Charlie McCarthy is Edgar Bergen's famed ventriloquist dummy partner. Charlie was part of Bergen's act as early as high school, and by 1930, was attired in his famous top hat, tuxedo, and monocle. Charlie's personality was that of a mischievous little boy (with an Irish lilt), who could crack wise, misbehave, and flirt shamelessly in a way that Bergen couldn't (much the same way that the Muppet characters behaved more outrageously than any of their human co-stars). The original McCarthy dummy was built by noted carpenter/dummy-maker Theodore Mack, and was later rebuilt by Frank Marshall.
Charlie and Bergen made their radio debut on NBC's The Chase and Sanborn Hour (sponsored by a noted coffee brand) in 1937, supported by singer Nelson Eddy (a role later filled by Dale Evans, amongst others). The following year, Charlie would be joined by a much dumber dummy, Mortimer Snerd. After a famous feud with W. C. Fields in the 1930s (during which Charlie often vowed to the comedian that he'd "mow him down"), the dummy became a true icon.
By 1939, Charlie was commanding 35.7% of the audience share, and was programmed opposite The Mercury Theater on the Air on CBS, a struggling intellectual program helmed by Orson Welles. On October 30, many listeners fiddled with the dial during Nelson Eddy's musical interlude, intending to switch back for Charlie's next comedy spot, and stumbled on Welles' production of The War of the Worlds, engendering a panic. As later reported, noted critic and wit Alexander Woolcott sent the young Welles a telegram on the subject: "This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy, and that all the dummies were listening to you." Ironically, by 1944, Orson Welles had become a recurring guest, with the dummy puncturing the pomposity of the genius.
Though shortened to 30 minutes as The Chase and Sanborn Program, it wasn't until 1947, in a rare case of star taking precedent over sponsor in the title, that the series was officially renamed The Charlie McCarthy Show. After a year's hiatus while the duo toured the stage, 1949 brought a switch to CBS and change of sponsors to Coca-Cola. In 1955, Charlie and Bergen entered their last format, with the ventriloquist taking top billing for once, in The New Edgar Bergen Hour, which ran until 1956.
During this lengthy tenure, Charlie's guest roster was filled by many of the biggest stars of the day, including Henry Fonda, the Andrews Sisters, Rosemary Clooney, Roy Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Carol Channing, Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore, Liberace, Bergen's wife Frances Bergen, and in occasional appearances, Charlie's "sister" Candice Bergen. Bergen and McCarthy also co-starred with Mickey Mouse in the 1947 Disney film Fun and Fancy Free.
Bergen and McCarthy made their final film appearance in The Muppet Movie, as guest judges of the Bogen County Fair beauty contest. Bergen died in 1978 shortly after filming this sequence, and the film is dedicated to his memory. As for Charlie, he's now on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institute.
- In one installment of The Muppets comic strip (as reprinted in the 1984 book collection Moving Right Along), Fozzie Bear is cleaning his room and considers tidying away all his "nostalgic junk," including his Charlie McCarthy bubble gum cards.
- Tollin, Anthony. Comedy from the Golden Age of Radio. Booklet for tape/CD set. Radio Spirits Inc., 1996.