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!