Dear Major Bowes: Letters from the Amateur Hour Collection

An application from Beverly Sills, age 10, to appear on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. She sang "Caro Nome" from Rigoletto on the October 26, 1939 broadcast. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

An application from Beverly Sills, age 10, to appear on Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. She sang “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto on the October 26, 1939 broadcast. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Are you a fan of American Idol? Remember the Gong Show? Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour was the granddaddy of today’s top amateur talent shows. During its radio heyday in the mid-1930s, thousands of hopefuls traveled to New York City to audition, competing for a handful of slots on the weekly broadcast. Along with the performance recordings, the Library of Congress holds the applications and letters from most of the lucky people who appeared on the radio show in the Amateur Hour Collection.

In the midst of the Great Depression, people grasped at any straw they could in hopes of finding employment. Potential auditioners wrote in the hopes of catching someone’s attention, and the correspondence has provided me with hours of entertainment. They wrote letters begging for an audition or extolling their talents. The letters are filled with pathos, humor, quirky personalities, and big egos. The applications themselves are sometimes completely covered with cramped handwriting, listing every job the would-be auditioner had ever had. There are lists of imitations performed, instruments played, and the number of children they needed to feed. They just knew they would hit the big time if they could only have a chance to appear with Major Bowes.

Most of them just went home afterwards, but some really DID hit the big time. Beverly Sills, Frank Sinatra, who appeared with his group the Hoboken Four, Redd Foxx, Gladys Knight, Bert Parks, Hugo Montenegro, Theresa Brewer, and Regina Resnick were among the contestants who later became famous after appearing on the radio or the later television program.

Join me on Tuesday, Dec. 10 at noon in the Jefferson Building’s Whittall Pavilion, when I’ll be giving a talk on this wonderful show as part of the Music Division’s High Noon Lecture Series. I’ll give some of the history of the fabled radio show and share the wonderful cross-section of folks from all across America and the world who make this collection such a wonderful resource of social and broadcast history. You’ll meet Anna and Jim Marley, a brother-sister dance team from Connecticut who hoped to parlay their considerable talent into their ticket out of the textile mills, who serve as a wonderful example of those who made that trip to New York. Please join me!

 

3 Comments

  1. lentigogirl
    December 11, 2013 at 11:49 am

    please please please reschedule this one!

  2. mike papierman
    December 22, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    have pictures of Major Bowes article with my father, Julius, from their full time employees that filled in, as Johnny and Julius. Johnny played the trumpet and my father imitated the trumpet to everyones amazement no one could tell which was which. My father took pictures when we went on tour with Ted Mack. My mother (age 92) would love to give them to the library to honor her husband, my father, whom has passed.

  3. Cait Miller
    December 26, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Thanks for your comment, Mike. If you have questions about our collections and donations, please send an e-mail to us via the Ask a Librarian reference service (see the form at http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-perform2.html?loclr=blogmus). A librarian will get back to you soon!

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