RADIO: EDGAR BERGEN and CHARLIE McCARTHY

By Peter Tatchell (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #24, 2005)

He was probably the best known ventriloquist in the world, whose enormous fame derived from the unlikely medium of radio. Edgar Bergen’s success rested squarely on the shoulders of a forty pound block of wood named Charlie McCarthy, a character so endearing and believable that the pair conquered vaudeville, movies and the airwaves across America.

Born in Michigan in 1903 of Swedish immigrant parents named Berggren, from an early age Edgar was fascinated by touring troups of show people. His hobbies were magic and ventriloquism and a wood carving barman named Mack created a dummy for the teenager, who imbued it with the cocky, quick-witted personality of a red-headed Irish schoolfriend named Charlie.

Deserting a college education studying medicine to tread the boards, Edgar Bergen and “Charlie McCarthy” spent the 1920s working their way across the smalltime vaudeville circuits and tent shows, finally landing a spot on the bill at Broadway’s legendary Palace Theatre in 1930. Edgar also made his film debut the same year, appearing in a succession of Vitaphone 1-reel movie shorts.

But the early thirties was a tough time to be in show business, with the arrival of the talkies and radio proving a knockout blow for vaudeville theatres which quickly replaced live performers with those on celluloid.

In desperation, Edgar upgraded his act and began appearing in late night supper clubs, the duo now wearing dress suits, with Charlie even sporting a monocle. Recommendations by famed party-giver Elsa Maxwell and Noel Coward led to a booking at the prestigious Rainbow Room in Manhattan and a spot on Rudy Vallee’s radio show at the end of 1936. The single appearance was extended to three months and America’s hottest ventriloquist was then signed for his own weekly programme.

The Chase and Sanborn Hour
had begun on N.B.C. in 1931 as a vehicle for Eddie Cantor, but the revamped version of six years later starred Edgar and Charlie, Nelson Eddy, Don Ameche and Dorothy Lamour with a few months of guest appearances by W.C. Fields. The on-air battles between Charlie and the larger-than-life movie comedian were some of the funniest the medium ever produced and led to a number of return bouts until Fields’ death in 1946.

Another comedy legend from the movies also made a notable visit to the programme at the end of 1937. Signing Mae West to appear in a skit about Adam and Eve was bound to cause controversy but no one seemed to have noticed the double-meanings her script contained or imagined the furore they would create. Bergen’s wholesome, upstanding character was able to weather the backlash from the offended religious masses, but West was uniformly banned from the airwaves for over ten years.

As for the programme itself, The Chase and Sanborn Hour was the most popular on air and Edgar and Charlie were soon back in the movies themselves, but this time in full-length features, not shorts.

By January 1940, skyrocketing advertising rates meant the show was trimmed to thirty minutes, the spotlight now firmly on Edgar, Charlie and an assortment of new dolls he was busily creating. There was Mortimer Snerd, the slow-witted hayseed (who later became an inspiration for the Goon Show’s Eccles), old maid Effie Klinker and Podine Puffington.

The Edgar Bergen – Charlie McCarthy Show
of the 1940s also gave birth to a regular segment highlighting the unhappily-married Bickersons, featuring Don Ameche and Frances Langford as the warring spouses, which eventually spawned its own half hour series in 1946.

For eligible bachelor Bergen himself, 1945 saw him embark on a much happier married life than his radio characters, with he and bride Frances remaining together for the rest of his life. May 1946 saw the birth of their daughter Candy who, as a six-year-old, would make her show business debut on the radio show, many years before becoming Candice Bergen, the movie and television star.

Edgar and Charlie had become radio perennials … a nine-month break from the airwaves in 1949, returning with a new sponsor (Coca Cola) on a new network (C.B.S.) didn’t dampen the show’s popularity. (Coke also backed two Bergen television specials during the momentous 1950/1 season).

Edgar’s Sunday night radio programme had become an institution … it stayed on air until 1956, outlasting Benny, Hope, Crosby, Cantor, Burns & Allen and all the other broadcasting giants.

However, despite ventriloquism being regarded as a visual form of entertainment, and Bergen being acknowledged as the master of the craft, he didn’t really achieve much success on television. He hosted a game show Do You Trust Your Wife? for a little over a year in the mid-1950s, then stepped out of the spotlight.

Wise real estate investments throughout his radio years ensured he no longer needed to perform, but Edgar continued to entertain at venues from county fairs to elegent night clubs throughout the sixties and seventies.

By 1978 Bergen’s health was failing and he reluctantly announced his retirement. His final appearance would be a three week engagement that September at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Audiences were thrilled by the artist and his wooden offsider in an immaculate performance that brought back two old friends for a last nostalgic encore. It was a triumph, but three days into the run, Edgar died in his sleep.

A year later, movie audiences could see one final glimpse of the entertainer … a cameo appearance he’d filmed for The Muppet Movie, the brainchild of Jim Henson, whose legendary creations took their inspiration from a radio ventriloquist named Edgar Bergen and his dummy called Charlie McCarthy.
 

Movies

1930    The Operation (1 reel short)
            The Office Scandal (1 reel short)
1931    Donkey Business (1 reel short)
1931    Hocus Pocus (1 reel short)
1931    The Eyes Have It (1 reel short)
1933    Africa Speaks … English (aka Bring ‘Em Back a Lie, 1 reel short)
            Free And Easy (1 reel short)
            At The Races (1 reel short)
            Pure Feud (1 reel short)
1934    Two Boobs in a Balloon (1 reel short)
1935    All American Drawback (1 reel short)
1936    Two Minutes to Play (short)
            Nut Guilty (1 reel short)
            Double Talk (1 reel short)
1937    Bring on the Girls (1 reel short)
            A Neckin’ Party (1 reel short)
1938    The Goldwyn Follies
Letter of Introduction
1939    Charlie McCarthy, Detective
You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man
1941    Look Who’s Laughing
1942    Here We Go Again
1943    Stage Door Canteen
1944    Song of the Open Road
1947    Fun and Fancy Free
1948    I Remember Mama
1949    Captain China
1950    Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd in Sweden (colour 2 reel short)
1964    The Hanged Man (telemovie)
1965    One-Way Wahine
1967    Don’t Make Waves
Rogue’s Gallery
1968    The Phynx
1971    The Homecoming (telemovie)
1975    Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood
1979    The Muppet Movie
 

Radio

THE CHASE AND SANBORN HOUR / PROGRAM

Series 1: NBC Sunday 8-00pm May 9 1937 to December 31 1939 (60 min)
with Don Ameche, Dorothy Lamour, Werner Janssen Orchestra (until June 27), Robert  Armbruster Orchestra (from July 4)
May 9 to Sep 12, Oct 3, Dec 12 to 26 1937, Jun 5, Jul 24 to Aug 14, Aug 28, Oct 30, Dec 18, Dec 25 1938, Feb 19 and Dec 29 1939 are with collectors

Series 2: NBC Sunday 8-00pm January 7 to June 30 1940 (now 30 min)
Apr 14, Apr 21 are with collectors

 Series 3: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 1 1940 to June 29 1941
with Donald Dickson, Robert Armbruster Orchestra
Oct 27, Jan 19 are with collectors

Series 4: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 7 1941 to June 28 1942
with Abbott & Costello, Ray Noble Orchestra
Sep 21, Nov 16 to 30, Dec 7, May 3, May 31, Jun 21, Jun 28 are with collectors

Series 5: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 6 1942 to May 30 1943
with Don Ameche, Ray Noble Orchestra
Sep 6 to 20, Oct 4, Oct 11, Oct 18, Nov 2, Dec 14, Jan 10, Feb 7, Feb 21, Mar 28 to May 2, May 16 to 30 are with collectors

Series 6: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 5 1943 to May 28 1944
with William Gaxton, Victor Moore, Dale Evans, Ray Noble Orchestra
Sep 5 to Oct 17, Oct 31, Nov 7, Dec 5, Dec 12, Dec 26, Jan 23 to Feb 6, Feb 20, Mar 26, Apr 2 are with collectors

Series 7: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 3 1944 to June 3 1945
Sep 17, Oct 1, Oct 15 to Nov 12, Dec 3, Dec 10, Dec 24 to Feb 25, Mar 11, Mar 25 to Apr 8, Apr 22, Apr 29 are with collectors

Series 8: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 2 1945 to May 26 1946
Sep 9 to 30, Oct 14 to Nov 18, Dec 2, Dec 16, Jan 13 to Feb 17, Mar 3 to Apr 7 are with collectors

Series 9: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 1 1946 to May 25 1947
Sep 15, Oct 6, Oct 27, Nov 17, Nov 24, Dec 16, Jan 5 to Mar 9, Mar 30, Apr 23, May 25 are with collectors

Series 10: NBC Sunday 8-00pm September 7 1947 to May 30 1948
Sep 14 to Dec 28, Apr 4, May 23 are with collectors

Series 11: NBC Sunday 8-00pm October 3 1948 to December 26 1948
with Don Ameche, Frances Langford
Oct 17, Nov 7, Dec 19, Dec 26 are with collectors

THE EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW

Series 1: CBS Sunday 8-00pm October 2 1949 to May 28 1950 Coca Cola
Oct 2, Oct 9, Nov 13, Dec 18, Jan 20 are with collectors

Series 2: CBS Sunday 8-00pm October 8 1950 to June 3 1951 Coca Cola
Apr 15 is with collectors

Series 3: CBS Sunday 8-00pm October 7 1951 to June 1 1952 Coca Cola
May 25 is with collectors

Series 4: CBS Sunday 8-00pm October 5 1952 to May 31 1953 Richard Hudnut
Oct 5, Nov 9, Dec 28 are with collectors

Series 5: CBS Sunday 9-30pm October 11 1953 to June 20 1954
Nov 8, Jan 17, Jun 20 are with collectors

Series 6: CBS Sunday 9-00pm September 12 1954 to February 20 1955 (60 min) Kraft Cheese
Dec 26 is with collectors

Series 7: CBS Sunday 7-00pm October 2 1955 to July 1 1956 (60 min)
Oct 9, Nov 6 to Apr 22, May 6 to Jun 10 are with collectors


Bergen also starred in …

COMMAND PERFORMANCE (AFRS)
#7        April 12 1942
#32      September 22 1942
#40      November 3 1942
#43      December 12 1942
Christmas 1942 (60 min)
#94      November 27 1943
#148    November 1 1944
#188    August 23 1945
4th Anniversary – 1946 (90 minute compilation of extracts)
#230    summer 1946
#271    spring 1947
#314    early 1948
#412    late 1949
shows 7, 40, 94, 148, 230, 271, 314 and Christmas 1942 are with collectors

MAIL CALL (AFRS)
#5        September 10 1942
#31      March 31 1943
#56      September 15 1943
#93      May 24 1944
#130    February 7 1945
Christmas 1947 (possibly a compilation of extracts)
#281    January 14 1948
#286    February 18 1948
#328    December 8 1948
shows 31, 56, 130, 281 and 328 are with collectors

G.I. JOURNAL (AFRS)
#65      October 20 1944
#103    July 13 1945
show 65 is with collectors

 

Television

* debut on Hour Glass (NBC November 14 1946) sponsored by Chase & Sanborn

THE EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW
#1: CBS Thursday 5-00pm November 23 1950 (30 min)
with Diana Lynn, Jim Backus, Pat Patrick
#2: CBS Friday 9-30pm April 30 1951 (30 min)
with Dorothy Kirsten, The Wiere Brothers

DO YOU TRUST YOUR WIFE?
(half-hour game show)
CBS January 3 1956 to March 26 1957

Recordings

W.C. FIELDS ON RADIO
Columbia LP CS 9890
The Skunk Trap
Children
Old Friends and Old Wine
Feathered Friends
Moths
(plus five non Bergen tracks)

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF LARSEN E. WHIPSNADE AND OTHER TARADIDDLES
Columbia KC 33240
Life Among the Bolivians
Romeo and Juliet
Scurvy Among the Extras
Jabberwocky & Etcetera
(plus three non-Bergen tracks)

THE GREAT RADIO FEUDS
Columbia KC 33241
Communing With Nature
Fathers’ Day
The Golf Game
Elephants Et Al
Laughs Take A Holiday

THE UNCENSORED W.C. FIELDS
Murray Hill 3LP M5467X
side four features Bergen & McCarthy segments

THE EDGAR BERGEN SHOW
Radiola LP MR 1034
includes broadcasts of May 3 1942 and November 9 1952

FRACTURED FAIRY TALES
Radiola LP MR 1096
includes Screen Guild Theatre: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, plus three segments

MAE WEST ON THE CHASE AND SANBORN HOUR
Radiola LP MR 1126
The Chase & Sanborn Hour of December 12 1937

CHARLIE McCARTHY RIDES AGAIN
Radiola LP MR 1157
includes broadcasts of November 16 1941 and October 12 1947

THE CHASE AND SANBORN SHOW
Mark 56 LP 615
includes segments

EDGAR BERGEN
Mark 56 LP 740
includes segments

EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY
Memorabilia LP MLP 713

EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY
Murray Hill 3LP 60130
includes three complete shows: December 14 1947,  plus segments

THE GREAT RADIO COMEDIANS
Murray Hill 5LP 931699
includes broadcast of January 7 1945

LESSONS IN VENTRILOQUISM
Juro LP EB 591

RADIO’S GREATEST COMEDIANS
MMP CD 724-3, J.C. Entertainment 8008
Charlie Stays Out Late Mortimer Gets a New Job
Charlie Needs a Lawyer
Charlie Caddies for W.C. Fields
Charlie’s Pet Rabbits
Charlie Goes to the Hospital
Mortimer Gets the Hiccups
Bergen Plays Football
Charlie Sees a Psychiatrist
Charlie Studies for a Test

THE BEST OF EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY
Metacom/Listener’s Choice CD RM 0482212
segments

THE EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW
Radio Spirits CD 7702
The Chase & Sanborn Hour of September 12 1937

THE EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW
Radio Spirits 3CD 27822
includes the Chase & Sanborn Hour of July 11, August 1 and August 22 1937 

ESCAPE / THE CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW
Radio Spirits 2CD 80072
includes The Chase & Sanborn Hour of July 24 1938

THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION – OLD TIME RADIO COMEDY FAVORITES
Radio Spirits 4CD SCFD 1 – 4
includes broadcast of May 23 1943

THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION – OLD TIME RADIO COMEDY AND LAUGHTER
Radio Spirits 4CD SCLD 1 – 4
includes broadcast of June 20 1954 (misdated on disc)

THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION – OLD TIME RADIO ALL-TIME FAVORITES
Radio Spirits 4CD SAFD 1 – 4
includes broadcast of September 12 1943

THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION – OLD TIME RADIO SHOWBIZ TEAMS
Radio Spirits 4CD SSTD 1 – 4
includes broadcast of November 17 1946

OLD-TIME RADIO COMEDY SUPERSTARS
Radio Spirits 20CD 4482
includes broadcasts of January 5, 12, 19 and 26, February 2, 9, 16 and 23, March 2 and 9 1947

OLD-TIME RADIO’S GREATEST COMEDIES
Radio Spirits 20CD 4209
includes broadcasts of April 25 1943, May 2 1943, October 15 1944 and November 2 1947

THE 60 GREATEST OLD-TIME RADIO SHOWS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Radio Spirits 30CD ISBN 1-57019-244-8
includes The Chase & Sanborn Hour of December 12 1937

THE GREATEST OLD-TIME RADIO SHOWS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
Radio Spirits 20CD 40662
includes The Chase & Sanborn Hour of December 12 1937

OLD-TIME RADIO’S 60 ALL-TIME FAVORITES
Radio Spirits 30CD 4462
includes broadcast of April 11 1943

RADIO’S GREATEST CHRISTMAS SHOWS
Radio Spirits 10CD 47122
includes broadcast of December 24 1944

RADIO COMEDY CLASSICS
Radio Spirits 6CD 50432
includes broadcast of March 26 1946

THE BEST OF BORIS KARLOFF
Radio Spirits 9CD 47132
includes broadcast of October 28 1945

THE CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW – Volume 1
Radio Spirits 6 cassette 4098
includes broadcasts of February 4 1945, April 22 1945, May 9 1947 (incorrect date listed), September 14 1947, September 21 1947, September 28 1947, October 5 1947, October 19 1947, October 26 1947, November 9 1947, November 16 1947, November 23 1947, November 30 1947, December 7 1947, December 14 1947, April 4 1948, October 17 1948, December 26 1948

THE CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW – Volume 2
Radio Spirits 6 cassette 4115
includes broadcasts of April 21 1940, June 28 1942, November 12 1944, December 3 1944, December 24 1944, September 9 1945, September 16 1945, September 23 1945, September 30 1945, October 14 1945, October 21 1945, November 4 1945, October 5 1952, December 26 1954 plus four undated shows

THE CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW – Volume 3
Radio Spirits 6 cassette 4688
includes broadcasts of May 9 1937, June 13 1937, August 8 1937, August 22 1937, October 3 1937, August 14 1938, September 5 1943, March 24 1946, October 2 1949, October 9 1949, April 15 1951, January 17 1954

TOO HOT FOR RADIO
Great American Audio Corporation 5CD 49501
includes broadcasts of December 12 1937 and November 9 1952

THE GREAT RADIO COMEDIES
Great American Audio Corporation 3CD 49703
includes broadcast with Dick Powell

COMEDY LEGENDS FROM THE GOLDEN AGE OF RADIO
Radio Spirits 5 cassette 27774
includes broadcast of June 20 1954 (misdated on set)

JACKIE MASON’S FAVORITE COMEDY HITS
Radio Spirits 10 CD 40082
includes broadcasts of May 30 1943 and November 7 1948

KINGS OF COMEDY
Radio Spirits 5CD 49502
includes broadcast of January 7 1945

FAMOUS FINALES
Radio Spirits 5CD 48102
includes broadcast of December 26 1948

LADIES MEN
Radio Spirits 10CD 44462
includes broadcasts of June 27 1937, September 5 1937, September 12 1937, January 29 1939, November 30 to December 14 1941, October 22 1944, December 10 1944, February 11 and 25 1945, March 4 to 25 1945, October 12 1947


DVD

THE EDGAR BERGEN AND CHARLIE McCARTHY SHOW / THE LIFE OF RILEY / OUR MISS BROOKS
Radio Spirits DVD 7803
includes one half hour tv show from the 1950s


Book

KNOCK WOOD
by Candice Bergen (Hamish Hamilton, 1984)

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