Courtesy Doug Preis/The Bergen Foundation, from 'Dummy Days'
Dummy Days: America's Favorite Ventriloquists from Radio and Early TV
In their day, acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy would keep audiences young and old as transfixed as the biggest stars on television today. It's hard to imagine that ventriloquists and their wooden sidekicks would be such big hits — on radio. NPR's Bob Edwards talks to the author of a new book about the bygone era of ventriloquism.
In Dummy Days, veteran animator and director Kelly Asbury writes about a time when talking dolls and recycled socks were major stars.
In 1937, Americans began a Sunday night ritual that lasted three decades. They tuned in to the Bergen and McCarthy show. It was the top program on radio and Hollywood's top movie stars lined up to make cameos. They included Mae West, whose flirtations with McCarthy got her banned from NBC for 15 years, and Marilyn Monroe, who once became "engaged" to marry McCarthy — a stunt that ended when the dummy couldn't submit to a blood test.
The arrival of television produced a new set of star ventriloquists, including Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney, and Senor Wences and Pedro, the famous head-in-the-box who's favorite phrase was "S'awright!"
But none was as enduring as Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, who debuted in 1957 on the Captain Kangaroo Show. Lewis went on to star in several children's TV shows in a career that spanned five decades, until her death in 1998. Asbury says she was more than just the best female ventriloquist — she may have been the best ventriloquist ever because of "boundless talent and energy" and her ability to change with the times.