Edgar Bergen enjoyed a five-decade career in radio, television and film. Of course, he had a little help from his friend Charlie McCarthy.
Was Edgar Bergen destined to be a ventriloquist?
Born in Chicago to Swedish immigrants, Bergen grew up in Michigan where early on his friends noticed his talent for mimicry. When they suggested he become a ventriloquist, Bergen had to look the word up in the dictionary. Not long after, he attended a show by The Great Lester, a performer who would become known as “The Grandfather of Modern Ventriloquism.” Intrigued by what he saw, the 11-year-old bought a booklet called Hermann’s Wizard’s Manual and taught himself the skill that would make him famous.
While still a teenager, he hired a woodcarver to create his own ventriloquist dummy with a head modeled on a local newspaperboy. Thus was born Charlie McCarthy, perhaps the most famous wooden boy since Pinocchio. The early Charlie McCarthy doll was a little different than the one we know now — no suit and no tophat, he was instead dressed as a street urchin.
Bergen and McCarthy on the vaudeville circuit
At 16 Bergen moved back to Chicago where he worked in a silent movie theater, first sweeping the floors and keeping the furnace lit but later becoming a projectionist and the house piano player. Around this time, he and McCarthy made their debut in a performance at the Waveland Avenue Congregational Church. Before long he’d graduated to the small theaters that made up the Chautauqua vaudeville circuit.
While attending classes at Northwestern University, Bergen continued performing, his popularity getting him gigs in larger and larger venues. (Bergen wouldn’t finish his studies, but was later given an honorary “Master of Innuendo and Snappy Comebacks” degree). Beginning in 1930 he made a number of one-reel shorts for Vitaphone. When he landed a booking at the Helen Morgan Club — a New York nightclub and speakeasy — he decided his act needed sprucing up. Thus was born the second incarnation of Charlie McCarthy, he of the classy tophat, tuxedo, and monocle.
Ventriloquism and radio?
In 1936 Bergen performed at party in New York City thrown for visiting British playwright Noel Coward. This led to an appearance at the prestigious Rainbow Room, where producers for Rudy Vallee’s radio program saw him and offered him a slot on their show.
Ventriloquism and radio would seem an odd pairing, but Bergen and McCarthy proved immensely popular. In 1937 Bergen was given his own show, and he would remain on the airwaves for nearly 20 years. Among their best loved guests were Mae West and especially W.C. Fields, the latter appearing on the show several times and exchanging antagonistic banter with McCarthy such as:
W.C. Fields: Well, Charlie McCarthy, the woodpecker’s pinup boy!
Charlie: Well, if it isn’t W.C. Fields, the man who keeps Seagram’s in business!
Bergen and McCarthy were on air the night of Oct. 30, 1938, when Orson Welles broadcast his famous War of The Worlds and had a confused public believing the planet was under attack by Martians. At the time, many believed that only the fact so many people were listening to Bergen and McCarthy’s show instead of Welles’ kept the country from descending into chaos. On the other hand, many listening to Bergen switched to Welles during the musical interlude, thus missing the all-important disclaimer that the Martian invasion report was a work of fiction.
Bergen and McCarthy on television and in the movies
Bergen and McCarthy appeared on a number of TV programs beginning in 1950 but never landed their own show. Bergen did, however, host the TV game show Do You Trust Your Wife? — a gig that was later taken over by a young Johnny Carson.
The duo found more success on the big screen, appearing in a slew of feature films including The Goldwyn Follies (1938), You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and Fun and Fancy Free (1947). At the height of their popularity, the pair were given an honorary Oscar — made out of wood, of course.
The legacy of Edgar Bergen
Bergen would invent a number of other characters — Mortimer Snerd, Effie Klinker, Lars Lindquist — but none would prove as popular as the wisecracking McCarthy. The two continued performing together throughout the 1960s and ’70s and had a cameo in The Muppet Movie. It would be their final appearance.
Bergen died Sept. 30, 1978, at the Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas, where he had been scheduled to perform a two-week farewell engagement. When it was released in 1979, The Muppet Movie was dedicated to Bergen’s memory. Charlie McCarthy was adopted by the Smithsonian Institute, where he remains on display.