Wood You Believe It? The Radio Stardom of Charlie McCarthy (and Edgar Bergen)
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By John C. Alsedek:
When a new entertainment medium is developed, working out how to take full advantage of it is a bit of a learning process. So, there’s a period of time where the programming for said new medium is largely just repurposed shows from the previously dominant medium. Take a look at the earliest television hits like Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, Burns & Allen, Gunsmoke, Dragnet—all were TV adaptations of popular radio shows. It was the same when radio really took off in the early Thirties; a lot of the early radio stars came over from vaudeville. And to an extent, that makes perfect sense; many of the biggest names on radio were comedians, and a joke's a joke, right? But for an audio-only medium like radio, a ventriloquist act would seem as unlikely a hit concept as a juggler or dish-spinner.
Tell that to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Ventriloquist Bergen and his little wooden friend, Charlie, had been together for well over a decade before they reached radio stardom. Bergen had used their act to pay his way through college and was planning to go to medical school. However, the duo was so popular that Bergen instead decided to pursue a full-time career in vaudeville. Charlie was the star of the show, a quick-witted youngster nattily attired in monocle, top hat, and tails. They became a big draw, eventually becoming regulars at New York City's Rainbow Room. While there, Bergen & McCarthy attracted the attention of Rudy Vallee, who booked them on his radio show for a thirteen-week run. And that’s where they really took off, earning themselves a full-time gig on the brand-new Chase and Sanborn Hour.
The Chase and Sanborn Hour was a star-studded production: Don Ameche was the master of ceremonies and male lead, Dorothy Lamour was the female lead, and Nelson Eddy (remembered today for his Hollywood musicals with Jeanette MacDonald) was the singer. But Bergen & Charlie generally stole the show, especially when paired with the irascible, immortal W.C. Fields.
During Fields’ 18-episode run on The Chase and Sanborn Hour, he and Charlie had a jokey running feud that produced some of radio’s greatest comedic moments. Frequently ad-libbing their entire sketches, they would skirt the boundaries of what was allowed by network censors with exchanges such as:
Fields: “Well, if it isn’t Charlie McCarthy, the woodpecker’s pinup boy!”
Charlie: “Well, if it isn’t W.C. Fields, the man who keeps Seagrams in business!”
However, the Fields/Charlie bits were positively tame compared to what happened on the show on December 12th, 1937. The evening’s guest was Mae West—who practically wrote the book on innuendo—and to feature her, the producers had convinced radio wunderkind Arch Oboler to write a skit about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with West playing Eve to Don Ameche’s Adam. Well, it wasn’t long before West was ad-libbing away to the extent that Ameche was having trouble keeping the skit going. Then came a bit with Charlie that included lines such as, “So good-time Charlie’s going to play hard-to-get” and “You’re all wood and a yard long.” Lines that, coming from someone else wouldn’t necessarily have been an issue but sounded pretty risqué coming from West. The result was a torrent of letters and phone calls from church groups and other upset listeners calling for a boycott against the show’s sponsor, Chase and Sanborn Coffee.
In the end, ruffled feathers were smoothed. While West would never again do a radio show of any sort, The Chase and Sanborn Hour would continue to be one of radio’s highest-rated shows for nearly another decade, and Bergen & McCarthy were getting offers to do Hollywood films such as 1939’s Charlie McCarthy, Detective and 1941’s Look Who’s Laughing. The show would feature a who’s-who of silver screen royalty as guests, including Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, and Ginger Rogers. Bergen also began adding other dummies to the act, including Charlie’s "siblings" Mortimer Snerd and Effie Klinker. Bergen’s own family—wife Frances and daughter Candice—made appearances as well.
But in the fall of 1948, the end came for The Chase and Sanborn Hour. The title sponsor had also been sponsoring comedian Fred Allen’s show, but due to the rising cost of producing the shows, Chase and Sanborn had to drop one of the two—and it was to be The Chase and Sanborn Hour.
However, Bergen and Charlie wouldn’t be off the radio airwaves for long. Following a year spent doing a live vaudeville-style tour, they found themselves back with a new sponsor (the Coca-Cola Company) and a new show: The Charlie McCarthy Show. Airing from 8:00–8:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings, The Charlie McCarthy Show managed to draw every bit as much star power as The Chase and Sanborn Hour had, with greats such as Henry Fonda, Agnes Moorhead, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and old pals Don Ameche and Nelson Eddy among the guests. In 1954, the name changed to The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show, and then again changed in 1955 to The New Edgar Bergen Hour. The latter brought a format change as well, with guests including not just entertainers but people from other walks of life—writers, musicians, scientists, doctors. But with television slowly killing off radio as the primary means of family entertainment, Bergen and Charlie’s days were numbered. The last broadcast of The New Edgar Bergen Hour was July 1st, 1956, and while the duo would continue to make occasional appearances on other radio shows (including a 1964 special celebrating the 100th anniversary of Chase and Sanborn Coffee), they would never again have their own series.
Curiously, while Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had a long and highly successful radio career, they never quite clicked on the medium one would expect them to do much better on: television. CBS commissioned a pilot for The Charlie McCarthy Show in 1950, and the duo hosted a short-lived comedy quiz show in early 1956 called Do You Trust Your Wife? But other than that, Bergen and Charlie’s television appearances were largely limited to guest spots, the most touching of which was The Muppet Show—looking at Bergen and Charlie surrounded by Kermit, Fozzie Bear, and Miss Piggy, it’s not at all difficult to see it both as a loving tribute and a "passing of the torch" moment.
And speaking of dummies on radio & television . . . our next column will talk about a trio of anthology programs with stories that featured rather malevolent wooden simulacrums of human beings. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado, John C. Alsedek, shares the history of radio and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.