116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As I was sorting through old negatives from the 1960s, I came across an envelope labeled “Edgar Bergen at Sunshine Mission, Tues. Oct. 22/63.”
What was Edgar Bergen, the famed ventriloquist whose career spanned nearly 60 decades in vaudeville, radio, movies and TV, doing in Cedar Rapids?
Bergen, the son of Swedish immigrants, attended Northwestern University and then went on the Chautauqua vaudeville circuit for 10 years with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.
Then came radio stardom. Why a ventriloquist comedian, working on the radio, would be so popular puzzled critics. But Bergen brought his dummies to life even on the radio.
In 1939, Edgar Bergen learned about an Iowa farm girl who wanted to be a nurse. To pay for her education, her father was going to sell a heifer. But before the sale, a car hit the heifer and it died.
Bergen said he was forming a foundation to take the heifer’s place.
Over the next three years, the Bergen Foundation helped 30 women with financial aid, with a minimum of publicity, while Bergen, with his ventriloquist dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, visited Allied troops around the world during World War II.
In 1942, Bergen spotted Pat Patrick, a former circus clown who hailed from Strawberry Point, at a Los Angeles nightclub performing as squeaky-voiced Professor Ersel Twing. Bergen signed him up for the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy radio show that was broadcast Sunday nights.
In January 1943, Patrick joined Special Services and toured with Bergen, entertaining soldiers and selling bonds until the war ended. In 1949, Patrick became the emcee at a Hollywood night spot.
That same year, news reports credited Charlie McCarthy with buying $10,000 in war bonds for the town jail in Harvard, Neb.
A local 16-year-old boy had inadvertently bought the jail as part of a tax sale when he was buying lots to plant victory gardens. The teen decided to auction the jail. Bergen, via Charlie McCarthy, let the bids rise to $5,000, then doubled the bid.
When asked what he would do with the jail, Charlie said, “I might make an aviary out of it and grow jailbirds.”
Back to the envelope and the negatives from 1963.
The pictures were taken at the Sunshine Mission, a program started in 1895 to care for transients, collect clothing for the needy and provide day care for children of working women.
In 1963, the mission was at 121 Second St. NE, where United Good Neighbors (later United Way) held an Oct. 22 “report meeting” on its fundraising campaign.
Bergen and Charlie were in Cedar Rapids the night before to perform at the 25th anniversary event of the Cedar Rapids Executive Club. They’d spent the night at the downtown Roosevelt Hotel.
Bergen was 60 years old and known around the world when he walked into the United Good Neighbors meeting — without Charlie, his alter ego.
Harold Ward, grandson of the Rev. Francis K. Ward, the man who founded the Sunshine Mission, was in charge of the program and turned the floor over to Bergen.
Bergen talked about the importance of laughter and the history of ventriloquism, claiming there was evidence that priests in Egyptian temples had been ventriloquists.
He said when he was asked to write an article about ventriloquism for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he sent away for books on the subject. He received one book — the one he’d written.
His audience was then treated to a brief demonstration of his talent. He drew a face on the back of his hand, wrapped it in a napkin and engaged in a bit of dialogue with his improvised dummy.
After Bergen’s visit, donations to United Good Neighbors jumped 23 percent.
Bergen, the father of actress Candice Bergen, would go on entertaining for another 15 years before his death in 1978 at age 75.