Edgar Bergen First Performed with Charlie McCarthy at his High School

Photo of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy at an NBC radio microphone
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on NBC radio

I can't remember how old I was when I found out that Charlie McCarthy wasn't a real little boy. I doubt I really believed he wasn't a kid until I saw a photograph of Edgar Bergen with Charlie sitting on his lap in one of those radio-TV magazines. No matter -- Charlie remained as real a person to me as all those other wonderful radio folks I had met in the theater of the imagination during my youth.

Charlie McCarthy was, of course, the creation of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen. The son of immigrant Swedish parents, Bergen was born in Westside Chicago where his parents operated a dairy business on February 16, 1903. When Edgar was in the fourth grade, the family moved to Decatur, Michigan.

As early as the seventh grade, Bergen began to show an interest in show business. He amused his classmates with imitations of birds and people. Bergen once explained that one evening he was sitting at the kitchen table doing a distant voice when his mother went to the door to see who was outside. It was then Edgar decided he "had something" worth developing. He sent away for a 25-cent book on magic and ventriloquism and practiced every spare moment.

By the time that Edgar's father died and the family moved back to Chicago, show business was definitely in his blood. Even though his history teacher warned Bergen that he would not graduate from high school if his grades didn't improve, he still spend his time writing jokes and sketching pictures of what his first dummy should look like.

His final sketch resembled that of a ruffian named Charlie, who sold newspapers in front of the high school. Bergen gave the drawing to a local carpenter, Theodore Mack, who carved the dummy from a block of pine for about $27. He named his wooden urchin after the newsboy and the sculptor added a Celtic suffix to his name -- and Charlie McCarthy was born.

About three weeks after his teacher's warning of impending scholastic failure, Edgar appeared with Charlie in a student recital before the high school student body and faculty. Since he thought that he wasn't going to graduate anyway, he used Charlie to heckle the faculty including Miss Angel, his history teacher. The students loved it! The next day Miss Angel asked Edgar to remain after class and told him, "I didn't know you were a genius. You must give this great joy to the world ... it needs laughter." Then she told him what to study and what questions would likely be asked on the final examination. Edgar graduated and was booked on the Chautauqua circuit for that summer.

Gary A. Yoggy in Old Tme Radio Digest, March-April 1984

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