Blog Directory CineVerse: A tribute to the puppetmaster

A tribute to the puppetmaster

Thursday, May 27, 2010

by Erik J. Martin

If you got a kick out of Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," I highly recommend another 1980s gem of his, "Radio Days, his brilliant 1987 film homage to radio’s golden age.

In one of the best lines in the movie, Allen says, responding in utter disbelief to his co-star’s praise of a fictional show starring a vaudevillian ventriloquist and his nee-high dummy, “He’s a ventriloquist on radio. How do you know his lips aren’t moving?”

Yet, for millions of Americans, the illusion was real enough to keep Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy at or near the top of the radio ratings over many years, and to keep the program going for two decades.

Bergen got his start--quite literally, in Chicago, where he was born into a Swedish immigrant family in 1903. His parents took him on a visit to their native Sweden when Bergen was only four, and the child quickly learned the language. When his father was struck ill and retired from his job as an architect and dairyman, the family relocated to a quaint dairy farm in Michigan. There, young Edgar got his first job at age 11 working the basement furnace at a local movie theater. He worked his way up the film projector, and it wasn’t long before he was also manning the theater’s player piano.

The movies sparked Bergen’s interest in show business. As a teen, Bergen enjoyed traveling vaudeville shows that would come into town, and fostered a special affinity for ventriloquists. Soon, he began practicing voice throwing and investing in books about magic acts and ventriloquism. The youngster loved to entertain family and friends, and, as he perfected his ventriloquist techniques, had a penchant for playing practical jokes on the unsuspecting.

When Bergen was only 14, his father died, and Mrs. Bergen again picked up the family and returned to Chicago. The boy took odd jobs to help make ends meet, and continued to exercise his ventriloquist skills.

Bergen’s first dummy was a homemade paper mache little boy named Rastus, which he crafted himself. The ambitious adolescent took Rastus with him to entertain fellow students at Lane Tech and Lakeview High Schools, lady attendees at the Elks Club, and at Saturday night church suppers.

But Bergen yearned for a more concrete act and a more substantial, authentic sidekick. He saved up his meager allowance earnings and paid a Chicago wood carver named Theodore Mack $35 dollars to craft out of pine what was to become Charlie McCarthy. Half the inspiration for Charlie’s character and appearance came from a little smiling Irish street corner newsboy in Bergen’s neighborhood named Charlie, whom Bergen had caricatured in his prototype sketches given to Mack. The other half came from Mack himself, who had breathed life into a piece of wood. In tribute, Bergen christened his puppet “Mc” Carthy after “Mack.”
Over the three months it took Mack to carve Charlie, Bergen began making plans to perform on the small, traveling Chautauqua vaudeville show circuit after graduating high school. The only problem was that his grades began to suffer as he devoted less time to books and more time to daydreaming about Charlie and his future. But his ventriloquist act so impressed the teacher who was ready to flunk him that she agreed to tutor him and help him graduate on time.

During his summer breaks while attending Northwestern University, Bergen and McCarthy toured the Chautauqua circuits in Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. He landed his first major circuit booking at age 21 for the Western Circuit, an old vaudeville mainstay touring troupe. Two years later, Bergen traveled the big RKO Circuit, and, over the next ten years, he and his dummy began earning a reputation as masters of hilarity.

During this period from the mid 1920s to 1930s, Bergen would often get telegraph requests and perform on a moment’s notice in places as far-off as South America and Europe, often declining lucrative offers in the States just for the chance to travel and perform abroad. Tours of England, Russia, and even Sweden--where Bergen and McCarthy literally spoke the vernacular--followed, which included regular routines like “The Doctor’s Office,” and “Cocktails at Five.” The duo even did a brief stint with the Ziegfield Follies in 1934.

By 1935, with vaudeville dying, Bergen took his wooden creation out to the nightclub scene. A more sophisticated audience called for a more spruced up dummy. Soon, the bow-tie wearing, tuxedoed and monocled Charlie with a slight British accent--an image Bergen borrowed by permission from Esquire Magazine’s Esky mascot--was born.

Bergen’s next frontier--radio--wasn’t so easy to conquer, at first. The hardest working ventriloquist in show biz auditioned for WMAQ Chicago while in town to perform at the Chez Paree club. Station manager Clarence Menzer was blunt: Your act just won’t work on radio, he told Bergen.

In 1936, however, Bergen & McCarthy’s shtick at the Rainbow Room nightclub in Manhattan caught the attention of Noel Coward, who invited the duo to entertain at his private party. The exposure garnered from this performance was noticed by Chicago’s J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, which booked talent for the Rudy Vallee radio program. The duo was invited to perform on Vallee’s show, and captured the ears of audiences immediately.

By mid-December of that year, Bergen and McCarthy were regulars on Vallee’s program. In May of 1937, Bergen’s years of struggling and persistence finally paid off--he and Charlie had landed their very own show: NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, sponsored by the famous coffeemaker. In a move that was almost unprecedented at the time, Bergen--a virtual unknown to national radio audiences until a few months earlier--was given the lion’s share time slot on radio, Sunday nights at seven. The gamble paid off when the program became number one in the listener ratings only weeks after its debut, and remained at the top from 1937 to 1940, and from 1942-43. It also stayed in the top 7 for 15 straight years.

Bergen’s show helped launch the career of Don Ameche, who emceed the program and played Pasquale, as well as the character John Bickerson opposite Frances Langford in the classic “Bickersons” sketch that soon became its own spinoff show. Abbot & Costello even got a jump start in show business by appearing weekly for one season in 1940 on The Chase & Sanborn Hour.

The show also benefited from a great arsenal of radio pros, including, throughout its long run, British orchestra leader Ray Noble, announcers Ken Carpenter, Ben Alexander and Bill Goodwin, vocalists Anita Ellis and Dale Evans, and regular side players like Pat Patrick (Ersel Twing), Norman Field (Charlie’s principal), Barbara Jo Allen (Vera Vague), Richard Haydn (Professor Lemuel Carp) and Jim Backus.

Next week: The magic behind Bergen & McCarthy

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