Arts & Life

'Dummy Days'

Book Chronicles the Golden Age of Ventriloquism

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/1418267/1429022" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were Hollywood royalty. Courtesy Doug Preis/The Bergen Foundation, from 'Dummy Days' hide caption

See more photos and hear skits featuring Bergen and McCarthy, and other famous acts.
toggle caption Courtesy Doug Preis/The Bergen Foundation, from 'Dummy Days'
'Dummy Days'

Dummy Days: America's Favorite Ventriloquists from Radio and Early TV hide caption

toggle caption
This book is available for purchase online. Your purchase helps support NPR.

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.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from