Edgar Bergen, actually born Edgar John Berrgren, was born in Chicago a first generation Swedish American to Swedish immigrants on Feb. 16, 1903, though he grew up in Michigan.
Edgar started his early years with an aptitude to entertain his friends with mimicry which led to them prodding him into becoming a ventriloquist, which he didn’t even know what it was. The story is that he actually had to pull out a dictionary and look up the word.
Not too long after that, 11 year old Bergen attended a show by The Great Lester, who is now known by most as the grandfather of modern ventriloquism. I may do a blog post on him as some point.
The ventriloquism bug bit Bergen hard and he ended up buying a booklet called Hermann's Wizard's Manual where he taught himself the basics of ventriloquism.
Honing his skills as a teenager, he hired a woodcarver to make him his own ventriloquist dummy with a head that he modeled off of a local newspaper boy. This was the first Charlie McCarthy doll. To this day, there are so many vent dolls that are modeled around the McCarthy doll because it has become an industry standard.
Obviously, the original doll was a little different than the one we are familiar with. He didn’t have a suit or tophat, he was instead dressed as a street urchin.
Back in Chicago
The 16 year old Bergen worked in a silent movie theatre, first sweeping the floors, cleaning chairs and keeping the furnace lit when it was cold, but later moved to being a projectionist and the house piano player. Around this time, he made his first major performance at the Waveland Avenue Congregational Church. Before long he'd graduated to the small theatres that made up the vaudeville circuit.
Beginning in 1930 he made a number of one-reel shorts for Vitaphone. These landed him a booking at the Helen Morgan Club, which was a famous New York nightclub and speakeasy at the time. He decided at this time that his act needed a bit of sprucing up. This led to the second incarnation of the Charlie McCarthy Doll, the one with the classy top hat, tuxedo and monocle that we are so familiar with.
Ventriloquism and radio seems like an oil and water mix, but Bergen proved this to be a myth as he and McCarthy (along with a few other notable characters) proved to be immensely popular. In 1937 when Bergen was given his own show, where he remain on the air for nearly 20 years.
It was a variety stye show where he had guests such as May West and especially W.C. Fields, the latter appearing on the show several times and exchanging antagonistic banter with McCarthy.
Bergen and McCarthy appeared on a number of TV programs beginning in the 1950s but never landed their own show. Actually, Bergen and his band of wooden misfits found their success on the big screen, They appeared in a good handful of feature films such as The Goldwyn Follies(1938), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939) and Fun and Fancy Free (1947). At the height of their popularity, the pair were given an honorary Oscar that was made out of wood, of course.
Though Bergen invent a number of other characters such as the doofus Mortimer Snerd, Effie Klinker, Lars Lindquist and a few others, none ever became as popular as McCarthy. The two continued performing together throughout the 1960s and '70s and had a cameo in The Muppet Movie, which no one knew would be their final appearance.
Bergen died on September 30, 1978, at the Caesars Palace Hotel in Las Vegas, where he had been scheduled to perform a two-week farewell engagement. When it was released in 1979, The Muppet Movie was dedicated to Bergen's memory. Charlie McCarthy was later adopted by the Smithsonian Institute, where he remains on display to this day.
His daughter, Candice Bergen, would later go on to write a book, that some would say, was a scathing insult to her father. Though it can be said that her career would not have existed if it wasn’t for her father and Charlie, there was a time that she resented the McCarthy doll.
Where is Charlie?
Bergen is a ventriloquism icon that paved the way for so many other greats and his movies can still be seen on Turner Classics, PBS, and other places that show old movies.