Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ventriloquism On the Air

Yeah. Think about that again... it's gotta be the easiest job in the world; a radio ventriolquist. The Charlie McCarthy Show was the first major variety hour to use ventriloquism on the radio.

Edgar Bergan was born in Chicago on February 16, 1903. While in school he developed an interest in magic and ventriloquism and invested 25 cents in a booklet containing instructions for "throwing your voice". By the time he was 11, he was versed in this new talent. He paid $35 to a carpenter to carve a dummy's head in pine, based on a sketch he had made earlier based on a neighborhood newsboy. He named the dummy Charlie McCarthy.

By the mid-twenties, he and Charlie hit the road, playing all over Europe and North and South America, making just enough to get by. But Rudy Vallee had caught Bergan's act at a party and invited him to appear on The Royal Gelatin Hour on Tuesday night for NBC. Even though both Bergan and Vallee had nervous second thoughts about doing ventriliquism on the radio, they both decided to give it a try. I am trying to imagine what this conversation was like...

Anyway it was a hit. They were so popular that Vallee brought them back again and again and finally Chase and Sanborn decided to bankroll the pair on their own show, starting May 9, 1937. An all-star cast was assembled, including W.C. Fields, Don Ameche, and Dorothy Lamour. The Charlie McCarthy Show had great ratings for years.

Bergan's second dummy, Mortimer Snerd, was created in 1939, usering in it's slow decline. By 1940, the sponsor cut the show to 30 minutes, dropping some talent including Ameche and Lamour. This format continued for almost 10 years.

Bergan created other dummies but they never went over like Charlie and Mortimer. Bergan left NBC in 1948 and, after a year, returned with a CBS show sponsored by Coca-Cola. Amazingly, he recaptured a major share of his old audience, and in 1952, the sponsorship went to Hudnut. The show changed again in 1964 becoming a 60 minute Kraft Cheese offering. The show was killed in 1956, just short of the McCarthy Show's 20 year anniversary. He made the radio hall of fame in 1990.