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. The character was so well-known that his popularity exceeded that of his partner, Bergen.
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.
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. McCarthy also had a cameo in the 1938 Disney cartoon Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, tormenting W.C. Fields, who appeared as Humpty Dumpty.
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 Institution.