12/8/11

How many Charlies?

By Alan Semok

This question has come up every so often on the forum, and the "number of Charlies" will always depend upon whom you ask. Honestly, I doubt we will ever have an exact number.

For whatever it's worth, years ago (while Edgar was still alive, actually) I was told--quite specifically--that there were 13 Charlie figures made in all.
Since that time, I think I've accounted for at least 8 Charlies (five or six of which I have handled at some point). There may indeed be more, or I may be off by one or two.

In his publicity Bergen claimed more than once that there was only one Charlie but of course, that was just a publicity statement. At other times, he allowed that there were attempts to copy Charlie but all failed miserably.

Either way, given his fame and prominence, relying on a single puppet would have been foolhardy. We know for sure that even as early as the late 1920's there were already at least two Charlie figures since, in several instances, they both appear in various films: in a few of the Vitaphone shorts, the two puppets appear within the same film and it's pretty easy to spot the differences. In one shot we'll see the Charlie that is usually referred to and accepted as the "original", while in another shot (within the same film) we'll see the "moving eyes" Charlie which the Smithsonian maintains is "the original" (without commenting further, I'll leave it to others to sort out the provenance of that particular appraisal).

It seems to me though that in the end, there was in reality only one Charlie since in assessing Bergen's fame and influence on the art, it is unquestionably the character that's most important here, not the physical puppet. The one and only Charlie was in Edgar Bergen's brain. :-)

As vents and students of the art and its history, we tend to get caught up in the minutia of sorting out the differences between the various Charlie figures. Quite honestly, it probably mattered little to Bergen himself, and all the public had to see was the top hat and monocle, and it was Charlie.
The way I see it, Bergen's success was ALWAYS about the characters and the humor, not specifically the physical figures he used.

Thanks for coming to class. No homework assignment tonight. Tomorrow's lecture will be about "lip control". (I'm going to go hide now....)

4 comments:

  1. Anonymous12/08/2011

    Great article by a great figure maker. So it ISN'T Bergen's original charlie that's in the smithsonian. GOOD! I heared they took him off display, even though it was stated he would be on permanent display, & when they finally did re-display him, he's missing his top hat. That's like displaying mickey mouse without his ears! Re: eye movements on charlie, in "you can't cheat an honest man, where charlie is shown briefly in blackface make-up, if you watch REAL close, you'll see his eyes move to the one side. In some of the vitaphone shorts, his eyes roll up into his head. And i believe the original had stationary eyes, so that makes three alone, plus the old man charlie head & the scowling charlie makes five {or at least 5 HEADS} I wonder what one copperfield has. Nice story. Thanks Clinton & Mr. Semok!

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  2. "The way I see it, Bergen's success was ALWAYS about the characters and the humor, not specifically the physical figures he used."

    This is excellent! Thanks, Alan!

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  3. Jim Chaput12/08/2011

    You said that you handled 5 or 6 Charlie figures. Did you do repair or do tuneups for Charlie while Bergen was still alive?

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  4. Sbrekken12/08/2011

    What about Mortimer? How many versions did he have?

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