Edgar Bergen

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"Charlie McCarthy" redirects here. For other uses, see Charlie McCarthy (disambiguation).
Edgar Bergen
EdgarBergenandCharlieMcCarthyStageDoorCanteen1.jpg
Bergen with his ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy in Stage Door Canteen (1943)
Born Edgar John Bergren
(1903-02-16)February 16, 1903
Decatur, Michigan, U.S.
Died September 30, 1978(1978-09-30) (aged 75)
Paradise, Nevada, U.S.
Cause of death
Kidney disease
Resting place
Inglewood Park Cemetery
Occupation Actor, comedian, ventriloquist
Years active 1930–1978
Spouse(s) Frances Westerman (1945–1978)

Edgar John Bergen (February 16, 1903 – September 30, 1978) was an American actor, comedian and radio performer, best known for his proficiency in ventriloquism and his characters Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. He is also the father of actress Candice Bergen.

Early life[edit]

Bergen was born Edgar John Berggren in Decatur, Michigan, the son of Swedish immigrants Nilla Svensdotter (née Osberg) and Johan Henriksson Berggren.[1] He grew up in Decatur, Michigan. He taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet when he was 11. A few years later, he commissioned Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack to sculpt a likeness of a rascally Irish newspaperboy he knew. The head went on a dummy named Charlie McCarthy, who became Bergen's lifelong sidekick. At age 16, he went to Chicago, where he attended Lake View High School and worked at a silent movie house. For college he attended Northwestern University where he was enrolled in the School of Speech.[2] He gave his first public performance at Waveland Avenue Congregational Church which was located on the northeast corner of Waveland and Janssen. He lived across the street from the church. In 1965, he gave that 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 Chase and Sanborn Hour[edit]

Sam Berman's caricature of Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen for NBC's 1947 promotion book

His first performances were in vaudeville, at which point he legally changed his last name to the easier-to-pronounce "Bergen". He worked in one-reel movie shorts, but his real success was 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. 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.

Bergen's skill as an entertainer, especially his characterization of Charlie, carried the show (many of which have survived).[citation needed] Bergen's success on radio was paralleled in the United Kingdom by Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews (Educating Archie).

For the radio program, Bergen developed other characters, notably the slow-witted Mortimer Snerd and the man-hungry Effie Klinker. The star remained Charlie, who 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: "May I have a kiss good-bye?"
Dale Evans: "Well, I can't see any harm in that!"
Charlie: "Oh. I wish you could. A harmless kiss doesn't sound very thrilling."

Charlie and Mae West had this conversation on December 12, 1937. After public outrage, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stated, "the exchange is indecent;" the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) banned Mae West from NBC radio until 1950.[citation needed]

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."

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!"
W. C. Fields: "I love children. I can remember when, with my own little unsteady legs, I toddled from room to room."
Charlie: "When was that? Last night?"
W. C. Fields: "Quiet, Wormwood, or I'll whittle you into a venetian blind."
Charlie: "Ooh, that makes me shutter!"
W. C. Fields: "Tell me, Charles, is it true that your father was a gate-leg table?"
Charlie: "If it is, your father was under it."
W. C. Fields: "Why, you stunted spruce, I'll throw a Japanese beetle on you."
Charlie: "Why, you bar-fly you, I'll stick a wick in your mouth, and use you for an alcohol lamp!"
Charlie: "Pink elephants take aspirin to get rid of W. C. Fields."
W.C. Fields: "Step out of the sun Charles. You may come unglued."
Charlie: "Mind if I stand in the shade of your nose?"
Bergen and Charlie with an NBC-produced comic book On the Air, 1947.

Bergen was not the most technically skilled ventriloquist—Charlie McCarthy frequently twitted him for moving his lips—but Bergen's sense of comedic timing was superb, and he handled Charlie's snappy dialog with aplomb. 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 personality he applied to his characters.

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 switched stations and found the War of the Worlds presentation already underway with a realistic-sounding reporter detailing terrible events.

Ray Noble was the musical director and composer, and teenage singer Anita Gordon provided the songs on his show. Gordon was said to have been discovered by Charlie, who had a crush on her.

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 (Fred Allen faced a similar problem because he directly appeared before them). In 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.

The Charlie McCarthy Show[edit]

In October 1949, Bergen went to CBS, with a new weekly program, The Charlie McCarthy Show, sponsored by Coca-Cola. After their sponsorship ended in June 1952, Richard Hudnut, on behalf of "Lanolin Plus" cosmetics, primarily sustained the series until the end of the 1953–54 season. 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.

Comic strip[edit]

In addition to his work as a ventriloquist, Bergen was also an actor and comic strip creator. He established the syndicated comic strip Mortimer & Charlie, which ran in newspapers from July 1939 to May 1940, illustrated first by Ben Batsford and then by Carl Buettner. Chase Craig is also believed to have had an uncredited role in the creation of the strip. The comic strip's writer was uncredited, but some of the gags certainly were lifted from the hit radio show.[3]

Films[edit]

In the film Stage Door Canteen (1943) with Mortimer Snerd

Bergen and his alter-ego Charlie McCarthy were given top billing in several films, including the Technicolor extravaganza The Goldwyn Follies (1938), opposite the Ritz Brothers. That year they also appeared in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man with W. C. Fields. At the height of their popularity in 1938, 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.

Bergen portrayed the shy Norwegian suitor as an actor alone in I Remember Mama (1948), Captain China (1949) and Don't Make Waves (1965). Other film roles for the team include Look Who's Laughing (1941) and Here We Go Again (1942), both with Fibber McGee and Molly. Charlie McCarthy wore a US Army uniform in Stage Door Canteen (1943) with Mortimer Snerd. Later, Bergen and McCarthy were featured in Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and much, much later in The Muppet Movie (1979). He had earlier appeared in a second season episode of The Muppet Show, a highly acclaimed puppet television show produced by Jim Henson who considered Bergen a major inspiration,[4] a year after his daughter Candice. Bergen died shortly after making the film, his final public appearance, which was subsequently dedicated to him. In 2009 Bergen was featured in the comedy documentary I'm No Dummy,[5][6] directed by Bryan W. Simon.

Television appearances[edit]

Bergen with Ellen Corby in The Homecoming: A Christmas Story.

Although his regular series never made the transition to television, Bergen made numerous appearances on the medium during his career. In a filmed Thanksgiving special, billed as his TV debut, sponsored by Coca-Cola on CBS in 1950, the new character Podine Puffington was introduced. This saucy Southern belle was as tall as a real woman, in contrast to Bergen's other sit-on-the-knee sized characters. On 26 December 1954, Bergen appeared on What's My Line as a mystery guest. Bergen also hosted the television game show Do You Trust Your Wife? in 1956–57, later succeeded, in a daytime edition, by Johnny Carson. He appeared in the Christmas 1957 episode of NBC's The Gisele MacKenzie Show. In 1958 Bergen appeared with his 12-year-old daughter Candice on an episode of You Bet Your Life starring Groucho Marx. In 1959, he appeared in the second episode entitled "Dossier" of the NBC espionage series Five Fingers starring David Hedison. On May 21, 1959, he guest-starred with Charlie McCarthy on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford.

Bergen continued to appear regularly on television during the 1960s. He guest-starred as Charlie in the 1960 episode "Moment of Fear" of CBS's The DuPont Show with June Allyson. He did a stint as one of the What's My Line? mystery guests on the popular Sunday night CBS series. His colleague Paul Winchell happened to be a panel member during that episode.[7] He also appeared on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood.

Bergen appeared as Grandpa Walton in the original Waltons movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971). The part was played by Will Geer in the subsequent series. Throughout the run of The Waltons—which took place in the late 1930s through the 1940s—the voices of Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were sporadically heard from the Walton family's radio, as family members regularly tuned in for that program.

Family[edit]

In 1941, Bergen met 19-year-old Frances Westerman, who had graduated from Los Angeles High School the year before, in the audience of Bergen's radio program as the guest of a member of his staff. Sitting in the front row, the young fashion model's legs caught 38-year-old Bergen's attention and he asked to meet her. 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.[8] 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. Candice Bergen bears an extremely strong resemblance to her mother.

Death[edit]

It was in mid-September 1978 that he announced that he was retiring after 48 years in show business and sending his monocled, top-hatted partner 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. He died three days later in his sleep of kidney disease at age 75. Bergen was buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.[9]

Today, the iconic wooden Charlie McCarthy rests in Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution. Bergen was interred with his parents (who are buried under their true surname of "Bergren"), in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California. Edgar Bergen's wife of 33 years, Frances Westerman Bergen, died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, on October 2, 2006, aged 84, from undisclosed causes.[10] She is also buried in Inglewood Cemetery. In 1990, Bergen was elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, the same year that The Charlie McCarthy Show was selected as an honored program. A message in the closing credits dedicates The Muppet Movie (which featured Edgar and Charlie in their last screen appearance) to the memory and magic of Edgar. In 1991, the United States Postal Service honored him with a 29-cent commemorative stamp.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Tammy Luce (1978-09-21). "Bergan Bio". Home.comcast.net. Retrieved 2013-12-13. 
  2. ^ "Edgar Bergen: Alumni Exhibit: Northwestern University Archives". Exhibits.library.northwestern.edu. Retrieved 2013-12-13. 
  3. ^ "Obscurity of the Day: Mortimer and Charlie. Holtz, Allan. Stripper's Guide". Strippersguide.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2013-12-13. 
  4. ^ Garlen, Jennnifer C.; Graham, Anissa M. (2009). Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets. McFarland & Company. p. 218. ISBN 078644259X. 
  5. ^ IMDb: I'm No Dummy
  6. ^ "Hollywood's Corporate Delusion," Digital Cinema Report
  7. ^ "Edgar Bergen-What's My Line". YouTube. 2008-09-13. Retrieved 2013-12-13. 
  8. ^ http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0074053/bio
  9. ^ Edgar Bergen at Find a Grave
  10. ^ http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/local/states/california/northern_california/15671633.htm

Further reading[edit]

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