Saturday, February 16, 2008

You Can Learn A Lot From A Dummy

Edgar Bergen, whose birthday is celebrated on February 16th, spent most of his whole life working with dummies, ventriloquist dummies that is. And even though Edgar wasn't the best ventriloquist to ply his trade, for years, his audience never, ever saw him move his lips when his various sidekicks spoke.

Edgar Bergen was born in 1903 in Chicago, Illinois. He taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet and in his early teens commissioned a Chicago woodcarver to create a ventriloquist's dummy's head. The dummy, who was to be known as Charlie McCarthy, became one of the most-beloved sidekicks in the early days of American broadcasting. Although initially dressed in street clothes, Charlie became an icon when he was fitted with a tuxedo, top hat and monocle. His wisecracking routine with the more placid Edgar Bergen became a national phenomenon.

The most incredulous fact regarding the team of Bergen and McCarthy is that for almost 20 years, from 1937 to 1956, they entertained people on the radio! As strange as it might seem today for a ventriloquist to work his trade on the radio, listeners tuned into The Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy Show in droves, making it one of the top radio programs for years. The show was so popular, it was ultimately inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1990.

Bergen created other characters for his ventriloquist act, such as the dim-witted Mortimer Snerd and the man-crazy Effie Klinker, but none had the appeal of Charlie McCarthy. In 1938, Bergen was presented an honorary Academy Award ("Oscar") for Charlie McCarthy; with a bit of creative flair, the Academy presented him with an Oscar that was made entirely of wood.

Charlie McCarthy became so famous that each week fan mail would arrive addressed to him. Also, his and Bergen's handprints were left at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Sadly, on the day that Edgar Bergen died of kidney disease in 1978, Charlie McCarthy, in effect, died also; without the master's voice, he has never spoken since.

In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service introduced a 5-stamp set of famous American comedians drawn by renowned caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Besides Bergen & McCarthy, the set contained stamps of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, and Bud Abbott & Lou Costello. The Bergen & McCarthy stamp is shown above. These stamps are available in a lovely strip of 5, or a pane of 10, on most auction sites.

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