by Elizabeth McLeod
In December 1936, the Depression – while not entirely a memory – was a lot less of a menace than it had been just a few years earlier. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was looking ahead to his second administration, having the month before racked up the most impressive landslide in history. Benny Goodman was riding high as the King of Swing, and a generation of teenagers found itself coming up with odder and odder ways of dancing to his music. Major Edward Bowes had made “all right, all right” a national catch phrase, and enthusiasm for his amateur hour showed no sign of abating. The entire nation had spend much of the past year transfixed by a board game in which players bought and sold parcels of Atlantic City real estate. But that fad was finally cooling, and the public, as it always does when a fad cools, began looking around for the next big thing.
And on a Thursday night at NBC’s Radio City studios, an unlikely comedy star was about to give it to them.
It was a long journey for Edgar John Bergen from obscurity to Rudy Vallee’s microphone, but Bergen wasn’t the kind of man who complained about hard work. He’d been puttering around show business for the better part of fifteen years, paying his dues in small-time vaudeville, on the Chautauqua circuit, in minor one-reel movie comedies shot on a ten-cent budget at the Vitaphone Studios in Brooklyn, and finally, after a year touring the music halls of Europe, on the nightclub circuit. It was in a nightclub — in the famous Rainbow Room itself, high atop the RCA Building — that Bergen finally got his big break.
He’d done a more-or-less conventional ventriloquial act for much of his career, his dummy Charlie McCarthy cast in the role of an insolent street-urchin, garbed in a jaunty cloth cap and an oversized, ratty-looking sweater. Bergen cleaned up his partner a bit when they moved into the talkies, garbing him in costumes appropriate for the setting of each film. But the Rainbow Room wasn’t some dingy soundstage or moth-eaten vaudeville house — it was the apotheosis of 1930s gloss, the closest thing the real world had to the shiny art-deco fantasy world inhabited by the likes of Fred Astaire on the screen — and it was no place for a street urchin, no matter how insolent. Charlie McCarthy had to go high-hat, literally. He exchanged his newsboy cap for a glossy silk topper, and his rag-bag sweater for immaculate evening dress. A monocle — inspired by the one-cylinder cheater sported by “Esky,” the cartoon mascot of Esquire magazine — completed the ensemble.
In his swanky new monkey suit, with equally sophisticated comedy material, Charlie McCarthy was a big hit with the Rainbow Room’s audience. Among the habitués taking notice of the dummy was Elsa Maxwell, the ample doyenne of Cafe Society, who invited Bergen and his sidekick to entertain at a posh party thrown in honor of visiting English playwright Noel Coward. Coward’s reaction to Charlie’s wisecracks has faded into history, but the white-tie-wearing dummy made a distinct impression on another party guest: Julian Field. An executive in the radio department at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, it was among Field’s duties to help vet talent for the company’s radio programs, notably Rudy Vallee’s Royal Gelatin Hour, the most important showcase for up-and-coming professional talent on the networks. Field was immediately taken with McCarthy’s cheeky personality, and with Bergen’s deft reactions, and brought the performer to Vallee’s attention.
Rudy Vallee wasn’t particularly fond of ventriloquists, especially as radio entertainment. The idea wasn’t unprecedented — ventriloquial performers had appeared on the air now and then going back to the twenties, but they never caught on because the visual element of the performer and the puppet were lost. Vallee himself had had an unsatisfactory experience with a ventriloquist on his program just three months before, when vaudevillian Frank Gabby made his air debut. Vallee had objected to booking the act then, but in an attempt to give the act a boost he insisted that he himself play the role of the dummy, explaining on the air that “ventriloquism hardly makes good radio.” Unsurprisingly, Gabby’s act flopped, and Vallee wasn’t anxious to have another such performer on the program.
He changed his mind when he heard Bergen’s act. Here was a ventriloquist with whom the mere “throw the voice” routine wasn’t the entire point of the performance. Charlie McCarthy had a definite personality, a distinctive point of view, and that personality required no visual element to come across. Bergen’s acting skills were such that Charlie seemed a separate person, in the same way that Amos and the Kingfish seemed like separate people even though listeners knew their voices came out of the same throat. Vallee was convinced, the Thompson office was convinced, and Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were booked for the December 17th edition of the Royal Gelatin Hour.
Elsa Maxwell herself also had a slot on that broadcast, doing a stilted, scripted interview with Vallee about her party-planning prowess. Monologist Cornelia Otis Skinner performed a humorous Christmas piece. Musician Sleepy Hall introduced listeners to the dubious merits of the electric banjo. Shirley Booth and Douglas Montgomery offered a forgettable dramatic sketch. It was a rather low-powered lineup by Vallee’s usual standards, and the forgettable nature of the other acts on the bill only focused greater attention on Bergen’s performance. The pressure was on, and he knew it.
The act was introduced just after the mid-show station break, traditionally a prestigious slot on the program. In his introduction, Vallee more or less apologized to the audience for presenting a ventriloquist on the air, but urged listeners not to dismiss the act, pointing out that Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were new and different. And stepping to the microphone to the melody of “Cocktails for Two,” Bergen proceeded to prove him right.
Bergen began the act by describing Charlie’s immaculate formal attire, and asking for an explanation for why such a young boy should be so dressed. The answer got Charlie his first big laugh on the air — and cemented his personality for all time.
“There’s a lonnnng, lonng story,” Charlie drawled. “And a dirty one, too!”
Listeners sat up and took notice. This wasn’t the usual corny stuff you expected from a ventriloquist’s act. Charlie went on to explain that he had inherited $200 from a relative, which he immediately spent on riotous living in England under the name of “Denby.” From that auspicious start, the act continued into a stand-by of Bergen’s nightclub routine, a mind-reading bit in which Edgar predicted that Charlie’s fondness for cocktail parties would prevent him from ever accomplishing anything meaningful.
BERGEN: It looks very bad, young man.
CHARLIE: Oh, well, I never overdo those things…
BERGEN: Oh, you don’t?
CHARLIE: No, I never take more than …ah… four or five scotch-and-sodas.
BERGEN: Four or five scotch-and-sodas!
CHARLIE: Yeah, that’s all, that’s all.
BERGEN: Goodness! I should think four or five scotch-and-sodas would make you awfully drunk!
CHARLIE: Yeah, well, it helps!
A “young boy” indeed. Listeners had never heard an act quite like this one. Charlie was clearly a rascal, but he wasn’t the kind of wholesome rascal who’d soap their windows or tie a tin can to a dog’s tail. More likely he’d empty their liquor cabinets and seduce their daughters — not exactly the sort of comedy character America’s rather conservative radio audience was used to welcoming into its homes, especially at Christmas time. But the bizarre dichotomy of this adult dialogue coming from a character presented as a child somehow caught on — and Vallee’s sponsors, Standard Brands Inc., immediately offered Bergen a thirteen-week contract as the program’s featured comedian. When that contract ran out in the spring of 1937, Standard Brands immediately offered a new deal — as comedy headliners of the Sunday night Chase and Sanborn Hour.
Bergen and McCarthy joined the Chase & Sanborn program in early May — and it immediately became the most popular program on the air, a Sunday night habit for over 37 million Americans. A flood of Charlie McCarthy merchandise appeared almost overnight — teaspoons, dolls, drinking glasses, board games, picture books, a comic strip, a series of feature films, and on and on. The next big thing had certainly arrived — and to hear Charlie McCarthy tell it, it was only to be expected.
Listen to this stream from Bergen & McCarthy with special guest Humphrey Bogart:
Copyright 2013 Elizabeth McLeod and RSPT LLC. All rights reserved.