Blog Directory CineVerse: Master of puppets

Master of puppets

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 2 of a 2-part story that first published last week)

Frequent guests on the Bergen & McCarthy program included W.C. Fields, opera singer Nelson Eddy and actress Dorothy Lamour (all three of whom were regulars on the show in its early run), George Raft, John Barrymore, Barbara Stanwyck, Orson Welles, Jane Powell, and even Vallee, the man who gave Bergen his first broadcast break.

McCarthy’s long running on-air feuds with Fields (who Charlie always needled about his drinking while Fields threatened to turn him into kindling wood) and Fred Allen generated legendary comedy bits, and Bergen & McCarthy’s appearances on other radio programs like The Jack Benny Program only added to the duo’s immense popularity.

Like Benny’s “Wait a minute!” and “Hmmmm,” Bergen’s program contributed several catch-phrases to radio’s repertoire of signature lines: Charlie’s “I’ll clip ya! So help me, I’ll mow ya down!,” Mortimer Snerd’s “Ya don’t say,” and Bergen’s retort, “Mortimer, how can you be so stupid?”

Charlie’s personality as a sarcastic ham, flirtatious wolf with the female guest stars, and mischievous schoolboy kept constantly under the parental eye of Bergen, tickled the funny bones of American audiences. Bergen played the perfect straight-man while Charlie got almost all the laughs. Some of the show’s most hilarious responses came when Charlie would “catch” Bergen flubbing a line, moving his lips or letting his Swedish accent show--any combination of which would trigger Charlie to cut down his master with one ad-libbed, knee-slapping line after another.

Over the years, Bergen added new dummies to the show, including the brainless country yokel Mortimer Snerd (a big hit among audiences), the man-hungry, unsightly old maid Effie Clinker (an occasional character that wasn’t as popular), and, for a short time, Podine Puffington. One mainstay character was non-dummy Ersel Twing, who had an annoyingly high pitched “twang” in his voice, and who was known to say “Friends..and you are my friends. Friends...”

In the late ‘40s, Bergen & McCarthy changed sponsorship to Royal Pudding and, later, to Coca-Cola. The program finally ended its long run in 1957, but the dummy and the straight man went back to the stage to perform for live audiences. Bergen went on to do serious acting in a number of films and made-for-TV movies, including the pilot for the series “The Waltons.”

But by 1978, the exhausted Bergen officially retired from show business, and passed away later that same year. He is survived by his famous daughter Candice, star of CBS’ “Murphy Brown,” and by Charlie, Mortimer and Effie, who are each on permanent display at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago’s Cultural Center.

Here are several highlights in the history of Bergen & McCarthy on (and off) radio:
  • 1936: Bergen & McCarthy appear as regular guests on Rudy Vallee’s program.
  • 1937: The duo are given their own weekly hour-long show by Chase & Sanborn coffee, which quickly rockets to the top of the ratings. 
  • 1937: Don Ameche and Mae West perform the infamous “Adam and Eve” comedy sketch that, due to West’s sultry voice, got her blacklisted from radio appearances and nearly forced the program’s cancellation. 
  • Bergen & McCarthy begin appearing in movie shorts and feature films; Bergen is bestowed a special Academy Award for “comedy creation.” 
  • 1938: Bergen’s NBC show plays opposite Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast on CBS--a deliberate scheduling by Welles to take advantage of the nation’s largest weekly audience switching stations during Chase & Sanborn Hour commercials.

  • 1939: Charlie is “kidnapped” from Bergen by a reporter crony looking to play a practical joke on the ventriloquist; the dummy is promptly returned, however, when the FBI is called in to investigate. 
  • 1939: Mortimer Snerd is added to the cast of characters. 
  • 1940: Chase & Sanborn shortens the show to 30 minutes, and highly paid supporting stars Don Ameche, Nelson Eddy and Dorothy Lamour are cut in favor of weekly guest stars. Abbot & Costello join the show for one season. 
  • 1942-45: Bergen and McCarthy entertain U.S. service personnel stationed across the globe during World War II. 
  • 1944: Effie Klinker is introduced; Podine Puffington would debut as a side character several years later. 
  • 1948: For the first time since its debut, Bergen’s show falls out of the list of the top 5 rated programs, remains in the top 7. 
  • 1949: Like Jack Benny and Amos & Andy, Bergen leaves NBC for CBS. 
  • 1957: Bergen & McCarthy’s last radio program after 20-plus years on the air.

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