SF (not really!) in All the Wrong Places - The Complete Mortimer and Charlie
(c) 2015, Arthur L. Lortie
I imagine this has happened to every collector at some point.

mort1.jpgSomething you spot in your travels looks interesting. so you absentmindedly grab it and put it aside. Suddenly, before you know it, you've filed an entire room with this stuff! Which, of course, now needs to be indexed and collated!

That is exactly how I came to have a complete run of Mortimer and Charlie by the radio ventriloquist (!!) Edgar Bergen.

This all started when I grabbed several years of a newspaper carrying the SPEED SPAULDING comic strip. This WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE spinoff had replaced Mortimer and Charlie on their comic strip pages and came along for the ride! Then I tried to upgrade my CHARLIE CHAN Sundays and M&C usually ran on the same page as the oriental detective! Finally, I went looking for comic strip references to the 1939 New York World's Fair -- and there was M&C yet again!

OK ... OK ... I get it!

The damn Powers That Be were conspiring and decreed that I MUST finish this collection! So I checked, found it ran for less than a year and I already had about 60% of them clipped anyway so ... what the heck!

See? It wasn't my fault!! Damnation and eternal hell fire were sure to be my fate if I didn't finish this! And if my efforts saves just one goat or virgin from a sacrificial knife, then some good will come of this!

But I still needed at least one more way to further justify spending a week or so to grab them all. After all, I have a reputation to uphold! Everybody and their Aunt Alice knows I'm a devout science fiction historian and fanatic. Luckily, those pesky Gawds gave me a reason!

In "real" life, Mortimer and Charlie are really just ventriloquist dummies. And both Twilight Zone and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel had played with fear of ventriloquist's dummies -- which, according to Wikipedia, is called automatonophobia!

Automatons!!

Holy crap! This is really about Robots!

mort2.jpgMortimer and Charlie aren't just wooden dummies! In this strip, they are, in fact, walking / talking / breathing sentient beings coexisting in the same universe as their very real creator, Edgar Bergen!

This is artificial intelligence! This is SF, dammit! These really ARE the Droids you've been looking for!

Using that irrefutable logic as my justification, and spurred on by Divine guidance, I managed to find the entire 46 week run -- 276 dailies from July 10, 1939 to May 25, 1940, and 46 Sundays, most in color, from July 16, 1939 to May 26, 1940, plus a whole bunch of promos to compliment earlier and later comic strip advertisements starring those very same characters!

Had I been truly duped by the Universe, I suppose I would have continued and grabbed all their appearances in comics and radio. Ohhhh ... I was tempted! Some of those radio shows even have true genre content, such as Boris Karloff in an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, but even the delusional me has his limits!

The quality of most of these strips is fairly good, too, for newspaper scans -- except for a brief perod near the end when I only had the archives of the Winnipeg Press to pillage.

Mortimer and Charlie's mad scientist creator Edgar Bergen was becoming pretty famous when this strip started. He had been trained, starting at 16, by the famous ventriloquist Harry Lester. By 1919, Edgar had created his first dummy, using a red-headed Irish newspaperboy he knew as its model. He caled it Charlie McCarthy, and Charlie became his most famous creation, appearing with him literally right to the end in 1978.

Along the way, the pair appeared in successful vaudevilie acts, one-reel silent shorts, movies and TV. But they truly became members of the Rich and Famous when Bergen took his talents, creations and schtick to radio, of all places! There's a surreal aspect to a ventriloquist attaining fame and fortune in a medium where he's completely unseen by his audience!

Had I known earlier that such a thing was possible, I would have tried to parlay, Milli Vanilli style, my non-existent musical talent into a profitable career as the world's premier air guitarist.

Bergen and McCarthy's success was directly responsible for making the careers of Paul Winchell, Shari Lewis, SeƱor Wences and others possible, including ventriloquism's current golden boy, Jeff Dunham.

The pair even have another place in Science Fiction history. They are credited with both saving the world -- and aiding and abetting its destruction by Martian invaders!!

mort3.jpgOn October 30, 1938, Orson Welles' infamous War of the Worlds radio play caused widespread panic, but, luckily, most of America were tuned to Bergen and McCarthy on the Chase and Sanborn Hour and never heard the "news". On the other hand, some historians think Bergen's ill-timed musical interlude, 12 minutes into the show, may have inadvertently contributed to the hysteria when bored channel changers stumbled upon Welles' realistic-sounding reporter detailing the terrible heat rays of the invading Martians!!

Bergen's full life and career is well covered elsewhere, so there's no reason to document it here. There's a Wikipedia page, a movie page, a listing on the Muppets Wiki, and a radio page. You can even listen to hours of his radio shows or watch a few bazilion film clips free.

He likely used a ghost writer on theses strips, but its a safe bet that many of his setups and jokes from the radio show were recycled as deadlines loomed.

Artists on the strip, who may have served double duty as writers, were Ben Batsford and Carl Buettner, with the latter reportedly getting an assist from Chase Craig. The inimitable Alex Jay covers Batsford nicely at Stripper's Guide and both Buettner and Chase have entries at the Disney Wiki, as well as at Lambiak. All three have further credits at Jerry Bails' Who's Who and the Grand Comics Database.

I have no idea who worked on the Chase and Sanborn ads earlier in the 1930's nor later in the 40's; but they are clearly by different artists -- and not the ones from this strip, either. Its known that Lou Fine did some work for C&S [but neither examples below look like his work to me] as did Don Komisarow.
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Charlie McCarthy Ad 19370923 (Boston Globe).jpg

Charlie McCarthy Ad 19470223.jpg

While the creators and characters have garnered plenty of attention on the web, the strip has not. Allan Holtz did cover it as an Obscurity, though, at his Strippers' Guide.

mort4.jpgMajor characters in the strip include Edgar Bergen himself, serving as sometimes guardian to the robots -- uhhh, children -- Mortimer Snerd and Charlie McCarthy, who were equally likely to run off on their own to exotic locations instead of going to school. In fact, for the most part, their ages are ill defined and though usually depicted as in their early teens, they are often making advances on the adult buxom beauties they run into.

The snarky, lascivious Charlie was drawn with a top hat and monocle, similar to Esquire Magazine's mascot Little Esky or Mr. Monopoly of the popular board game, and was a youthful version of the many unflattering caricatures of banker J. P. Morgan. Mortimer was the equally stereotypical, slow witted, straw chewing country bumpkin.

Minor characters included the residents of Snerdville (a fictitious town located in the real Keokuk County of Iowa), especially Mortimer's Grandpa, girlfriend Peggy, and Bessie the cow. In Hollywood, they are joined by the juvenile delinquents, Skinny Dugan and Schuyler, and their teacher, Miss Kraushoffer.

Two other characters deserve a mention. Though our heroes cavorted with dozens of big name stars on the radio and in movies, only one, thinly disguised, appears here. Jack Pierce, superstar make-up artist who turned Boris Karloff into Frankenstein and The Mummy (and, later, Lon Chaney Jr. into The Wolf Man), shows up on December 30, 1939.

The second was actress La Fleurette, who was Effie Smith of Snerdville in disguise. A little later, in 1944, Bergen decided it was time to introduce a female dummy on his NBC radio show. Before the season began, he temporarily called her Mme. X and ran a contest for fans to select her official name. Not surprisingly, hundreds remembered and suggested Effie, though the prize winner opted for Klinker as the last name.

The third wall gets broken twice. On July 15, 1939, one week into the run, Edgar Bergen mentions that he has signed a big contract to create a newspaper comic; and on Friday, May 24, 1940, a blurb is added to say that the strip's creators have decided to discontinue it. Despite that, there was one more Sunday strip presented -- and a very odd final daily in between, on Saturday, May 25th.

In the daily finale, Charlie, Mortimer, Skinny and Schuyler are headed back to their boat and are suddenly attacked by a deadly meerkat! Meerkat attacks, as everyone knows, are the leading cause of death -- or at least strip cancellation -- in the Snerdiverse.

The other three escape, but Mortimer is clearly about to be mauled. I'm sure his robotic parts will save him, but millions of kids, unaware of my theory, were probably left traumatized and begging their parents to buy them a Red Ryder BB gun so they could run off and rescue their hero!

Mortimer and Charlie 19400525 (Madison Capital Times).jpg

I placed the complete strip -- plus Chase and Sanborn ads, promos, and a newspaper article or two -- online at MediaFire. Enjoy!!

As always, if anyone spots errors or has better scans, feel free to contact me. I've also activated the comments section below.