Wally Maher in Old Time Radio

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It could be every mother’s nightmare. Her darling boy leaves home, meets with early success, and then moves out West to Hollywood where he is killed.

In Wally Maher‘s case, getting killed may not have been the most appealing thing he could have done, but it kept him working in pictures! During his career, he was chewed on by alligators, gassed, electrocuted, attacked by vampires and shot. It wasn’t always like that for Wally, he said that he had never played a bad guy until he moved to California, in fact, his specialty had been a light comedy. He joked that he had been killed more times than any other actor working in radio. In the 127 pictures he made, he had a light comedy role in perhaps half a dozen, in the rest he was the heavy.

On the radio, he was Everyman, and Everyman was a busy man! Producers look for definite “types” when they are casting a leading role, even more so when they are looking for someone to fill a character/sidekick role. But what about all those voices that fill the background of the story? The hotel clerk, the cop on the corner, the gas station attendant, the waiter who brings the leading man and his sidekick their soup, all of these are real people who are needed to move the story along. You don’t want them to stand out too much, but they have to be believable in what they are doing or the whole broadcast suffers.

As an Indiana native, Wally Maher was about as Midwestern as could be. Born in 1908, he got his start as a baggage clerk for the Southern Pacific. This may not seem like acting training, but it exposed Wally to people and dialects from all over the place. He was also good at mimicking what he heard, a useful talent that helped him land a job on the dramatic staff at WLW Cincinnati, “The Nation’s Station”. Sensing that he was capable of bigger things, he moved to New York and established himself as a reliable character actor. In 1935, he moved to Hollywood to get into pictures.

The  heavyweights of network radio were making the move to the West Coast about the same time Maher did. On June 1, 1936, The Lux Radio Theater made its first broadcast from Hollywood, and Wally Maher was there. As he was the next week, and the next. Maher would be in Lux’s acting company for at least 43 episodes.

With a history of respiratory problems, Maher was listed 4F and watched while so many of his contemporaries shipped out. Undoubtedly, Wally would have found work on his own merit, but with the shortage of talent his 4F status put him in high demand. In addition to playing “Everyman”, shows like Cavalcade of America began to press him into service as sailors, airmen, soldiers, doctors, engineers, War correspondents, merchant seamen and factory workers.

Maher’s versatility helped him to become a regular player on “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills”. He starred in one of Suspense‘s most frightening episodes, “Dead Ernest”, a tale about a man who suffers from catalepsy, a condition where the patient goes into a fit making him appear to be dead. The story follows Ernest into the hospital, the morgue, right to the embalmer’s table.

Given the huge variety of roles he played, Maher is best remembered on radio for his portrayal of Michael Shayne, Private Detective. On the surface, Shayne was just another of the dozens of hard-boiled private eyes filling the airwaves, but Maher put his own touch on the role. Shayne had a more relaxed style, seeing the humor in situations without degrading into sarcasm or self-parody. Wally played Shayne from 1945 until 1947, when his health forced a hiatus. Jeff Chandler took over the role when Maher was forced to step down.

Wally was not out of the game for long, returning in 1948 as police lieutenant Riley, doing his best to keep George Valentine in line in Let George Do It. He filled a similar role opposite Dick Powell in Richard Diamond, Private Detective, and had a more legitimate law enforcement role on This is Your FBI.

Maher’s most impressive police role was as Sgt Matt Greb in The Lineup, opposite Bill Johnstone as Lt Ben Guthrie. Wally’s health was failing quickly at this point, however. He had a lung removed just before the program began the 1950 season in the hope of clearing some of his respiratory issues. He managed to soldier through, but Raymond Burr had to take over the role on a number of occasions. Wally Maher died on December 27, 1951, at the age of 43.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Debut on The Royal Gelatin Hour

The first thing to keep in mind is that Rudy Vallee was not enthusiastic about having a ventriloquist act on his program. On the August 6, 1936, episode of The Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, he stated on the air “…ventriloquism hardly makes good radio.”

That night was the radio debut of noted comic and ventriloquist Frank Gaby (according to our sources, it was Gaby’s only credited radio appearance). Not surprisingly, he flopped. Gaby had been a successful vaudevillian, and to be fair, when he appeared on Fleischmann’s he was forced to use Rudy as his dummy because everyone knew that ventriloquism would not work on radio.

Ventriloquism comes from the Latin root meaning “belly noises”. It is a visual trick where the artist “throws” his voice so that it appears that his dummy or doll is talking. There is a pretty obvious disconnect between radio and visual tricks, so Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards ventriloquists is understandable.

Johan and Nilla Bergren’s boy, Edgar, learned ventriloquism from a pamphlet at the age of 11. A few years later, after developing his skill, Edgar hired Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack to fashion the head of his life-long side-kick (Edgar made the body himself). The likeness was based on a precocious Irish newsboy. Bergren entered Northwestern University, performing with Charlie McCarthy to pay the bills. Soon he was doing Vaudeville full time and changed his name to the easier to pronounce Edgar Bergen.

The Vaudeville circuit eventually drew Edgar and Charlie to New York. “America’s Premier Party-giver”, Elsa Maxwell, saw the act at a party for Noel Coward and helped Bergen to land a gig at the Rainbow Room. While rubbing shoulders with the well-to-do, Charlie adopted his trademark top hat, tuxedo and “Esky” monocle (for the Esquire magazine’s cartoon mascot). One of the “swanks” who saw the act at the Rainbow was Julian Field, an executive at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Part of Field’s duties was to find talent for the firm’s client’s radio shows, The Royal Gelatin Hour in particular.

Given Rudy Vallee’s less than enthusiastic attitude about ventriloquists, it was surprising the Edgar and Charlie made it on the show at all, let alone into what was essentially the headline spot. Guest wise, it was a pretty slow night for Rudy.

The program featured a scripted and long-winded interview with Elsa Maxwell, mostly about how wonderful it was to be Elsa Maxwell. Cornelia Otis Skinner gave a humorous monologue about Christmas, Sleepy Hall introduced the electric banjo, and there was a dramatic sketch by Shirley Booth and Douglas Thomas best described as “forgettable”.

Edgar was introduced right after the mid-show commercial break, traditionally the head-line slot. Charlie got his first big laugh on the radio when Edgar asked why he was so nattily dressed. “Well, its a long story… and a dirty one!”

The listening audience was both shocked and delighted! Although very tame by today’s standards, this was a bit ribald for 1936. However, Charlie could get away with it because he was a young boy. A boy made of wood at that! Later there is an exchange where Charlie claims “I never have more than, ah, four or five scotch and sodas….” “Goodness, four or five scotch and sodas would make you awfully drunk!” “Yeah, well, it helps!”

The shock of such adult musings with a little-boy voice was a hit with audiences and sponsors. Standard Brands fell over themselves to sign Bergen as the show’s featured comedians. When that 13 show contract was up they offered man and dummy their own Sunday night show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour.

Charlie went on to become one of the most revered personalities on radio. Naturally there was a flood of Charlie McCarthy merchandise, from dolls to boardgames to teaspoons. He was no stranger to scandal; his exchange with Mae West was considered so racy that the sex symbol was banned from NBC until 1950.

Although he would create other dummies for his act, Charlie remained the one audiences wanted to see when Edgar Bergen performed. Bergen appeared on television both with and without his wooden side-kick. He played Grandpa Walton in The Homecoming and appeared with his daughter Candice on You Bet Your Life (Candice claimed to be jealous of Charlie, he had a bigger bedroom!)

Charlie remained a precocious little boy until Bergen’s death in 1978. He is now on display as an American icon in the Smithsonian Institution.