Charlie McCarthy radio ventriloquism ... WTF?

A MPSIMS fit for Cafe Society:

I was just reading the GQ re: the War of the Worlds radio broadcast panic, and one of the posters mentioned that it was on opposite Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen. Edgar Bergen. The ventriloquist. With his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.

On radio.


Does anyone else find this odd? How does one become famous and successful from performing ventriloquism on the radio?

But then again, I guess our grandkids will say, “Howard Stern had women get naked … on the radio? Huh?”

I saw some video of McCarthy perfoming, and well, his lips moved like a sonofabitch. Radio might have been a good choice.

I myself am pursuing a career in radio underwear modeling.

Well, if you’ve ever SEEN Edgar Bergen perform, you know that radio was the ideal medium for him- he was, without a doubt, the worst ventriloquist of all time. Look, I have NO talent or experience as a ventriloquist… but I’m pretty sure I’D move my lips less than Bergen did!

In fairness, many of his routines were very funny. But I’ve never seen any other ventriloquist move his lips so blatantly. Even rank amateurs do a better job.

The whole point of having a ventriloquist on the radio was its oddness—people appreciated bizarre concepts back then, too! It was the writing that mattered, not the lip-moving; and the writing was delightful. Charlie was a funny, nasty little SOB.

Bergen was technically quite poor as a ventriloquist – his lips moved so often that Charlie often joked about it. He was, however, one of the greatest practitioners of the art, primarily because of the quality of his routines. Many people were better technically, but few were as entertaining.

After all, “his lips didn’t move” is hardly the material for a five minute act, let alone a career. Any ventriloquist need to be able to perform material.

Bergen professed ignorance as to why he did so well on the radio, but it did allow much more flexibility than in other media. For instance, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd could do an entire scene together after Bergen “left.”

Not a uniquely American phenomenon either.

I’ve seen early footage of Bergen pre-radio and his lips don’t move as much as in post-radio appearances. I’ve heard the case made that radio “ruined” him as a ventriloquist because there was no need for him to keep those particular skills polished. To paraphrase Liberace, Bergen undoubtedly cried all the way to the bank at the idea that he was “ruined” as a ventriloquist.

Although much of the humor came from the contradictory assumptions that Charlie was both a real little boy and an inveterate skirt chaser, the bits that he did with W. C. Fields made specific reference to Charlie’s wooden condition:

“Oh, hello, my little knotty pine.”

“Silence, you frustrated hitching post, or I’ll cut you down to a pair of shoe trees.”

“Hello, my little chum. I was thinking of you only yesterday.”
“You were?”
“Yes, I was cleaning out the wood shed at the time.”

“Quiet, you termite’s flophouse.”

“Tell me, Charlie, is it true that when you slide down a banister the banister gets more splinters than you do?”

Charlie always zinged back at Fields about his drinking, his nose, his drinking, his misogyny, and his drinking. These were some of the truly great bits in radio and they wouldn’t work as well in any other medium.

Weren’t some radio broadcasts of shows being done befor a live audience?

Yes, by that time virtually all comedy and variety shows had live audiences.

Vaudeville performers, especially comedians, had a difficult time doing their shows to an empty theater. One of them (can’t remember who anymore, and there may be several contenders) demanded a live audience to laugh at the jokes, probably sometime in the late 1920s. Though network executives thought it was crazy to expect an audience to watch people standing on a stage reading from scripts, audiences didn’t seem to care. Soon all the shows demanded and got them.

Just look at the film You Can’t Cheat An Honest Man to see Bergen’s lip action. But the man was hilarious, smart, witty, and self-aware enough to have Charlie call him on his lips moving.

Like EM and Eve posted earlier, part of the humor was the “having it both ways” nature of Charlie’s existance. Charlie considered himself a real boy (mature way beyond his years) but knew that Bergen “controlled” him and that he was made of wood. Meanwhile, Charlie also manipulated Mortimer Snerd behind Bergen’s back by lying to him and coaxing him into doing things (“Well, Charlie said…”) Bergen didn’t approve of.

A ventriloquist whose lips move and has dummies that work against him without his knowledge. The man was great, to play up his own weakness as a performer of his particular craft to be an even better entertainer.

Remember, too, that moving lips are much less noticeable on a Vaudeville stage than in a movie closeup. Bergen was able to build his reputation there before radio, and by the time he moved to movies and TV, he was too big a star for anyone to care (and his act was so good that no one wanted to care).

Coincidentally, Edgar Bergen’s 100th birthday is this Sunday, Feb. 16!

I saw an interview with Candace Bergen. She grew up jealous of Charlie her whole life. She couldn’t understand why a stupid doll got all this love and adoration. But I think that was the point. He wasn’t a doll to the millions of fans. He was a real guy with real emotions. That was Edgar’s talent. To actually breathe life into a chunk of wood. It’s an amazing feat!

I recall reading that when Bergen first began appearing on television, for some reason Charlie McCarthy’s voice would fade out. Bergen sounded just fine, but McCarthy could barely be heard on the broadcast.

It was soon discovered that the grip running the boom mike was actually shifting the mike between Bergen and McCarthy, depending on which one was “talking.”

Probably apocryphal, but it makes a neat point about Bergen’s ability to breathe life into his characters.

A lot of people don’t know that Charlie McCarthy’s first radio appearance was on The Juggling and Mime Hour. Very popular.

Sauron: I believe it. Frances Bergen (Edgar’s wife) said in an interview that she once saw Carmen Miranda complain that she didn’t think Charlie was leaning close enough to the microphone. A writer on the Jack Benny show made the same mistake. Those were just the two stories from the A&E Biography video; I’m sure there are more.

Kalhoun: “Candy” Bergen said something similar in her book, Knock Wood. Edgar even sat the two of them on his lap, and pretended Candy was a dummy right alongside Charlie.

As for Bergen’s lips moving, that wasn’t the skill he called ventriloquism. If you can find it, there’s one time late in his life that he was interviewed on TV by Tom Snyder. In that interview, he illustrates exactly what throwing his voice means: he’s able to put pressure on his vocal chords to diffuse the sound and make its source impossible to identify. He’s even fooled dogs with it. He demonstrated the difference between that and just doing a character voice, and it’s quite noticable.

And yeah, his lips moved and he knew it, but that didn’t really matter. Bergen was an incredible entertainer and possessed talents as a ventriloquist that very few others have.

I put together a web site on Bergen and McCarthy. It’s in my sig below; it’s been a long time since I updated it, so pretty much all of the off-site links are dead (I’ve since completely redone the site as a project in grad school, using their equipment to do audio and video captures so I don’t have to rely on off-site links - this, of course, was all deleted at the end of the semester and I still can’t find my backups :mad:), but the on-site information is pretty complete and mostly accurate. Give it a look.

This painful urban legend about the idiocy of professional show business technicians has been told about every ventriloquist since the invention of the microphone.

And yet I also believe it to be true.

At a science fiction convention last year, I was doing a radio interview for a college radio station along with someone who was doing schtick with a hand puppet of a dragon. He didn’t even pretend to be throwing his voice, yet before my incomprehending eyes, the interviewer started moving the microphone back and forth between the guy’s face and… hand. I almost fell on the floor laughing, which seemed to clue him in to what he was doing.

Yes, just a college radio station interview, but…

I’m now a beleiver.

How Ventriloquism Tricks the Brain. That is, with the normal case of watching a ventriloquist.

Absolutely fascinating, sharp analysis. And watching a ventriloquist will keep you whacked enough for a half hour later thinking whoever is talking to you is throwing his voice.

Wow, you threw your voice all the way back to 2003.