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.

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Debut on The Royal Gelatin Hour

Bergen, Charlie, Sneed

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.”

Rudy Vallee

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.Edgar_Bergen_Charlie_McCarthy_1947


The Vaudeville circuit eventually drew Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy 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”.

Charlie McCarthy and Edgar BergenEdgar 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.charliemccarthytoy


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.

Edgar and CharlieAlthough 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 Y
ou 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.

img_3535

Charlie McCarthy Premiers on Royal Gelatin Hour

Seventy seven years ago, on Dec 17, 1936, Edgar Bergen brought his companion, Charlie McCarthy, to the radio waves for the first time.

The show was The Royal Gelatin Hour hosted and directed by Rudy Vallee. Better known as The Rudy Vallee Show, the program was going through a barely noticeable shakeup of its own. From 1929 Tuesday nights were dedicated to Rudy entertaining radio audiences and pushing Fleischmann’s Yeast. Rudy Vallee was one of the earliest “crooners”; his voice wasn’t really strong enough to fill theaters before electric amplification, but he was able to use the microphone to create an intimate and appealing (to young women) sound. NBC head of programming, Bertha Brainard, pushed for Vallee to host the show, explaining that “only a woman would understand the appeal of Rudy Vallee’s voice.” Both Fleischmann’s and Royal Gelatin were both products of Standard Brands, so there really wasn’t that big of a change for the show.

The Dec 17, 1936 show was pretty typical for the variety show. It begins with a number by Vallee’s orchestra, The Connecticut Yankees, followed by Vallee interviewing professional party giver, Elsa Maxwell. Soon we hear the Royal Gelatin can give us wonderful Strawberry flavor in December, some more music, and a small drama, “Three Diamond Bid”, featuring Douglas Montgomery and Shirley Booth. After the NBC Chimes at the program’s midpoint we are treated to a rendition of “Old Man River” by Bass John gurney, who is soon to make his debut with the Metropolitan Opera, which leads into a toe tapping number, “Riding High” featuring the Swing Kids Quartet.

In the 38th minute of the program Rudy tries to answer the question that has been bothering us since the intro: Why put a ventriloquist on the radio? Rudy explains that Bergen depends more on his Fred Allen like wit that the “believe it or not” elements of the ventriliqual craft. He also shares that Bergen was very well received at one of Ms. Maxwell’s recent parties.

Bergen begins by asking Charlie about his marvelous top hat and tails. Charlie explains that he is from the Other Side, of the tracks; er, the pond. Of course he goes grouse shooting every fall as part of the upper crust. Bergen doesn’t buy it, and it soon comes out that the young man is plain old Charlie McCarthy. Bergen reads Charlie’s future, telling him there may be a job in store for him-

Edgar: There will be a small starting salary.

Charlie: But it will start?

Edgar: It will start, yes

Charlie: Could you tell me how small?

Edgar: No, I can’t say that.

Charlie: Oh, they don’t make money that small!

Edgar: Well, I’m sure they will pay you what you are worth.

Charlie: Well I wouldn’t be interested in that kind of money!

The act was a big enough hit that Vallee wanted to book them for rest of the season. Unfortunately Bergen only had three weeks worth of material prepared!

The sponsor was just as impressed as the audience. Standard Brands also sponsored The Chase and Sanborn Hour, which began to feature Bergen and McCarthy in the 1937 season. The radio ventriloquist would have an 11 year run with the coffee program. One of the most infamous broadcasts was on Dec 12, 1937, when Mae West performed a version of Adam and Eve written by Arch Oboler. The Sunday School story had such a risqué slant that Miss West was black-listed from radio for many years.

In 1949 Bergen would move to CBS for The Charlie McCarthy Show sponsored by CocaCola.  Edgar Bergen is honored with three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6425, 6766, and and 6801 Hollywood Blvd. 

National Ventriloquist Week, July 18- 21, 2012

We can’t say for sure if it was authorized by an Act of Congress, or by a Presidential Directive. But who ever had the authority to declare National Ventriloquism Week, we would like to lend our whole hearted support!
David Letterman’s Late Show has done a lot to promote the art of Ventriloquism by featuring Ventriloquist Weeks at various times, but these efforts don’t seem to be coordinated with the July celebration. The National week is coordinated with the Vent Haven Museum. Cincinnati industrialist William Shakespeare Berger began collecting Ventriloquist Dummies as a hobby during a business trip to New York in 1910. In time the collection would outgrow his house, his garage, and even the extra building he erected on his property to house it!

W.S. managed to outlive his heirs, and so made arrangements for his estate to support the Vent Haven Museum, the only museum in the world dedicated to the art of Ventriloquism. During the 1940’s until 1960 Berger was active in the International Brotherhood of Ventriloquists, and for many years published “The Oracle”, a monthly magazine dedicated to the ventriloquist community. In 1973 the third building housing the Vent Haven collection was opened in a suburb of Cincinnati. Edgar Bergen and and Jimmy Nelson were among the performers at the dedication.

The Museum also sponsors an annual ConVENTion for Ventriloquists; the 2012 will be the first year the ConVENTion will be held at a new facility, the Marriott Airport Hotel and Conference Center in Hebron, KY.

Old Radio Shows salute the participants of this years convention, and would like to remind them that we still don’t see Edgar Bergen’s lips move on the Radio!

For more ventriloquists in old time radio, see: