Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy: The art of ventriloquism
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.
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. 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.
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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.
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.
“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.”
The Golden Age of Radio Show (1944)
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, with guest star Orson Welles
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy for CBS & Coca Cola (1950)
Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy with Dean Martin (1968)
An appearance on the Dean Martin show