Edgar Bergen

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“When I ask him these questions and he answers, I haven’t got the faintest idea what he’s going to say, and what he says astounds me with his wisdom.” –Edgar Bergen

I am a huge fan of old time radio. In fact old time radio shows are the only recordings on my iPod at present! In particular, I’m a fan of The Jack Benny Program, Blondie, The Bob Hope Show, My Favorite Husband, A Date with Judy, Our Miss Brooks (I’m an English teacher!), and of course, The Charlie McCarthy Show. While the other radio shows I mentioned feature a very talented group of radio actors, The Charlie McCarthy Show is especially unique in that we hear Edgar Bergen carrying the show through various personas. Through his aptitude for ventriloquism and excellent comedic timing, Bergen created some of the most beloved characters featured on radio, as well as a host of witty quips and remarks.

Edgar John Bergren was born in Chicago, Illinois, and was one of five children. His parents were Swedish immigrants. They moved to a farm near Decatur, Michigan, and lived there until he was four years old. After that, he and his family returned to Sweden, where he learned the language. When he was eleven years old, he and his family moved to Chicago. It was at this point that Edgar taught himself ventriloquism from a booklet entitled, “The Wizard’s Manual.”

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During his teen years, Edgar attended Lake View High School in Chicago. Unfortunately, his father passed away when Edgar was sixteen years old, so Edgar sought work where he could find it. He worked as an apprentice accountant, furnace stoke, player piano operator, and silent-movie house projectionist. Ventriloquist Harry Lester was so impressed by Edgar’s talent and work ethic that he gave a teenaged Edgar lessons in the fundamentals of ventriloquism on an almost daily basis.

When the fall of 1919 approached, Edgar paid Chicago woodcarver, Theodore Mack, $36 to sculpt a model head of a redheaded Irish newspaper boy he knew. That head was eventually situated atop a dummy named Charlie McCarthy, who became Bergen’s sidekick for the rest of his life. Bergen created the body himself, using a nine-inch length of broomstick for the backbone, and rubber bands and cords to control the dummy’s lower jaw.

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After graduating from high school, Bergen attended Northwestern University. He enrolled in the pre-med program to please his mother, but wound up switching to a major of speech and drama. He paid for college by performing with Charlie all around Chicago. Bergen decided that show business was his future and he quit school. He gave his first public performance at Waveland Avenue Congregational Church, on the northeast corner of Waveland and Janssen in Chicago. He cut out an “R” and a “G” from his family name and went from Berggren to Bergen on the showbills. Between June 1922 and August 1925, he performed every summer on the professional Chautauqua circuit and at the Lyceum theater in Chicago. Bergen also had an interest in aviation, and became a private pilot.

After working in vaudeville and on one-reel movie shorts, Edgar found that he would be most successful on the radio. He and Charlie were seen at a New York party by Elsa Maxwell for Noël Coward, who recommended them for an engagement at the famous Rainbow Room. It was there that two producers saw Bergen and Charlie perform. They then recommended them for a guest appearance on Rudy Vallée’s program. Their initial appearance (December 17, 1936) was so successful that the following year they were given their own show, as part of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Under various sponsors (and two different networks), they were on the air from May 9, 1937 to July 1, 1956.

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The popularity of a ventriloquist on radio, when one could see neither the dummies nor his skill, surprised and puzzled many critics, then and now. Even knowing that Bergen provided the voice, listeners perceived Charlie as a genuine person, but only through artwork rather than photos could the character be seen as truly lifelike. Thus, in 1947, Sam Berman caricatured Bergen and McCarthy for the network’s glossy promotional book, NBC Parade of Stars: As Heard Over Your Favorite NBC Station.

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Bergen also developed other characters for the radio program, most notably, the slow-witted Mortimer Snerd and the man-hungry Effie Klinker. However, Charlie was always the star of the show. He was always presented as a highly precocious child (albeit in top hat, cape, and monocle)—a debonair, girl-crazy, child-about-town. As a child, and a wooden one at that, Charlie could get away with double entendres which were otherwise impossible under broadcast standards of the time.

Charlie and Mae West had this conversation on December 12, 1937.

Charlie: “Not so loud, Mae, not so loud! All my girlfriends are listening.”
Mae: “Oh, yeah! You’re all wood and a yard long.”
Charlie: “Yeah.”
Mae: “You weren’t so nervous and backward when you came up to see me at my apartment. In fact, you didn’t need any encouragement to kiss me.”
Charlie: “Did I do that?”
Mae: “Why, you certainly did. I got marks to prove it. An’ splinters, too.”

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Charlie’s feud with W. C. Fields was a regular feature of the show.

W. C. Fields: “Well, if it isn’t Charlie McCarthy, the woodpecker’s pinup boy!”
Charlie: “Well, if it isn’t W.C. Fields, the man who keeps Seagram’s in business!”

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Since Bergen was not the most technically skilled ventriloquist, Charlie McCarthy would often poke fun at him for moving his lips. However, Bergen had a keen sense of comedic timing.  In fact, Bergen’s wit in creating McCarthy’s striking personality and that of his other characters was the making of the show. Bergen’s popularity as a ventriloquist on radio, where the trick of “throwing his voice” was not visible, suggests his appeal was primarily the personalities he applied to his characters.

Interestingly, Bergen and McCarthy are sometimes credited with “saving the world” because, on the night of October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles performed his War of the Worlds radio play hoax that panicked many listeners, most of the American public had instead tuned to Bergen and McCarthy on another station and never heard Welles’ play. Conversely, it has also been theorized that Bergen inadvertently contributed to the hysteria. When the musical portion of Bergen’s show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, aired approximately 12 minutes into the show, many listeners adjusted their dial and found the War of the Worlds presentation already underway with a realistic-sounding reporter detailing terrible events.

Bergen and his alter-ego Charlie McCarthy were given top billing in several films, including the  The Goldwyn Follies (1938), opposite the Ritz Brothers. In the following year, they also appeared in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man with W. C. Fields. At the height of their popularity in 1937, Bergen was presented an Honorary Oscar (in the form of a wooden Oscar statuette) for his creation of Charlie McCarthy. Bergen, along with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd were also featured in the 1938 film Letter of Introduction.

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In 1941, Bergen met 19-year-old fashion model Frances Westerman in the audience of his radio program as the guest of a member of his staff.  The two were married in Mexico after years of long-distance courtship, on June 28, 1945. On May 9, 1946 Frances gave birth to future actress Candice Bergen, whose first performances were on Bergen’s radio show. They also became the parents of film and television editor Kris Bergen, born on October 12, 1961. Frances also became a successful actress, appearing in several movies, co-starring in the 1958 television series Yancy Derringer, and guest-starring in numerous other shows.

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Candice and Charlie

In the fall of 1948, Edgar and Charlie faced serious competition from ABC’s “jackpot” quiz show, Stop the Music, which suddenly drew more listeners. By December 1948, Edgar announced he was temporarily “retiring” from radio, admitting that Stop the Music was too popular to compete with. His final NBC broadcast was on December 26, 1948.

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In October 1949, Bergen went to CBS, with a new weekly program, The Charlie McCarthy Show, sponsored by Coca-Cola.  In October 1954, Kraft Foods sponsored a new Edgar Bergen Hour. After Kraft’s departure, the series continued with participating sponsors as a 55 minute series in the fall of 1955. However, because more people were watching television on Sunday nights than listened to radio (and advertisers preferred to sponsor TV shows by then), the series finally ended on July 1, 1956.

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Bergen appeared without Charlie in several films, I Remember Mama(1948), Captain China (1949), The Hanged Man (1964) and Don’t Make Waves(1967). He appeared with Charlie in Look Who’s Laughing (1941) and Here We Go Again (1942), both with Fibber McGee and Molly. Charlie McCarthy can be spotted wearing a US Army uniform in Stage Door Canteen (1943) with Mortimer Snerd. Bergen and McCarthy were also featured in Disney’s Fun and Fancy Free (1947). Although his regular series never made the transition to television, Bergen made numerous appearances on the medium during his career.

Bergen’s craft inspired other puppeteers, such as Jim Henson and Jeff Dunham. In fact, Bergen had a cameo in The Muppet Movie (1979). Bergen died shortly after making the film, his final public appearance, which was subsequently dedicated to him. In September 1978, that he announced that he was retiring after 48 years in show business and sending his beloved partner, Charlie, to the Smithsonian Institution. He opened at Caesar’s Palace Hotel Las Vegas on September 27, for a two week “Farewell to show business” engagement. After struggling with kidney disease, he died in his sleep three days later on September 30, 1978, at age 75.

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Today, the iconic wooden Charlie McCarthy rests in Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution. However, the Smithsonian rotates their collection, so there’s a chance you may not see him unless you call ahead to check and see if he’s on display. Despite Charlie being displayed sporadically, according to another blogger, Charlie was most recently displayed at the Smithsonian without his top hat.

When I was looking for information about some locations that would have been relevant to Edgar during his time in Chicago, I found that the 1900 census listed his parents living at 569 N. Francisco. Perhaps this was the home he lived in when he was born. Unfortunately, the home was razed and the property is now part of an industrial area in Chicago.

However, his name first appears in the 1920 census under the name Edgar Bergren, as he had already changed the spelling of his name professionally to Bergen. This lists his home address as 1239 Waveland Ave. He would have resided there when his family returned from Sweden to Chicago. Edgar would have been about 16 years old at that time of the census. The building remains to this day.

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Decades after Bergen gave his first public performance at Waveland Avenue Congregational Church, he gave the church a generous contribution, a thoughtful letter, and a photograph of himself which had been requested by the minister and was displayed in the church’s assembly room which was dedicated to Bergen. The church no longer stands today. However, this is the location at present:

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While Bergen very publicly donated a Charlie McCarthy puppet to the Smithsonian, many people do not know that there are actually three versions of Charlie McCarthy. One is on display at the Smithsonian Institution, another is at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Bergen’s hometown of Chicago, and magician David Copperfield owns the remaining dummy.

The Museum of Broadcast Communications is home to a wide variety of radios, sets, and memorabilia. Upon entering, visitors are greeted with the doors to the Oprah Winfrey Show and the set of Family Classics. 

Along the hallway, visitors can see a host of old time radios, phonographs, and Victrolas.

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The Museum of Broadcast Communications also houses several pieces of memorabilia from the era of old time radio, since Chicago was a major broadcasting city in the heyday of radio. They own the camera used during the Nixon/Kennedy debates, Carol Burnett’s cleaning lady cap, Jimmy Durante’s hat, a Fiber McGee and Molly closet, and a wide range of other items. See what else you recognize!

But, most importantly, the Museum of Broadcast Communications houses a great deal of Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen memorabilia, including fan merchandise, movie posters, awards, lobby cards, toys, and much more.

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Additionally, Charlie’s honorary degree from Edgar Bergen’s alma mater, Northwestern University, is also on display there.

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Edgar Bergen’s specially-made wooden Oscar and his Emmy are also housed in the Charlie McCarthy display.

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Best of all, Charlie McCarthy is on permanent display with his friends, Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker. They were donated to the museum by Bergen’s widow upon his passing.

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Don of Don’s American Songbook was also admiring Charlie and company with me.

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If you’re ever in the Chicago area and want to visit Charlie and his friends, be sure to stop by the Museum of Broadcast Communications at 360 N State Street. While it’s bittersweet to see  Charlie spending his lazy days of retirement in silence, I can’t help but think of what he would want to get off his chest today.

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About Annette Bochenek

Classic cinema-loving redhead and PhD student who is entranced by the Golden Age of Hollywood and all things Art Deco.
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3 Responses to Edgar Bergen

  1. Carol says:

    Great piece. Love the photos!

  2. ridgewoodboy says:

    I enjoyed it very much even to the point of crying. I only got started on WordPress a short while ago and told a story about Charlie from 1938 when I was 6 years of age.
    My mother had given me a Charlie McCarthy doll and in 1939 we brought him with us to live in Ridgewood, NY.
    Here’s my story:
    We lived in an eight family building. Next door to Mike’s Shoe Repair Shop was Charley Jetter’s saloon, followed by Rosen’s Candy Store. For the remainder of 1939, Mr. Rosen would be my best friend. He looked old, was a bit roly-poly, bald and had a big round face. He was very intense and looked worried most of the time. His wife was tall and had thick black hair with streaks of silver. She was known as “the crab” because she constantly nagged her husband and was not cheerful to her customers. The two seemed unhappy with each other and the world.
    I met Mr. Rosen the very first day we moved to Ridgewood. Mom gave me a few pennies to buy myself some candy. I was one of those children who tried the patience of the candy store proprietor to utter exasperation. I had all day to choose my candy and took a long time. That first day I met him it was fortunate that I had Charlie McCarthy with me. I strolled over to the candy counter and dallied for one half minute. It always took longer to choose a candy when Mr. Rosen wanted me to speed things up. When he started tapping his fingers on the counter it was a signal that he was about to blow his top. He saw me talking with Charlie, which seemed to divert his attention. I said, “So what do you want?”
    As I pulled the string at the back of Charlie’s neck he said, “I can’t make up my mind. It’s either Kits or a lollipop.”
    Hearing that comment made Mr. Rosen take a sudden interest in ventriloquism and his impatience seemed to disappear. He had both a bewildered look on his face and a half smile.
    I nonchalantly said, “Charlie, you have to make up your mind.”
    “It’s very difficult.”
    Mr. Rosen burst out laughing and told me to wait. He went to the back room and brought out his wife. Speaking with one voice, we debated. Charlie said, “I don’t know what to choose.”
    “Well, you better hurry up.”
    Mrs. Rosen turned to her smiling husband and said, “It’s cute.” Then she hurried to the back room.
    Finally, Charlie chose Kits. They were a penny a package and I paid for them.
    Mr. Rosen said, “Here’s a package for Charlie free of charge.” That made me a paid entertainer.
    The next morning, Mr. Rosen saw me sitting with Charlie in front of my apartment building and shouted, “Bobby! Come sit on the newsstand and talk to Charlie.”
    “Okay.”
    The candy store man picked me up while I held Charlie and he sat us alongside the newspapers. As people walked by they saw the familiar looking dummy and me in conversation. Ignoring everyone, I paid close attention to my companion’s words, which made passersby and Rosen’s customers laugh. Sometimes there were as many as five or six people being entertained. Mr. Rosen was in his glory, bragging to his customers about his discovery. I would chatter away and did not let the spectators distract me. Most of them were rollicking with laughter, but none more than my first Ridgewood friend. One man in the audience shouted, “Who’s the kid?”
    With no other clue than my abundant black, curly hair, Mr. Rosen answered, “He’s a little Jewish boy who just moved into the neighborhood.” (I was Irish).
    My “manager,” as well as Charlie and I had a great time. Each morning, this “little Jewish boy” sat on the newsstand and did the best he could. But once I returned to school, the curtain came down on our show and I never saw Mr. Rosen laugh again. By the time I reached eight I found myself playing less and less with Charlie and soon put him away.
    Before the summer ended, each day in the late afternoon, I’d play with my workbench, which had been put in storage when we moved to Bridgeport. I took it to the corner of Woodbine Street and Fresh Pond Road and amused myself with this great gift that Uncle Willie had given me. The workbench contained all the basic carpentry tools. Mindful of the people who walked by, I would pretend that I was making things. Then I would make believe I was selling my creations to my customers. Hammering on the bench and sawing and drilling the air would often draw a little crowd of adults who stood by chuckling. Once in a while a grown-up would speak to me. “Hey! What are you making?”
    “Cigar boxes for Mr. Rosen.”
    Most of the time I ignored the onlookers and I believe that half the laughs came about because of this.
    By the time I reached fifteen, several of those grown-ups became customers of mine on my paper route, but they no longer recognized me as that little boy of so long ago. My looks, of course, had changed, which left me as good as forgotten. And I just never got around to telling them who I really was.
    But poor Mr. Rosen never forgot me. When I gave up playing with Charlie, I would still drop into his store for my daily candy. Without Charlie doing the choosing, he lost his patience. One day he pleaded with my mother to do the selecting for me. He confessed he couldn’t stand it anymore and said, “Bobby is driving me crazy, please help me.” I did hang around the showcase a rather long time, and when I’d make my choice, nine times out of ten it was Kits. Mr. Rosen missed Charlie, who was now sleeping in our trunk.
    I’ll never forget Charlie, a class act.
    I’ll never forget my promoter, Mr. Rosen. I loved him and miss him, even more than Kits.
    To tell you the truth, I even miss myself. It was so much fun being a child.
    ridgewoodboy

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