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Dear Major Bowes: Letters from the Amateur Hour Collection

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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!

 

Comments (7)

  1. please please please reschedule this one!

  2. 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.

    • 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!

  3. My husband Frank Copeland was on the Major Bowes show
    1947/1951? If you have any information my daughters and I would love having it, Frank passed away in 2001, he served 30 years in the military, did very well but always spoke fondly of being on the show.
    Thank you, Nancy Copeland

    • Thanks for your comment, Nancy! One of our reference librarians will be happy to give you more information – email your reference question to us using the form at http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-perform2.html and we’ll get back to you soon!

  4. My mom told me her sister ROSE CAGGIANO won a Major Bowes contest. Is there anyway this can be verified. I think this is something as a family we would be interested and love to know. Sorry I have no dates but I’m almost certain it was before I was born in 1943. Any info would be nice.

    Thanks
    Angie Klepacz

    • I’m glad you found our blog post, Angela! Questions like yours should be directed to one of our reference librarians via our Ask a Librarian link at http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-perform.html

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