Charlie McCarthy was probably this country’s most visible prop. It was the dummy that Edgar Bergen developed when spreading his radio broadcast humor.
Charlie flourished for decades, as similar creations still do. Live props acted as stooges, or “straights” for comedians and actors who would set up a scene. It’s what Gracie Allen was to George Burns, Hamilton Burger was to Perry Mason. It was Tonto, Smiley Burnette and Gabby Hayes sucking up to the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, respectively. Throw in Silver, Champion and Trigger as the helpers they rode in on.
The list is long: Abbott & Costello, Martin and Lewis, Jack Benny and Rochester, Sam Malone and Cliff Clavin, Archie and Edith.
Other duos have complemented one another to make things work. Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gilbert & Sullivan, George and Ira Gershwin, Barnum & Bailey, Amos & Andy, Holmes and Watson, and Bonnie and Clyde are a few examples.
Sports announcers committed gaffes from time to time when they used poor judgment or a careless choice of words. Rick Barry, calling a basketball game with Bill Russell, made a comment about Russell’s “watermelon grin.” CBS did not renew Barry’s contract after that.
Others simply make callous, insensitive remarks. Former Philadelphia Eagles star Tom Brookshier, while announcing a Louisville basketball game, made a comment about the team “having a collective IQ of about 40.” His network suspended him for the remark, which some viewed as racist.
Politicians occasionally skewer themselves with the microphone when they employ that instrument as a weapon as Lloyd Bentsen did. In poor taste, he reminded the benign Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” That attack backfired. Ronald Reagan, conversely, scored debate points when, in a fatherly fashion, he upbraided Jimmy Carter on the president’s insistence of annoying repetition (“There you go again.”)
Unruly props can have their benefits. If Louis Pasteur hadn’t let the milk go sour, or Charles Goodyear hadn’t dropped that glob on the stove . . .
Then there are the “what ifs.” What if Hitler decided not to invade Russia? Or if C. Wade McClusky hadn’t stumbled onto the Japanese carrier fleet at Midway?
It’s interesting how a civilization becomes accustomed to certain combinations. Can anyone imagine Lawrence Welk without the bubble machine? Shirley Temple and no Good Ship Lollipop? Just imagine Kate Smith without “God Bless America” or Barney Fife without his bullet. Where would faux be without pas, tick without tock, Smith without a brother?
In conclusion, wouldn’t it be nice not to mention the props that so damaged a luminary’s reputation? George Patton could have just as easily left those leather gloves in his Jeep. No one would ever guessed he had such a nasty streak. Oh, well, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts . . .
Al Bartlett of Gig Harbor, a retired teacher and farmer, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.