From A Second Chicken Soup for the Woman's Soul

My Dad, Charlie and Me

My father’s long and successful career began in the days of vaudeville. The famous ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen and his equally famous wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy, delighted theater and later, radio and television audiences for decades. So when I was born, it was only natural that I was known in the press not as Candice Bergen, but as “Charlie’s sister.” As a little girl, I sometimes performed with Daddy and Charlie. I recited my well-learned lines with considerable poise and polish—a daughter determined to make good.

Many years later, in the summer of 1978,my father called a press conference at the Brown Derby in Beverly Hills to announce his retirement, half-wondering whether anyone would show up. He was surprised when the press conference, packed, was carried on the evening news.

His final appearance, he announced, would be a three-week engagement at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on a bill with AndyWilliams. This was a serious risk for a man who, not six months before, had been hospitalized in coronary intensive care. But as soon as the offer had been made, he was hellbent on accepting it, determined, one last time, to “play the Palace on the top of the bill”: Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy just like way back when. Here was an opportunity to go out in style.

My mother went with him to Las Vegas, and on opening night my brother Kris and I were there to surprise him. We were sitting out front as the lights dimmed and the music started up, hoping he would make it smoothly through the routines, terrified that he might not.

The three of us barely breathed as the orchestra led into “CharlieMy Boy,” the familiar theme brought into America’s living rooms by radio thirty years before. There were many there that night who remembered—people for whomEdgar and Charliewere old fireside friends—and as Bergenwalked fromthe wings withMcCarthy at his side, the applause was long and alive with memories.

My father stood straight and proud on the stage, his right hand on Charlie’s back. For this occasion, his final farewell, he had insisted on playing again in white tie and tails. He was, after all, an elegantman, a poised and graceful presence commanding center stage.

“Well, Charlie—”

“Bergen, you old windbag, I’ll kill ya, so help me, I’ll mooowwww you down—”

And they slipped into the familiar patter of a partnership that had lasted sixty years.

The routine was flawless. Bergen reasoning, McCarthy saucy and razzing, the steady laughter of the audience, the frequent applause. Nothing could stop them, and the audience kept asking for more.

My mother sat still as a statue, her concentration locked on theman on the stage.Only her lipsmoved as she unconsciously mouthed the dialogue she had followed for thirty-five years, as if willing it to come out right. Each of us knew by heart the lines of the routines that had spanned our lives; but that night we heard them fresh, as if for the first time— perhaps because we sensed it would be the last.

The act ended with a sound track from their old radio shows, a montage of Bergen and McCarthy memories: John Barrymore jousting with Charlie; Marilyn Monroe and Charles McCarthy announcing their engagement; W. C. Fields threatening to split Charlie into Venetian blinds—flashbacks of famous voices from the past. Up on stage, Edgar and Charlie cocked their heads, swapped knowing glances and chuckled softly as they looked up, listening wistfully to their lives.

Then my father said simply, “In vaudeville, every act has to have a close, and I think, for me, the close has come and it’s time to pack upmy little friend and say good-bye. Goodnight, God bless, and thank you all for listening.” As the orchestra played his favorite, “September Song,” he picked up Charlie and walked offstage.

The three of us smiled and cried, trying to compose ourselves before the house lights came up. The audience rose to its feet, applauding himwith deep affection, grateful to share his farewell.

Therewere photographers in his dressing roombackstage as we entered, and we had to press our way through the throng. He hugged Kris and my mother; then I came forward, wiping my eyes.We held each other tight. The love of a lifetime was squeezed into those moments. Once again I started sobbing, so proud of him, so happy for him, so sad. Knowing somehow that it was a last good-bye. His to an audience, ours to him.

The reviews of the show were unanimous, effusive in their praise. The next three days’ performances went just as smoothly, with standing ovations at the end of each.

After the fourth night’s performance, my father went to sleep in good spirits. My mother rose early, half opened the blinds and called to him. Severalmoments passed before she realized hewas dead.He had gone peacefullywhile he slept.

For my father, there could have been no better ending; it was one he might have written himself. And who can say that he hadn’t? There was the supreme sense of timing ingrained over sixty years of performing. Just as in vaudeville, he knew when to close.

Candice Bergen

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