Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show

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.

Bergen was born Edgar John Berggren in Chicago, Illinois, one of five children and the youngest of two sons of Swedish immigrants Nilla Svensdotter (née Osberg) and Johan Henriksson Berggren. He lived on a farm near Decatur, Michigan until he was 4 when his family returned to Sweden where he learned the language. He taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet called "The Wizard's Manual" when he was 11 after his family returned to Chicago.

The famous ventriloquist Harry Lester was so impressed by Edgar that he gave the teenager almost daily lessons for three months in the fundamentals of ventriloquism. In the fall of 1919, Edgar paid Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack $36 to sculpt a likeness of a rascally red-headed Irish newspaperboy he knew. The head went on a dummy named Charlie McCarthy, which became Bergen's lifelong sidekick. He had created the body himself, using a nine-inch length of broomstick for the backbone, and rubber bands and cords to control the lower jaw mechanism of the mouth.

He gave his first public performance at Waveland Avenue Congregational Church located on the northeast corner of Waveland and Janssen. He lived across the street from the church. In 1965, he gave the 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. He cut out an "R" and a "G" from his family name and went from Berggren to Bergen on the showbills. Between June 1922 and August 1925, he performed every summer on the professional Chautauqua circuit and at the Lyceum theater in Chicago.

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.

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.

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.

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 "Berggren"), 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. 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.

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