(1903 – 1978)
Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 16, 1903. Named Edgar John Berggren, he was the youngest of five children to Swedish immigrants, Nilla Svensdotter and John Henriksson Berggren.
His parents operated a retail dairy business near Decatur Michigan until he was four years old. For a brief time the family returned to Sweden. They returned to Chicago by the time Edgar was eleven.
It was around this time that Edgar purchased “Herrmann’s Wizard’s Manual.” He used this 25 cent pamphlet to teach himself the art of ventriloquism.
At the age of 16, while he was attending Lake View High School, Edgar’s father passed away. Edgar took on a variety of jobs to help support the family. He worked as an apprentice accountant, a furnace stoker and even a projectionist in a silent movie theater.
It was during this time Edgar met the famous vaudeville ventriloquist Harry Lester. Known as The Great Lester, Harry was impressed by Edgar’s self taught skill in ventriloquism. He gave Edgar free ventriloquism lessons on an almost daily basis for three months.
Edgar ordered his first ventriloquist dummy in the fall of 1919. He paid Theodore Mack, a Chicago woodcarver $36 to sculpt the figure. There are different stories surrounding the figure. Some say the likeness was of a rascally red-headed Irish newspaper boy Edgar knew. Other stories claim the figure was inspired by a picture of a self-assured Irish newsboy in a textbook. A third story says the figure was a model of a red-headed friend that Edgar had known when he was a child.
No matter what the story, the head that Theodore Mack carved became the world famous Charlie McCarthy. Edgar constructed a body for Charlie himself to save money.
To please his mother, Edgar enrolled in the pre-med program at Northern University in Evanston, IL. He switched his major to Speech & Drama, but never completed the degree.
His first public performance took place at the Waveland Avenue Congregational Church. It was located across the street from where he lived. He shortened his last name from Berggren to Bergen for the stage.
Every summer from 1922 to 1925, Edgar performed on the Chautauqua vaudeville circuit and at Chicago’s Lyceum theater. His popularity grew as they moved from small towns to big cities.
Bergen changed the look for ventriloquists by placing both himself and Charlie in tuxedos. This sophisticated air and the impertinent McCarthy drew accolades. They appeared in theatres & nightclubs as Bergen’s fame grew.
In 1936, Bergen and Charlie performed at a New York party managed by Elsa Maxwell for Noël Coward. Coward recommended them to the famous Rainbow Room. During his engagement, two producers saw the act. They recommended Edgar & Charlie appear as guests on Rudy Vallee’s radio program. He was on the show December 16th, 1936.
The next year, on May 9, 1937, Edgar started appearing on the regular cast shows as part of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. The program became a huge success due to the personalities of Bergen’s characters. Edgar was a gifted comedic actor, joke writer and creator of comical situations.
In addition to Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker also made appearances.
Within a year, the Bergen had a larger audience than either the Jack Benny Show or the Eddie Cantor show. Popularity polls rated Bergen the #1 radio performer for more than two years.
In 1937, at the height of his popularity, Bergen received an Honorary Oscar. The Academy gave this to him in the form of a wooden Oscar statuette, to honor his creation of Charlie McCarthy.
As a comedian Bergen was a genius. As a ventriloquist Edgar was accused of moving his lips. Bergen didn’t deny this fact and even joked about it with Charlie. His skills in earlier clips were evident. But as Bergen said:
“I played on radio for so many years, it was ridiculous to sacrifice diction for 13 million people when there were only 300 watching in the audience.”
The vehicle of Bergen’s fame also led to the downfall of his skill. No one cared though, Bergen’s characters were stars and people loved to see them.
Another legend of Edgar Bergen was his influence on the Orson Wells hysteria of the War Of The Worlds radio program, which aired October 30th, 1938.
The first story says that Bergen inadvertently contributed to the hysteria. Apparently The Chase and Sanborn Hour, aired approximately 12 minutes into Orson’s program. When listeners adjusted their dial and found the War of the Worlds presentation, it was already underway. They missed the fact this was a dramatization. Panic ensued with a realistic-sounding reporter detailing the terrible events of the play.
The other story claims Bergen “saved the world.” The fact more people were listening to Bergen’s radio show than Wells’ program supposedly lessened the impact.
During his radio years, Bergen also made motion pictures. Bergen and Charlie received top billing in several films, including The Goldwyn Follies in 1938. Bergen also appeared with Charlie and Mortimer in the 1938 film, Letter of Introduction. The same year they also worked with W.C. Fields in the movie, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, which was released in 1939.
Bergen created a syndicated comic strip, Mortimer & Charlie, which ran in newspapers from July 1939 to May 1940. Artist Ben Batsford began illustrating the strip, followed by artist Carl Buettner.
Other movies followed, including 1939’s Charlie McCarthy, Detective, 1941’s Look Who’s Laughing, 1942’s Here We Go Again, 1943’s Stage Door Canteen, and 1944’s Song of the Open Road.
Edgar married Frances Westerman in 1945. On May 9, 1946, Frances gave birth to their daughter, actress Candice Bergen. Later, Candice would publish a book entitled “Knock Wood,” that detailed her childhood as Charlie’s sister.
Between 1947 and 1954 Charlie again returned to the comics in a comic strip by Harvey Eisenberg. The strip was scripted by Edgar.
In 1947, Bergen, Charlie & Mortimer returned to the big screen in Fun and Fancy Free. That was followed in 1948 with the movie I Remember Mama.
In December 1948, Edgar announced he was temporarily “retiring” from radio. His final broadcast for NBC was on December 26, 1948.
In October 1949, Bergen went to CBS, with a new weekly program, “The Charlie McCarthy Show”. Various sponsors supported the show through the end of the 1953–54 season. In October 1954, Kraft Foods sponsored a new Edgar Bergen Hour. Kraft’s participation ended, but the series continued with different sponsors as a 55-minute program. With more people watching television on Sunday nights, sponsors switched from radio to TV. The series finally ended on July 1, 1956.
Although Bergen never transitioned his program to television, he did appear on numerous TV shows.
He first appeared on the variety show Hour Glass in November of 1946. A Thanksgiving special followed in 1950 where he added a new character, Podine Puffington. Podine was a saucy Southern Belle who stood as tall as a real woman. This was a remarkable contrast to his other knee-sized friends.
At Christmas the same year, Bergen and McCarthy were guests on “One Hour In Wonderland.” This was the first television show for Walt Disney.
Other noteable Bergen television appearances included “A Salute To Rodgers & Hammerstein,” a hosting spot on “Do You Trust Your Wife,” The Giesele MacKenzie Show,” and with a 12 year old Candice Bergen on “You Bet Your Life,” featuring Groucho Marks.
In 1959, Bergen made appearance on the NBC espionage series “Five Fingers.” He also guest-starred with Charlie on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “The Ford Show” on NBC.
There were plenty of other television appearances as Bergen continued performing through 1978. Among those spots were “What’s My Line?”, “The Tonight Show” and “The Muppet Show.” Bergen also played the role of Grandpa Zeb Walton on the television movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, in 1971. Although the role was played by actor Will Greer in the TV series, Bergen could still be heard at times when the Waltons gathered by their radio.
Jim Henson was a huge fan and was inspired by Bergen. Bergen’s appearance on The Muppet Show led to Henson casting him in The Muppet Movie. It was to be Bergen’s last big screen appearance, as he passed away before the movie was released. Henson dedicated the film to Bergen as a result.
In September of 1978, Bergen decided to retire from show business. It was announced that Charlie McCarthy would be donated to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute.
To close out his career, he was performing at Caesar’s Palace Hotel for a two-week engagement. Each show received a standing ovation for the master ventriloquist. At his final show, he received a total of six standing ovations.
Bergen was quoted as closing the show by saying:”Every vaudeville act must have an opening and a closing, so I’ll pack up my jokes and my little friends… and say goodbye.”
Only three days into the two week run, and only 10 days after his retirement announcement, Bergen was found dead. His body was discovered around 4 PM on September 30, 1978. He was 75 years old at the time of death. The official cause of death was listed as kidney disease.
Edgar was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in California. His marker is listed under his family’s last name, Berggren. He was survived by his wife, his daughter Candice and a teenage son, Kris.
Bergen was awarded three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California. The first for Television, which is located at 6425 Hollywood Boulevard. The star for Motion Pictures is located at 6766 Hollywood Boulevard. His star for Radio is at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.
The Radio Hall of Fame inducted Edgar in 1990. In 1991, the United States Postal Service honored him with a 29-cent commemorative stamp. In 2018, he was inducted into the Ventriloquist Hall of Fame.
There were three versions of Charlie McCarthy.
- The one most used by Bergen was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and is rotated on and off display.
- A second is located at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, IL.
- Magician David Copperfield purchased the third at auction for a reported $110,000.
The Bergen family maintains all rights to Charlie. They allowed a non-working replica to be crafted for the Vent Haven Ventriloquist Museum in Ft. Mitchell, KY.
Edgar supposedly left $10,000 in his will to the upkeep and preservation of Charlie McCarthy.
Bergen was such a master of merchandising Charlie McCarthy, that Walt Disney patterned sales for Mickey Mouse after him.
Additional Bergen Materials:
Edgar, Charlie & Mortimer in You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man
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