Article 2: Knights of the Round Table

EDGAR BERGEN (1903-1978)


In this series of articles, I will shine the proverbial spotlight on members of the Chicago Magic Round Table both past and present.  This month’s subject is Edgar Bergen.  He was a native son of Chicago, the world’s first celebrity ventriloquist and a member of the original Chicago Magic Round Table.  This is his story.


Edgar Bergen was born in Chicago, Illinois, one of five children and the youngest of two sons of Swedish immigrants.   He taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet called "The Wizard's Manual" when he was 11 years old. The famous ventriloquist Harry Lester was so impressed by Edgar that he gave the teenager daily lessons in the fundamentals of ventriloquism. In the fall of 1919, Edgar paid Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack $36 to sculpt a likeness of a newspaper boy he knew. Bergen named his new “dummy” Charlie McCarthy.

He attended Northwestern University where he studied Speech & Drama, but never completed his degree.  His first performances were in vaudeville. He also worked in one-reel movie shorts, but his real success was on the radio. 

In 1937 they (Edgar & Charlie) were given regular cast rolls 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 dummy nor his skill, surprised and puzzled many critics. Even knowing that Bergen provided the voice, listeners perceived Charlie as a genuine person. Bergen's wit in creating McCarthy's striking personality and that of his other characters was what made the show. Bergen's popularity as a ventriloquist on radio, where the trick of "throwing his voice" was not visible, suggests his appeal was primarily the personality he applied to his characters. 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, but 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.

Charlie and Mae West had this conversation on December 12, 1937.

Charlie: "Not so loud, Mae, not so loud! All my girlfriends are listening."

Mae: "Oh, yeah! You’re all wood and a yard long."

Charlie: "Yeah."

Mae: "You weren’t so nervous and backward when you came up to see me at my apartment. In fact, you didn’t need any encouragement to kiss me."

Charlie: "Did I do that?"

Mae: "Why, you certainly did. I got marks to prove it. An' splinters, too."

In mid-September 1978 he announced that he was retiring after over 50 years in show business and sending his monocled, top-hatted partner, Charlie McCarthy, to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.. He opened at Caesar's Palace Hotel LasVegas on September 27, for a two-week "Farewell to show business" engagement. He died three days later on September 30, 1978.

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