Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy: The most famous ventriloquist & puppet of the 20th century

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist and puppet

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Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy: The art of ventriloquism (1938)

This article from Popular Mechanics magazine – March 1938

If you own a radio, you’re acquainted with Charlie McCarthy. He’s the impudent little dummy who sits upon the lap of Edgar Bergen, his creator, and entertains millions weekly with his comedy.

To Charlie goes credit of reviving an ancient art, ventriloquism, which was practiced in the temples before the coming of Christ.

Before he became radio’s man-of-the-hour, ventriloquism was on its last legs. When the vaudeville halls went out, ventriloquists could not work. Radio was not for them: the charm of their art lay in seeing the dummy talk.

One by one, the wooden Mickeys, Noseys, and Sambos were forced into retirement. Only Charlie McCarthy remained.

Edgar Bergen NBC radio show

His boss wasn’t ready to throw in the sponge. He’d revamp his act and try the smart supper clubs.

In the back of his mind was a fantastic notion of getting on the radio, making the invisible audience visualize the dummy through crackling dialogue.

The plan was carried out. Armed with some new routines, Bergen, after dressing Charlie McCarthy in white tie and tails and giving him a monocle and an English accent, captured the cabaret crowds.

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Then Bergen attempted to get into radio. The broadcasting executives were disinterested, but finally, he was given a hearing. Two appearances on a New York station brought an offer to appear on a coast-to-coast hour.

Edgar Bergen in The Goldwyn Follies

Before turning the microphone over to them, the master of ceremonies impressed upon the listeners that the voices were coming from the same man.

Then Charlie and Bergen began their patter with the former doing most of the talking. To everyone’s surprise, with the possible exception of Bergen, Charlie was an immediate success.

Within a short time, the dying art of ventriloquism was reviving. Veterans dusted off their wooden stooges and stepped into engagements. And once again, youngsters began probing the mysteries of voice throwing.

Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy for CBS & Coca Cola (1950)
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy for CBS & Coca Cola (1950)
Ventriloquism, or “throwing your voice”

Charlie and his quiet, self-effacing boss have a three-year contract on one of the air’s big shows, Hollywood is paying handsomely for their services in motion pictures, and they can name their own terms for theater engagements and personal appearances.

Charlie McCarthy charms, dolls, games, and other items are being rushed into production.

SEE MORE: Popular vintage board games from the ’30s & ’40s

Vintage 1930s Charlie McCarthy board game
Vintage 1930s Charlie McCarthy board game

“Ventriloquism,” explains Bergen, “is pressure on the voice — a sort of a grunt voice, The term ‘voice throwing’ is not exactly correct, in my opinion. I prefer to call it ‘voice diffusing.’

“Because the voice comes from the stomach, it appears to be coming from a distance. Through the power of suggestion, the ventriloquist makes his audience think the voice coming from somewhere else.”

A ventriloquist usually has one voice and the dummy — face and figure — must be fitted to it, Charlie’s creator says.

“Many ventriloquists,” he adds, “have made the mistake of making the dummy first and then trying to fit the voice to it. Their acts flop because the words that are put their mouths do not seem to fit them.

“A definite personality should be established first, and then the dummy built to fit the ventriloquist’s conception of him.”

Vintage 1930s Charlie McCarthy board game

The Golden Age of Radio Show (1944)

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with guest star Orson Welles

YouTube video

Retirement a flop for Edgar Bergen (1972)

by Digby Diehl – Tampa Bay Times (Florida) March 26, 1972

Bel Air, Calif. — In the halcyon days of radio, when people still used their imaginations, there was only one show that ever drew a larger audience than Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

From its inception in 1936, the whimsical, wisecracking dialogue held the number one spot consistently for six straight years, and after 14 more ended up as the all-time number one show on CBS.

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The dummy and his genial father figure held a Hooper rating of 49, which in contemporary talk, is a Nielsen that went off the charts.

Edgar Bergen, the sophisticated denizen of Hollywood who alone practically brought the word ventriloquism back into the English language, was born of Swedish immigrant parents 67 years ago in Decatur, Michigan.

Young Edgar Bergen

He discovered his natural talent for ventriloquism through the accident of childhood pranks, and he developed this unique ability in a classic Midwestern way: a 35-cent wizard’s manual from a mail order catalog.

Fashioning a dummy after a wise-cracking Irish newsboy who sold papers on the street corner of his home town,

Bergen gave his first performance with Charlie McCarthy to a high school assembly. It won him a passing grade from an astonished history teacher which allowed him to go on to the speech department at Northwestern University, and greater fame.

In the late ’20s, he toured the vaudeville circuits in European theatres, arriving in Hollywood in 1939, when he made his first Vita-phone short for Warner’s.

This was followed by a number of film and nightclub performances until his first guest appearance with Rudy Vallee on radio, which rocketed him to fame.

ALSO FROM 1939: About the classic Wizard of Oz movie: Cast interviews, behind the scenes, costumes & lots more

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy - Radio Guide magazine cover (1937)

Perhaps his best-remembered show (certainly best remembered by the Federal Communications Commission) costarred Mae West, who invited Charlie McCarthy to come up to her apartment sometime and play in her woodpile.

In 1945, Bergen married Frances Westerman, a John Robert Powers model from Birmingham, Ala.; today they move in the highest social circles in Los Angeles.

In the years since the ascendance of Candy [actress Candice Bergen], his bright and beautiful daughter, Bergen has remained in retirement.

Just last year, though, he and Charlie McCarthy took to the road again, finding large, appreciative audiences of all ages.

Upon my arrival at his large Bel Air home, I was disappointed to find Charlie McCarthy nowhere in sight. But in the course of our discussions, Bergen certainly showed which of the two has the brains.

His vivid recollections of a 30-year career in show business, his insights into the art of ventriloquism, and his fatherly anecdotes about Candy revealed the charm of Edgar Bergen without a stick of wood in sight.

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Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Candy - Candice Bergen

QUESTION: Do you think that in coming out of retirement you and Charlie are riding a wave of nostalgia?

Edgar Bergen: As Charlie says, the main reason is that “Bergen, you’re a failure at retirement.” I guess there is a wave of nostalgia.

The young people accepting W.C. Fields started it. But there’s something else. People are getting a little tired of sitting and watching television — I think they want to get out a bit.

They can appreciate that there’s a different thrill with live entertainment, and that’s something that’s at a pretty low ebb right now.

QUESTION: What aspect of your act reaches contemporary audiences best?

Edgar Bergen: It’s amusement with the lifelikeness of Charlie — his doubletakes, or asides to the audience. When Charlie talks about me, they enjoy that. But it has always been the same.

I do routines that I did 30 years ago and get tremendous response. Comedy is very enduring. Songs and dances, they come and go, but comedy — well, there are mother-in-law jokes that go back before Christ.

TAKE A LOOK: See more of the man and his puppet here, on video and in books

Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen and David Sarnoff at Sarnoff's New York office
Charlie McCarthy, Edgar Bergen and David Sarnoff at Sarnoff’s New York office

QUESTION: Do you think radio will ever come back the way it was before the days of television?

Bergen: I dont know. I don’t suppose it will ever come back the way it was, but I think it deserves a second look. A second listen perhaps. I’m amazed now how many people say they don’t watch television very much. I find myself going to the news and to the educational channel.

I wish radio would be given a little more recognition, because it could be very restful. I hope radio has passed through the phase of young people with guitars screaming. Because besides getting deaf. it just wears you out. Television. It’s the glass furnace. It’s a real monster to work in.

QUESTION: I suppose that with the TV talk shows there isn’t the same kind of mystique about actors there was when you just heard them on your radio.

Edgar Bergen: I’m one who shouldn’t go on those TV talk shows, because you sit and have a few moments of casual conversation, and then they say bring on Charlie or Mortimer, and you sit and try to ad lib, and they say, well, he’s not so funny.

A good routine is something that’s written and studied. I was interviewed once with questions like “What grade is Charlie in?” and “What subjects did he flunk?” Well, you’re leading to nothing. They want answers, not comedy.

QUESTION: Has Charlie taken the stature of a person in your mind?

Edgar Bergen: If he walked in, I wouldn’t be too surprised, and I’d certainly know what to talk about. But, really, I think comedians have their props. They’ve got to have that funny hat, or that cigar, or Chaplin and his baggy pants and old shoes.

Charlie is more than that; he’s a way to express my comedy. I wish I could walk into a room and do my comedy without him. But he’s half of it now.

1938 Bergen Charlie McCarthy dummy inside - Popular Mechanics

QUESTION: Don’t you have a controlled schizophrenia going on in your mind when you’re keeping two characters distinct?

Edgar Bergen: That’s true. For a show, even for rehearsal, I have to have Charlie or Mortimer there, because my timing isn’t the same without them, even on radio.

I wouldn’t really know if the script was written correctly unless Charlie was there. And I’d rephrase it for him as we’d go along.

QUESTION: I know that you’ve written academic articles on the subject of ventriloquism for the Encyclopedias Americana and Britannica. What’s the secret?

Edgar Bergen: Lots of doctors have talked about the physiology and anatomy of ventriloquism. But basically, it is a pressure on the vocal cords. The greater the pressure you can apply, the greater the effect of distance.

Edgar Bergen - National Portrait Gallery - via Smithsonian

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Your ear isn’t as good as you think. If a quartet is on stage, it’s your eye that tells you which voice is singing which part, not your ear.

Ventriloquism is more than holding your lips still and moving the mouth of the dummy. Done correctly, you can fool dogs as well as people.

QUESTION: I can’t think of many two-generation show business families. How did Candy get into the business?

Edgar Bergen: Well, I knew I would never steer either of my children into a career — I don’t think that’s fair.

A lot of people want a father and daughter thing, but I let her do what she wants to do. She will, anyway. I figured I’d like to see her carry it on, as long as she was pretty.

Of course, she grew up in show business and that was everyday life. I had her on my radio show when she was six years old, and told her, “It isn’t polite to talk when people are laughing.” I said that so she wouldn’t step on my laughs.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy with young Candice Bergen
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy with young Candice Bergen

When we got off stage, she said, “Gee, Dad, I had to wait the longest time on my laughs.” Then she grew up and went to school in Switzerland for a year.

When she came back from Switzerland, I set her up at my school, Northwestern, and they said, “Oh, we remember your father well; he’s a great hero here.”

Of course, that was no thrill for her, and so she went to Pennsylvania University.

When she came back from college, on a Christmas vacation, I had her do a walk-on part on Hollywood Palace. She had three or four lines.

She slopped through rehearsal. She wasn’t good at all. And it was announced that the girl was Edgar Bergen’s daughter. When it was over, I said, “Candy, let me be the first to tell you, you have nothing to give the theatre.”

SEE MORE CANDY: Candice Bergen: The early career of the model, actress, daughter of Edgar Bergen, and brother to a famous puppet

Original Charlie McCarthy dummy

QUESTION: Has she improved much since Hollywood Palace?

Edgar Bergen: I saw her in T.R. Baskin, and she had two scenes, a crying scene on the telephone, and a laughing scene, and both of them are pure Academy Awards stuff…

QUESTION: Did you ever get indications when Candy was younger that she would be such an item for gossip columnists?

Edgar Bergen: No, in her childhood, Candy was much more reserved and serious. She always sent me running to the encyclopedia.

QUESTION: I understand that she’s still not very social.

Bergen: She shuns parties — she’s kind of a Garbo. She doesn’t like crowds of adulation, and I admire her for that.

She’s also a snob inside. She has her ideals, and I think that’s very good.

See Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy on TV (1968)

An appearance on TV’s Dean Martin Show

YouTube video

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