Do You Remember: Mortimer Snerd?

Mortimer Snerd, one of the ventriloquist dummies of Edgar Bergen.

Glen Goodhand

They called it the Golden Age of Radio. Starting in the early 1920s and continuing through the 1950s (when TV stole the spotlight), this medium dominated the entertainment lives of those who owned a receiver.

Without a doubt, the sight of the boob tube lighting up the windows of homes is as common as the rising and setting of the sun. While television addiction has gone down since the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and other hand-held devices, it still draws in many viewers.

The introduction of regular radio programs was much the same. While their popularity waned over time, the pull of a mantel or floor model captivated entire families in those days. The amusement was not as mindless as with TV, for with radio, listeners’ imaginations were forced to be continuously active, or they would lose the gist of the program.

There were programs involving action and adventure, like “The FBI in Peace and War”. There were mysteries, like “Inner Sanctum”. Even the Wild West was not overlooked, with the radio version of “Gunsmoke” adding to the variety of listening choices.

But the most “golden” moments were provided by family fare: comedies like “Fibber McGee and Molly”, the “Jack Benny Program”, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, and “The Burns and Allen Show”, which tickled the fancies of those of every age group.

Perhaps the favourite radio program of that era was the “Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show”. Reputably the most famous ventriloquist of all, by the time he was 11 years old, Edgar Bergen had taught himself the art of “throwing his voice” after reading a 25-cent booklet on the subject. While in his teens, he joined forces with a local woodworker to create his first “Charlie McCarthy”, his renowned “dummy”. As a student at Northwestern University, he and his pine pal performed at many talent shows, and in 1936 he was invited to be a guest on the “Rudy Vallee Radio Hour”. A year later, they debuted on their own show, “The Chase and Sanborn Hour”. Although his sponsors changed from time to time, his entertaining presentations graced the airwaves until 1956.

While the brash, wise-cracking, mischievous Charlie McCarthy was his star co-performer, Bergen’s other puppets added to the humour. Among them was Effie Klinker, the sassy man-chaser, and the slow-witted Mortimer Snerd. Decked out in a loud-checkered suit, complete with bow tie and vest, and topped off with a dapper straw hat, he fostered one chuckle after another. This resident of Snerdville, who constantly reminisced about his cow, drew copious laughter with his humble innocence and sheer simple-mindedness.

His portion of the program was always introduced with unique music—a galumphing beat, which skilfully set the scene for “here comes the dunce”. It was enhanced by a sample of his goofy laugh. Radio audiences didn’t have the benefit of seeing his sleepy eyes, oversized ears and nose, and extreme overbite, yet all were somehow radiated to the amused listener.
Unlike his dialogues with Charlie, Bergen’s conversations with his slow-witted buddy were peppered continually with questions. The following is the actual dialogue from one of their radio episodes:

EDGAR: “Did you enjoy the movie?”

MORTIMER: “Yep! But it was scary!”

EDGAR: “Mortimer, only very stupid people are frightened by a motion picture!”

MORTIMER: “Well! I’m pretty sure I qualify!”

EDGAR: “I suppose it was a big giant that frightened you?”

MORTIMER: “No. It was a fellow with pigeon-toe eyes. Looked like his face was buttoned wrong. Some of his teeth stuck out so far he looked like he swallowed a lake.”

EDGAR: “I’m sure you know the person’s name. Now think—it was Mortimer Snerd!”

MORTIMER: “Oh. Give me a better hint than that!”

EDGAR: “Mortimer YOU were in the picture!”

MORTIMER: “Well, I’m flabbergasted!”

Invariably, Bergen became frustrated with Mortimer’s inability to comprehend, and he would shout: “Mortimer! How can you be so stupid?” One of three responses were inevitable: “Huh? What was the question?”, or “Well! It ain’t easy!”, or “Well! That’s the way it goes!”