Puzzles And Puppets

By Pia Kraus Aitken


BergenmccarthyAt almost 18, I had been working my “school credit” job as Assistant Manager of our town’s newest and fanciest Motor Hotel for about eight months. Every day, my greatest hope was that a little excitement would walk through the door.

Growing up in the late fifties in small town Nebraska could definitely have been called “sheltered.” Everyone knew everyone and you couldn’t get away with a thing without somebody telling your parents. Daily life was so safe that at age seven, I walked three blocks to Preble’s Grocery Store, filled my red wagon from my mother’s list and pulled it home -in spite of the fact that Preble’s was on the busiest highway in North America – the “Lincoln” Highway 30.

“Sheltered” included not having television until the sixties where I lived, but we did have radio– a 50,000 watt Denver station. All of my worldly sophistication came from either the radio programs like Art Linkletter and The Chase and Sanborn Hour, or the public library.

Personally, the word “sheltered” never entered my vocabulary.  It was more like “boring.”  Working at the hotel definitely livened up my personal scene. People from almost all 50 states had stayed at the hotel in the year since it opened.

When I was on duty, food from the restaurant was a perk, so I indulged myself daily. One spring afternoon, I was eating in the nearly deserted restaurant when an elderly balding man accompanied by one of the handsomest young men I’d ever laid eyes on - even in movie magazines -strolled in.  By then, I had been working there long enough that I fancied myself to be the grand hostess of the place. I walked over, smiled my most charming smile, and welcomed the two.

“I guess you work here,” the balding man said.

“Yes, I’m the Assistant Manager and I would be happy to help you with anything you need. Are you planning to stay overnight?”

“We should, I think,” he replied. “This is half-way between Lincoln and Laramie, and the only reason we got here this early is that Dom drives so fast. He broke every Nebraska speed law!”

“When you’re finished here, I’ll register you in the main lobby,” I said, smiling my most fetching smile.

As I walked away, I had the strangest feeling that I’d heard that voice before. To this day, I recognize voices better than faces. They stick with me.  I was puzzled. Why would I have heard the voice of a total stranger?  I arranged to walk outside and glance at the only strange car in the lot. California plates. Mercedes-Benz. Not too many of those around.

An hour later, the younger man signed the register: Dominic Frontieri. No mention of the other gentleman. Address: Los Angeles.

Seconds later, the older man walked in the door with a long, fairly flat, brown suitcase that looked like it should hold a musical instrument. He came toward the desk. A little grin was blooming across his ruddy cheeks as he carefully placed it on the counter in front of me and clicked it open. The back flipped up, obscuring my view of what was inside. His hand dipped in with a rather strange motion and then flipped up, holding a boy doll.

“Hi,” the doll said in a funny little voice. “My name’s Charlie McCarthy. You’re cute. What’s yours?”

I burst out laughing. Of course I recognized the voice. It came to me from our big Philips radio on the weekly Chase and Sanborn Hour. The balding gentleman was Edgar Bergen. Charlie was his puppet.

Suddenly it was a game. “My name is Puddle Abernathy, and I’m from Pillsville. Where do you live, Charlie?”

“I live with my friend . . . here, I’ll introduce you,” and Charlie dived into the suitcase and a hand came up with another boy puppet.

“I’m Charlie’s friend, Mortimer Snerd,” the other puppet announced in a deeper, stranger voice. “We live together in here. Sometimes it gets kinda crowded, but I guess it is okay. I like you. Can you come out and play?”

Edgar said Dominic was doing new music for his show. They just happened to both be going from New York to Los Angeles and neither liked to fly, so they were driving.  Lucky for me.

Years later, just a few years before his death, I saw Edgar Bergen again at a dinner in Pebble Beach, CA, honoring him. With him were his beautiful wife and a daughter, Candace, her mother’s carbon copy. I told Edgar how much pleasure he had given me that day. He said maybe I should have made more fuss over Dominic who ended up marrying Georgia Rosenbloom, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams.

I told him I’d always like puppets better than football.


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