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Edgar John Bergen (February 16, 1903 – September 30, 1978) was an American actor and radio performer, best known as a ventriloquist.
Bergen was born Edgar John Berggren 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 dummy named Charlie McCarthy, who became Bergen’s lifelong sidekick. At age 16, he went to Chicago, where he attended Lake View High School and worked at a silent movie house. He gave his first public performance at Waveland Avenue Congregational Church which was located on the northeast corner of Waveland and Janssen.
His first performances were in vaudeville, at which point he legally changed his last name to the easier-to-pronounce “Bergen”. He 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. Their initial appearance (December 17, 1936) was so successful that the following year they were given their own show, as part of The Chase and Sanborn Hour. Under various sponsors (and two different networks), they were on the air from May 9, 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.
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.