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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 1920-70s.

Charlie McCarthy with Edgar Bergen

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 movie house.

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.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Print Ad for Coca Cola

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: 

Fields: Tell me Charlie, is it true your father was a gateleg table?
Charlie:  Well, if it is, your father was under it.
Fields: Quiet, you flop house for termites, I'll whittle you down to a coat hanger.
Charlie: [Shouting] 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."

'Charlie McCarthy, Detective' Movie PosterEdgar 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 (1941).

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 " got a good deal and I couldn't turn it down."

Lessons in Ventriloquism with Edgar Bergen

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 performance.

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."

Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen with Kermit the Frog - 1977 episode of THE MUPPET SHOW
McCarthy, Bergen with Kermit the Frog

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 McCarthy.

The Charlie McCarthy dummy now resides in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. 

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