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Edgar Bergen: The most celebrated ventriloquist in America

Marija Georgievska

Edgar John Bergen was a famous American actor, radio performer, comedian, and ventriloquist.

He is best known as the foil of his ventriloquist dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Edgar was the youngest of the five children of Nilla Svensdotter and John Henriksson Berggren, who were Swedish immigrants. When he was four, his family returned to Sweden, and when he was eleven, they returned back to Chicago.

He started to show interest in ventriloquism when he was 11 years old.

He started to show interest in ventriloquism when he was 11 years old.

It was at this time that he started to show interest in ventriloquism, and he learned a lot about it from a pamphlet called The Wizard’s Manual. After his father died, when Edgar was only 16, he changed jobs many times and worked as a projectionist in a silent-movie house, a player piano operator, and apprentice accountant among others.

Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

At the silent-movie house, he met the ventriloquist Harry Lester who gave him daily lessons on the techniques involved because he was very impressed with the skills that Bergen displayed.

It was 1919 when Edgar ordered his first dummy. He paid $36 to the woodcarver Theodore Mack to sculpt a model of a red-headed friend that he’d known when he was a child. The head that Mack made went on a dummy that would make Edgar very famous, and became known as Charlie McCarthy. Bergen created the body of the doll. When he started to perform, he cut two letters from his last name and went as Bergen on the showbills.

Bergen with Ellen Corby.

Bergen with Ellen Corby.

His first performance was at Waveland Avenue Congregational Church. From June 1922 to August 1925, Bergen had an everyday performance on the professional Chautauqua circuit and the Chicago’s Lyceum theater. After a while, he became very successful on the radio too. Bergen and his dummy Charlie were seen at a New York party managed by Elsa Maxwell. After their performance, two producers recommended that they appear as guests on the Rudy Vallee’s program.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the show “The Chase and Sanborn Hour.”

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the show “The Chase and Sanborn Hour.”

From then on, Edgar started regular cast shows as part of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Bergen was a big success on radio and was paralleled with the ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Educating Archie. He also created other characters for the radio program and the best known are Effie Klinker and Mortimer Snerd.

Bergen and his famous dummy McCarthy are sometimes credited with “saving the world” because many listeners panicked and tuned to Bergen when Orson Wells performed his War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938.

Lobby card for the film Stage Door Canteen.

Lobby card for the film Stage Door Canteen.

Wells confused the public with his story that Martians were attacking the planet and only the fact that that night more people were listening to Bergen instead of Wells kept the country from total chaos. In 1948, Edgar temporarily retired from radio, and his final broadcast for NBC was on December 26.  His first TV Show started in October 1949, and it was called “The Charlie McCarthy Show.”

A scene from the movie Stage Door Canteen.

A scene from the movie Stage Door Canteen.

Bergen also went on to star in many movies with McCarthy including the Technicolor extravaganza The Goldwyn Follies, from 1938. In 1937, Bergen received an Honorary Oscar for the creation of McCarthy. Other movies in which he appeared were Stage Door Canteen from 1943, Captain China from 1949, and The Muppet Show in 1979. In 1945, he married Frances Westerman who gave birth to their daughter and future actress Candice Bergen.

In the movie Stage Door Canteen with the dummy Mortimer Snerd.

In the movie Stage Door Canteen with the dummy Mortimer Snerd.

After 50 years of performing, Edgar finally retired in September 1978 and his dummy was sent to the Smithsonian Institution. He died the same year and the same month at age 75.

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He was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in California under his family’s last name. In 1990, Edgar was elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, and one year later he was honored by the United States Postal Service with a 29-cent commemorative stamp.