Pinback button printed with image of Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist dummy performed by Edgar Bergen. The round button is made of celluloid laminate covering a paper print over a metal frame. The front features an image of Charlie McCarthy wearing his signature top hat and monocle.
In a career that spanned five decades, Bergen became one of the most popular entertainers in the United States, performing with McCarthy on the vaudeville stage and in radio, film, and television appearances. Bergen’s ventriloquist act seems a strange match for the purely aural medium of radio, but it was a remarkable success; he and Charlie starred in a series of top-rated radio programs from 1937 – 1956. Bergen acted as the straight man alongside McCarthy’s precocious and transgressive humorous banter. Despite being portrayed as a child, McCarthy was known for roasting celebrity guests (comedian W. C. Fields a particular target and returner of insults) and pursuing women, frequently flirting in provocative double entendre and innuendo that would have faced censorship if spoken by a human character.
Edgar Berggren (he later changed his name for the stage) was the son of Swedish immigrants who taught himself ventriloquism while working odd jobs to support his family following his father’s death. In 1922, Bergen asked Chicago-area woodcarver Theodore Mack to make a dummy based on a sketch of an Irish newspaper boy and named him Charlie McCarthy. Bergen first dressed McCarthy in his signature tuxedo, monocle and top hat for a performance at the Rainbow Room of the Hotel Waldorf Astoria in New York City. In 1936, the duo made their radio debut as guest stars on the Rudy Vallee Radio Show and the following year began starring in their own radio show, <i>The Chase and Sanborn Hour</i>, on the NBC network. Bergen was a popular film star as well, making 14 motion pictures with Charlie and receiving a special Academy Award in 1938. During World War II, they toured military hospitals in the United States and made numerous appearances overseas, touring with the USO and broadcasting from Army, Navy and Marine bases during and after the war. With the declining popularity of radio, they made the transition to television with an NBC show, <i>Do You Trust Your Wife?</i> (NBC, 1958-1959) and continued to perform in nightclub and television appearances.
Bergen was known for his showmanship, exceptional humor, and a daring irreverence. Bergen and McCarthy had a far-reaching influence on ventriloquism and other forms of entertainment, using novel and diverse forms of electronic media to help create a national cultural vernacular.