as
ventriloquism faded in popularity.
In the summer of 1978 Edgar Bergen called a press conference to announce his
retirement. For one last time he began a three week engagement in Las Vegas.
His friends and family who knew his health was fragile and that his failing
memory often left him in confusion attended the opening night with
As Bergen and McCarthy flawlessly worked their way through the old routines,
the years seemingly melted away. When the program ended, Bergen and McCarthy
quietly listened to an audio montage of assorted clips from their old radio
shows. The audience applauded with a standing ovation.
Bergen and McCarthy repeated the act for two more nights. On the morning of
the fourth day in Las Vegas -- ten days after announcing his retirement --
Bergen and McCarthy never awoke. Today, Charlie McCarthy resides in the
During the Golden Years of radio, Edgar Bergen proved himself the ultimate
ventriloquist by throwing his voice across an entire nation through the
medium of radio. In his death, he shows an even greater ventriloquistic
prowess. Each year more and more compact discs and cassettes are being
issued bringing his unusual talent to a new generation -- proving that Edgar
Bergen is truly the world's greatest ventriloquist: throwing his voice
forward into time and back from the Great Beyond!
Author's Note: The quotations from Sam Pierce are from a one hour recorded
interview made by the author at the Voice Of America studios on March 24,
Read Burgan is a free lance writer and a former public radio station manager
who can be reached at (906) 296-0652.