Monday, July 11, 2011

Were You There, Charlie?

When I was small and would seem to be bragging and stretching the truth, my grandmother would say: “Were you there, Charlie?”
My grandmother was born in 1894 so a lot of the stories and quotes she used were from a time two generations before I showed up on the scene. She told me that the saying came from an old radio program but she didn’t ever say which one. She said that the star of the show would tell impossible stories and, when questioned, would say: “Were you there, Charlie?”
I decided to look up the old saying after I ran across a story using it. It was a news story discussing the closure of the GM  Janesville, Wisconsin, plant as written By Charlie LeDuff and Danny Wilcox Frazier. The teaser for the article included the words: “Were you there Charlie?" 
It turns out that the saying was the creation of radio comic, Jack Pearl. In the show, the Baron Munchausen, Pearl’s creation, was a braggart whose wild anecdotes, uttered with a Jewish/”Mittle European” accent testified to his unlikely acts. The Baron character was loosely based on the real Baron Münchhausen, a teller of tall tales.
Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen, who lived in the 1700s, was known as Baron Münchausen in English. He was a German nobleman born in Bodenwerder and became famous for his tall tales.
The real Baron served in the Russian military and was a soldier in two campaigns against the Ottoman Turks. When he returned home, Münchhausen, according to contemporary reports, told some outrageously farfetched stories about his adventures. For example, the Baron's astounding feats included riding cannonballs, traveling to the Moon, and escaping from a swamp by pulling himself up by his own hair. In some versions, he reportedly said he had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.
Pearl’s Baron always addressed skepticism with a catchphrase that once was as familiar to Americans as "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis?" is today. Uttered as: “Vas you dere, Sharlie?” The phrase translated to: "Were you there, Charlie?"
When the straight man (originally Ben Bard, but later Cliff Hall), expressed doubt about the story being told, the Baron replied: "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" His coined catch phrase soon became part of the national vocabulary.
Jack Pearl (Jack Perlman) was born on October 29, 1894, in New York City, and died on December 25, 1982.
He began his carrer as a vaudeville performer. He was then a star of early radio. Pearl made an easy transition from vaudeville to broadcasting when he introduced his character Baron Munchausen on The Ziegfeld Follies of the Air in 1932.  
All this searching began because of some political quotes I read in a news report where the “The Speaker’s Quote Book” by Roy B. Zuck, includes the following quote on Page 115 under the heading, Creation: “Joe and Charlie were arguing about Genesis 1:1. Joe said he believed the record of creation just as it was written. Charlie was an unbeliever, and went to great lengths in giving his own theory of how the world began and then how life developed from a primordial cell through reptiles, monkeys, and up to man. When he was all through, Joe looked at him and said, “Were you there, Charlie?” It was a good question. “Of course I wasn’t there,” he replied. Joe said, “Well, God was. He was the only one there and I’ll take the word of the Eyewitness rather than the guesses of those who rely on their own imagination.”
The same quote is used (no author is attributed at either source) by M.R. De Hann, on the radio program, “Our Daily Bread” on the show aired on April 9, 2000.
I suppose I am passing the saying along to another generation just as are the news reporters of today. We are using a quote that originated back in the 1930s on a radio show that most have all but forgotten. The other day, one of my little granddaughters told quite a tall tale. I asked her: “Were you there, Charlie?”


  1. Given your surname, I am sure that you know that the real quote was: "Vas you dere Charlie?" I heard that often growing up - mainly from my father (1896 - 1950) - but it was never explained. I grew to understand the nuance, but never knew from where it came - until the magic of Google.

  2. My mother, born in 1900, also used the phase on me plus "Hit him again, He's Irish" and "Put a ribbon on a pig and it is still a pig". Among my father's, born 1896, about the weather; "hotter than Dutch love" , "hotter than the old maids kiss", "colder than Christian charity". On exageration, "Never let a good story be spoiled by the facts".