DECATUR, Mich. – For years fans have wondered what happened to Charlie McCarthy, the mischievous dummy who paired with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen in a long and successful career on stage and screen.
"Many people, I am sure, have wondered what I have been doing since my 'retirement' over 30 years ago; well, it's a long story," said McCarthy, whose dapper demeanor appears undiminished by the years.
McCarthy said his prolonged career slump began with the release of the1964 horror film Devil Doll, which featured an evil ventriloquist, The Great Vorelli, and his dummy Hugo, who looked suspiciously, McCarthy thought, like him.
"Devil Doll totally wrecked the sub-teen audience for me," said McCarthy ruefully.
In 1978, following Bergen's death in his sleep just three days after opening at Caesar's for a two-week engagement that was to be part of the ailing Bergen’s farewell to show business, the monocled and top-hatted McCarthy was sent, it was widely said, to "an institution in Washington" for what was rumored to be a "nervous breakdown."
McCarthy says that rumor was a distortion. He was, in fact, sent to an institution – but as a research fellow at the Smithsonian. Still, the innuendo had done its damage. Top billings disappeared. McCarthy was reduced to working rundown rural Nevada lounges doing blue routines with Woody the Woodpecker while living in a dive just outside Laughlin.
And this time wasn’t the first, or the last, bump in the sometimes rough career road for the image-conscious McCarthy.
"During Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist heyday, there was quite a bit of confusion – and lost audience. I hate to say it, but the general public apparently couldn't tell me from Joe McCarthy," said a dismayed Charlie McCarthy (no relation).
"I wish I didn't think it but my so-called Hollywood 'friends' are the ones that I resent the most. I don't want to say there was a reverse blacklist but a lot of phone calls never got returned after the Army/McCarthy hearings – which we had nothing, nothing to do with," McCarthy said with a wistful look in his good eye.
“Then, right when I thought those creepy images from Devil Doll had faded, the film was featured on a 1997 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000," said McCarthy.
"That MST 3000 show just about killed any hope of my making a career comeback," said McCarthy. This last career collapse crushed McCarthy's spirit.
"The low point came when I started snorting Lemon Pledge," said McCarthy. McCarthy said he lived like a nomad in rustic homeless camps for almost a decade before he got his life together after finding a discarded Gideon's Bible in a dumpster, behind a now-defunct grocery in the Colorado River town of Needles, where he was scrounging for food.
"I just thank God that there aren't any termites in the desert, or I would have been sawdust long ago," said McCarthy.
The openness of other public figures to telling their personal lives has helped McCarthy open up his life to the public as well. Since the publication of former-vice-president Dick Cheney's book, "In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir," McCarthy said he felt freer to talk about some previously hidden parts of his own past.
"I was a consultant to Cheney and [Karl] Rove for eight years," McCarthy said in a stage whisper.
McCarthy announced recently his plans to launch a reunion tour in which he will partner with a revived Edgar Bergen, and is scheduled to hit major North American venues this summer.
If the M-c-B "Mac is Back!" Revival Tour is as successful as he hopes, McCarthy said he plans a return to radio, where he originally honed his craft in the 1930s, with the objective of having, along with Bergen, his own Sirius/XM late evening adult-oriented show.
McCarthy said Bergen's foresight made this all possible. "Advanced embalming technologies were used on Mr. Bergen which have helped him keep a life-like appearance. It also did not hurt that his Las Vegas mausoleum was climate controlled," said McCarthy.
McCarthy said he hopes his old fans will accept his new look as he has "lost the monocle." That change was part image, part practicality, explained McCarthy. "You cannot believe how freeing contacts are," he added.
Bob Klaus, the General Manager of the Durham Performing Arts Center, said that Nederland, one of the nation’s largest, most experienced and successful operators of prestigious entertainment facilities in the world, is currently in negotiation with the McCarthy/Bergen management team to book a late summer appearance at the DPAC.
Gary D. Gaddy, who followed the career of the wise-cracking McCarthy and the dapper Bergen as a child, always thought the dummy was the smarter one.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday July 8, 2011.
Copyright 2011 Gary D. Gaddy