Edgar Bergen (real name Berggren) was born in Chicago in 1903. As a boy he was always interested in magic and ventriloquism. When he was nine or ten, he spent 25 cents for a booklet on how to throw your voice. That booklet made him a millionaire many times over.
Shortly after devouring the booklet, Ed started using his new gift for all sorts of jokes and pranks which, in turn, became the origins of his act which would delight audiences all over the world.
While in high school, Bergen considered a career in medicine as a doctor.
He was only a sophomore when he did his first drawing of the boy who would become Charlie McCarthy. The facial features were borrowed from a childhood friend named Charlie. Edgar then used money he had earned to hire a local carpenter by the name of Theodore Mack.
Mack carved Charlie out of pine. In tribute, Bergen named the creation Charlie McCarthy — a combination of the names of his boyhood friend and the carpenter who sculpted his first dummy.
Bergen entered college at Northwestern University. He enrolled in a pre-med program, and earned money for his tuition and expenses by entertaining with Charlie in small venues around Chicago.
Somewhere around 1924 or 1925, Edgar dropped out of school. The audiences had gotten to him and show business was in his blood. He entertained in small spots wherever he could all over the world, honing his act.
By 1930, Edgar had been working the vaudeville circuits and finally made it to the Big Apple – New York City. He started playing New York nightclubs where Noel Coward caught his act. Coward loved the act and arranged to have Bergen booked into The Rainbow Room, high atop the RCA building in midtown.
While playing The Rainbow Room Elsa Maxwell caught his act. She, too, was smitten and invited Bergen to entertain at a party she was throwing the following week.
Edgar appeared with Charlie on the Vallee Show in December of 1936 and was an instant smash hit.
Vallee wanted to sign Bergen for 13 weeks. The problem was, Edgar only had enough material for three shows!
The season with Vallee was followed by Bergen being signed as a principal player on The Chase and Sanborn Hour which also included Don Ameche, Dorothy Lamour, and W.C. Fields.
It didn’t take long for a “feud” to break out between Fields and Charlie McCarthy, and some of the funniest lines in radio history were traded between these two.
Fields would threaten to carve Charlie into a venetian blind and called him a “woodpecker’s snack bar.” He once proclaimed Charlie’s father was a gate leg table. Charlie would retort that pink elephants have bad dreams about WC Fields.
In December, 1937 Mae West was invited to be a guest on the show. She did a skit with Ameche and Charlie based on the Biblical story of Eve being tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Arch Oboler was called in to write the skit, which was OK’d by the NBC censors.
I have included a copy of this show in the clips for you to listen to. Rather than trying to describe it, listen and decide for yourself.
NBC was besieged by angry callers and outraged letters calling for a boycott of the show, of Chase and Sanborn products, and of Mae West. Several major newspapers wrote editorials denouncing the skit.
Mae West was banned from radio.
This clip is a great interview Frank Bresee had with Bill Baldwin who was the last announcer for Bergen (it includes a recording of an actual pre-show audience warm-up and clips from the very last radio show.
More coming up on Bergen and McCarthy in the next few days.