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A mysterious box was left at my house this week. My father had told me he had something for me that had belonged to my great-grandmother, Grace. We lived in her house for a time shortly after she passed away. Her house was like a time capsule–filled with so many common (and uncommon) things from her 96 year life collected and never tossed away–I always cherish anything with a link to her.

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Imagine my surprise at finding that the box contained a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist doll complete with changes of clothing and a crumpled pile of railroad bonds. I have a vague memory of Charlie McCarthy and Mr. Bergen and their quippy one liners, their long career woven into the fabric of popular culture for people of a certain age. I also have a companion book from 1938 book that she gave me that I have had for years, “…so help me, Mr. Bergen” and I now realize these two pieces belong together.

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My copy of “…so help me, Mr. Bergen”, by Charlie McCarthy

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The contents of the box as I unpacked it, clothes, railroad bonds, some things I don’t know what they are…

Edgar Bergen was born in 1903 and passed away in 1978. He was the father to the famous Candice Bergen, and will always be best know for ventriloquism and of course–Charlie McCarthy. I thought they were popular due to originality, but in reality the history of ventriloquism goes back to antiquity.

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The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel, William Blake, circa 1800

The word ventriloquism comes from the Latin to speak from the stomach, and was initially tied to religion. The Greeks thought the noises in the stomach were the voices of the un-living, who spoke through the stomach of the ventriloquist. Because of this, the craft was related to religion, spirituality, and witchcraft.  The Witch of Endor depicted in this watercolor by William Blake was said to be able to throw voices. Doubtless this was a powerful skill for persuasion, and over time it migrated from religion to entertainment.

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Sadlers Wells Theatre in London

Beginning in London and then quickly spreading to Vaudeville stateside, ventriloquists started to incorporate these puppets into their acts. The Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in the 1790s featured a ventriloquist named Joseph Askins who described his act as: “curious ad libitum Dialogues between himself and his invisible familiar, Little Tommy”. 

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2 Vaudeville ventriloquists, Fred Russell and Harry Lester

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Interior of the Orpheum Theater in Chicago

Always thought to be a bit creepy, something about these characters captured the public’s imagination, and Charlie McCarthy dolls are still widely available now. I wonder as we enter into the age of AI if these frozen faces will again become a subject of interest as they craft their appearance–small changes in shapes and proportion of features changing their expressions significantly–some variations even becoming quite frightening.

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Vaudeville performers and some of their puppets

The miniature bonds of Charlie’s were as interesting as the details of his wardrobe. Hailing from the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, they vary in years and serial numbers but are mostly from 1931-1932.

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The Railroad did indeed sell bonds that started to come due in the 1920’s to try to cover the cost of it’s expansions, only to declare bankruptcy in 1925. It reorganized again in 1928, just in time for the depression and another bankruptcy in 1935. Plagued by success and failures, the line finally sold in 1985. I really can’t quess why Charlie has these particular bonds.

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A remaining sign on the John Wayne Trail

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1939 Advertisement for the Hiawatha, among the nation’s finest

The book on MacCarthy is hard to follow–dialogue and slang heavy– full of wonderful sketches where Charlie is more boy than a dummy. I wonder if this depiction helped people imagine and imbue him with life. Another interesting part of his rise in popularity is that much of their early success came from the radio, where the “trick” of throwing your voice isn’t even visible.

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A sketch from “…so help me, Mr. Bergen”

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Radio Stars

They were favorite features on the Chase and Sanborn Hour for 11 years, and appeared with all the big names of the day. In 1937 the Mae West famously appeared on the Chase and Sanborn Hour with Bergen and Charlie.  That radio show as well as the show “Adam & Eve” in the same year were bawdy enough to get West banned from radio, even any mention of her name, until 1950.

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The Mae West “incident”

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Publicity shot for Radio show that got West banned from radio

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Plaid wool jacket with corsage

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Paper dolls, I recognize that bathrobe!

I think one of the appeals of ventriloquist dummies is that they can be your alter ego, your conscience or maybe the voices in your head. For me, this doll will be yet another reminder of my great-grandmother and her quirky sensibilities. She once told me it was important to be a little bit odd–and that her oddness was her gift to me. I certainly got some of her oddness, and now I also have inherited my very own Mr. McCarthy doll–certainly odd out of context. That said, I am continually intrigued by characters from the past that forever enter into the fabric of popular culture. Through this tangible artifact of the personalities of the past we get to glimpse past the stillness of old photographs and stories of those who came before us and are united by sharing a laugh.

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My Charlie, he is missing his monocle, but he does have an opera cape…

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Picture caption: “I’ve been very busy, very busy. But I did have time to miss you, Mr. Bergen.”