Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy -
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (actually Berggren) and his
wisecracking wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy were icons of Americana
performing on stage, radio, movies and television from the
At age eleven, Edgar Bergen sent away through the mail for "The
Wizard's Manual" (cost 25 cents). It taught the "secrets of magic,
black arts, mind reading, ventriloquism and hypnotism."
Edgar's first attempts at ventriloquism according to the book
"Knock Wood" (Ballantine, 1985) written by his daughter Candice
Bergen, consisted of Edgar throwing his voice into an apple pie
that his mother was taking from the stove. The pie shrieked "Help,
help! Let me out!, Oh thank you, thank you."
The idea for his dummy Charlie McCarthy was inspired by a
streetwise little Irish youngster named Charlie, who delivered
newspapers in Decatur, Michigan where Bergen worked in the silent
After making sketches of Charlie, Edgar gave them to a barkeeper
called Mack who was a wood carver. Thus was born "Charlie" (after
the newsboy) "McCarthy" (after Mr. Mack).
Charlie's forty pound body consisted of a head made of pine and a
nine-inch hickory spine made from a broomstick. He wore size 4
clothes, size 3 socks and size 2AAA shoes.
In the beginning of his career, Bergen entertained in tent cities
filled with rowdy farmers and miners but eventually he debuted at
the Palace in 1930.
When Vaudeville died, Bergen revamped his act by dressing Charlie
and himself in a classy top hat, tuxedo and tails. With Charlie
McCarthy's family crest featuring a top hat, monocle and pine tree
emblazoned on a shield, then broke into the Chicago supper club
circuit at the Chez Paree Night Club. The Rudy Vallee radio show
was his next destination and by 1937 he had his own show on THE
CHASE AND SANBORN HOUR.
It was at this time that the legendary feuds between the brassy
Charlie McCarthy and the inebriated comedian/movie star W.C.
Fields occurred. A typical on-air exchange:
Charlie, is it true your father was a gateleg table?
|| Well, if it
is, your father was under it.
flop house for termites, I'll whittle you down to a coat
I'll mow you down, so help me, I'll Mooowww ya' down!"
Once Mae West asked Charlie to "Come up and see me sometime?
Charlie responded "What would I do? To which West suggestively
replied "I'd let you play around in my wood pile."
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy soon became popular movie stars.
They appeared with the Ritz Brothers in The Goldwyn Follies
(1938); with W.C. Fields in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man
(1939); Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939), with
Lucille Ball and Fibber McGee and Molly in Look Who's Laughing
Edgar Bergen made his television debut on 11/14/46 on the variety
program HOUR GLASS/NBC/1946-47 hosted by emcee Helen Parrish where
he brought his radio act to television.
Other dummy characters in Bergen's act included the dimwitted
Mortimer Snerd, a buck-toothed country bumpkin and an anxious,
bespectacled spinster named Effie Klinker who wore a blouse with
high ruffled collar.
During one of his sporadic visitations to television Edgar Bergen
appeared on an episode of THE JACK BENNY SHOW/CBS/1950-65 when
Jack visited Bergen's home to find his famous dummies actually
walking around like real people. When Jack asked Mortimer Snerd
how he got so stupid? Mortimer replied "Well...er...I got a good
deal and I couldn't turn it down."
During the 1950s Edgar Bergen hosted the comedy quiz show DO YOU
TRUST YOUR WIFE?/CBS/1956-57 where he again talked with his
dummies Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker and
married couples chosen for their unusual backgrounds.
In the late summer of 1978 after 56 years in show business, Bergen
announced his retirement while performing at Ceasar's Palace in
Las Vegas. His closing lines that evening were, "Every vaudeville
act must have an opening and a closing, so I'll pack up my jokes
and my little friends . . . and say goodbye."
Bergen died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 75 on
September 30, 1978 only two weeks after his farewell opening
One of four eulogies given at Edgar Bergen's funeral was delivered
by puppeteer Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets. Henson had
dedicated his first movie "To the Magic of Edgar Bergen."
McCarthy, Bergen with Kermit the
The music played at the funeral included a Swedish folk song
"Charlie My Boy" (his radio theme song) and "September Song" sung
by Andy Williams.
Candice Bergen (of MURPHY BROWN fame) once said of her father's
dummy "For me as a child Charlie McCarthy had semi-human status.
He wasn't flesh and blood and he wasn't a doll, either. But he was
a sacred calf. He brought home the bacon."
Among the many awards received by Edgar Bergen during his
lifetime, the most unique was an Oscar® award, the only one ever
made of wood.
In 1991, the US Postal Service issued a twenty-nine cent postage
stamp with the cartoon likeness of Edgar Bergen and Charlie
The Charlie McCarthy dummy now resides in the Smithsonian Museum
in Washington, D.C.
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