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Edgar Bergen 1903-1978
 


Country : Chicago, IL
Profession : Actor, Radio Performer, Ventriloquist
Date of birth : 1903-02-16
Date of death : 1978-09-30
Cause of Death : Kidney failure

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edgar_bergen

Edgar John Bergen (February 16, 1903 – September 30, 1978) was an Academy Award-winning American actor and radio performer, best known as a ventriloquist.

Early life

Bergen was born Edgar John Bergren in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Swedish immigrants Nilla Svensdotter (née Osberg) and Johan Henriksson Berggren. He grew up in Decatur, Michigan. He taught himself ventriloquism from a pamphlet when he was 11. A few years later he commissioned Chicago woodcarver Theodore Mack to sculpt a likeness of a rascally Irish newspaperboy he knew. The head went on a puppet named Charlie McCarthy, who became Bergen's lifelong sidekick. At age 16, he came to Chicago, where he attended Lake View High School and worked at a silent movie house.

Radio

His first performances were in vaudeville, at which point he legally changed his last name to the easier-to-pronounce "Bergen". He also worked in one-reel movie shorts, but his real success was on the radio. He and Charlie were seen at a New York party by Elsa Maxwell for Noël Coward, who recommended them for an engagement at the famous Rainbow Room. It was there that two producers saw Bergen and Charlie perform. They then recommended them for a guest appearance on Rudy Vallée's program. The appearance was so successful that the next year they were given their own show. Under various sponsors, they were on the air from December 17, 1937 to July 1, 1956. The popularity of a ventriloquist on radio, when one could see neither the dummies nor his skill, surprised and puzzled many critics, then and now. Even knowing that Bergen provided the voice, listeners perceived Charlie as a genuine person, but only through artwork, rather than photos, could the character be seen as truly lifelike. Thus, in 1947, Sam Berman caricatured Bergen and McCarthy for the network's glossy promotional book, NBC Parade of Stars: As Heard Over Your Favorite NBC Station.

For the radio program, Bergen developed other characters, notably the slow-witted Mortimer Snerd and the man-hungry Effie Klinker. The star remained Charlie, who was always presented as a highly precocious child (albeit in top hat, cape, and monocle) – a debonair, girl-crazy, child-about-town. As a child, and a wooden one at that, Charlie could get away with double entendre which were otherwise impossible under broadcast standards of the time.

Bergen was not the most technically skilled ventriloquist – Charlie McCarthy frequently twitted him for moving his lips, but Bergen's sense of comedic timing was superb, and he handled Charlie's snappy dialogue with aplomb. Bergen's wit in creating McCarthy's striking personality and that of his other characters was the making of the show. Bergen's popularity as a ventriloquist on radio (where the trick of "throwing his voice" was not visible) suggests his appeal was primarily the personality he applied to his characters.

Bergen and McCarthy are sometimes credited with "saving the world" because, on the night of October 30, 1938, when Orson Welles performed his War of the Worlds radio play hoax that panicked many listeners, most of the American public had instead tuned in to Bergen and McCarthy on another station and never heard Welles's play. Conversely, it has also been theorized that Bergen inadvertently contributed to the hysteria. When the musical portion of Bergen's show, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, aired approximately twelve minutes into the show, many listeners switched stations and found the War of the Worlds presentation already underway, with a realistic sounding reporter detailing terrible events.

Ray Noble was the musical director and composer and teenage singer Anita Gordon provided the songs on his show. Gordon was said to have been discovered by Charlie, who had a crush on her.

Other media

In addition to his work as a ventriloquist, Bergen was also an actor and comic strip creator. He established the syndicated comic strip Mortimer & Charlie, which ran in 1939. He appeared as the shy Norwegian suitor in I Remember Mama (1948). He also appeared in Captain China (1949) and Don't Make Waves (1965).

Bergen and his alter-ego McCarthy appeared together with top billing in several films, including the Technicolor extravaganza The Goldwyn Follies (1938), opposite the Ritz Brothers. That year they also appeared in You Can't Cheat an Honest Man with W. C. Fields. At the height of their popularity in 1938, Bergen was presented an Honorary Oscar (in the form of a wooden Oscar stauette) for his creation of Charlie McCarthy.

Other film roles for the team include Look Who's Laughing (1941) and Here We Go Again (1942), both with Fibber McGee and Molly. Later, Bergen and McCarthy were featured in Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and much later in The Muppet Movie (1979). Bergen died shortly after completing his scenes in the latter film, marking it as his final public appearance. The film was subsequently dedicated to him.

Although his regular series never made the transition to television, Bergen made numerous appearances on the medium during his career. In a Thanksgiving special sponsored by Coca-Cola in 1950, the new character Podine Puffington was introduced. This saucy Southern belle was as tall as a real woman, in contrast to Bergen's other sit-on-the-knee sized characters. Bergen also hosted the television show Do You Trust Your Wife? in 1956, later to be replaced by Johnny Carson. In 1959, he appeared in the second episode entitled "Dossier" of the NBC espionage series, Five Fingers, starring David Hedison.

Bergen continued to appear regularly on television during the 1960s. For example, he did a stint as one of the What's My Line? mystery guests on the popular Sunday night CBS TV program. He also appeared on the NBC interview program Here's Hollywood.

Bergen appeared as Grandpa Walton in the original Waltons movie, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971). The part was played by Will Geer in the subsequent series. Throughout the run of The Waltons – which took place in the late 1930s through the 1940s – the voices of Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were sporadically heard from the Walton family's radio, as family members regularly tuned in for that program.

Family

In 1941, Bergen met Frances Westerman after a radio program when he was 39 and she was 19. Westerman, who had graduated from Los Angeles High School the year before, was in the audience of Edgar Bergen's radio program as the guest of a member of his staff. Sitting in the front row, the young fashion model's legs caught Bergen's attention and he asked to meet her. The two were married in Mexico after years of long distance courtship, on June 28, 1945. Westerman and Bergen were together until his death in 1978 at age 75. They were the parents of actress Candice Bergen, whose first performances were on Bergen's radio show, and film and television editor Kris Bergen.

Death

On September 30, 1978, Bergen died in his sleep of kidney disease in Las Vegas, Nevada, at age 75. Bergen died at Caesar's Palace Hotel, just three days after opening, Wednesday September 27, at Caesar's for a two-week engagement that was to be part of his farewell to show business. It was in mid-September that he had announced that he was retiring after 56 years in show business and sending his monocled, top-hatted partner to the Smithsonian Institution.

Today the iconic wooden 'Charlie McCarthy' rests in Washington D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution. Bergen was interred with his parents (who are buried under their true surname of 'Bergren'), in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. Edgar Bergen's wife of 33 years, Frances Westerman Bergen died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on October 2, 2006 aged 84, from undisclosed causes. She is also buried in Inglewood Cemetery. In 1990, Bergen was elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, the same year that The Charlie McCarthy Show was selected as an honored program. A message in the closing credits dedicates The Muppet Movie (which featured Edgar and Charlie in their last screen appearance) to the memory and magic of Edgar. In 1991, the United States Postal Service honored him with a 29 cent commemorative stamp.

FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
The Muppet Movie (22-Jun-1979) Himself [VOICE]
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (26-May-1976)
The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (19-Dec-1971)
Don't Make Waves (20-Jun-1967)
I Remember Mama (9-Mar-1948)
Fun and Fancy Free (27-Sep-1947) Himself
Song of the Open Road (2-Jun-1944) Himself
Stage Door Canteen (24-Jun-1943) Himself
You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (17-Feb-1939)
The Goldwyn Follies (28-Jan-1938)

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