Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

American Idol's Great-Great-Great Grandfather: The Way It Was, 24 March

1935---The old-time radio great-great-great grandfather of American Idol takes his signature creation network today, on NBC, following a swift enough showing as a localised phenomenon on New York's WHN.

Once a local theater producer and film distributor, Major Edward Bowes (the rank comes from his claim to have served in military intelligence in World War I, though he may actually have been a reserve officer) refines the apparent national craze for amateur nights (they've already sprung up nationwide, and over many local radio stations, leaving it open as to just who actually did invent the idea) and becomes the most identifiable amateur-night host for that reason alone* in radio history.

For a man who entered show business in the first place by using some of his real estate profits to buy a Boston theater, and ended up building the once-formidable Capitol Theater in New York (his original radio show was called Major Bowes and His Capitol Theater Family), Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour's success will prove remarkable enough. Within a year, and possibly less, Bowes will become something of an institution.

Last year . . . Major Bowes's hour had become Radio's No. 1 commercial broadcast, worth $7,500 a week to Standard Brands to advertise Chase & Sanborn's Coffee over 60 National Broadcasting Co. stations. Last week, when it was announced that beginning in September a new sponsor, Walter P. Chrysler, would pay him a reputed $15,000 a week for program rights alone, Major Bowes graduated clear out of show business, was a big business in himself.

Contrary to the opinion of many an interested adman who thought that Radio's top attraction had thus successfully culminated a campaign for a merited raise, Major Bowes blandly announced:

"Major Bowes's relations with his present sponsor are of the happiest. There has never been a single instance to mar a completely harmonious association; nor has there ever been any discussion whatever as to compensation. Major Bowes and Walter P. Chrysler are old and intimate friends, and Major Bowes has such admiration for the man and his achievements that to represent him and his products on the radio will take on an added pleasure and satisfaction."

If Major Bowes should care to incorporate, the books of Bowes Inc. would show by September a weekly gross of some $30,000. For the famed Bowes gong now reverberates far beyond his radio audience, in a half-dozen lucrative side lines. There are Major Bowes highball glasses, decorated with pictures of cat & dog amateurs; Major Bowes cotton fabrics, also decorated with amateurs; the Major Bowes alarm clock which rouses sluggards with a gong; the 25¢ Major Bowes' Amateur Magazine; the weekly Amateur Writers Page in Bernarr MacFadden's Liberty ; a parchesi-like Major Bowes Game; two monthly movie shorts; and 14 traveling shows or "units' of amateurs who have appeared on the radio program, playing theatres all over the U. S. Over head of Bowes Inc. would include $5 weekly to 14 or 15 amateurs, $10 to those who "get the gong" (are hustled off the air when Bowes rings a bell), salaries of 35 personal employes, and $40 to $60 weekly, plus transportation, to the unit members.

It is Bowes who first strikes a gong to cut short a performer who meets defeat; it is Bowes who first plays to his audience by cheerfully insulting performances he doesn't much care for himself; it is Bowes who first sends into the vernacular that routine about the wheel of fortune and 'round and 'round she goes and where she stops---well, you get the idea . . .

But some of the price that may be paid on behalf of (depending on your point of view) the human enough craving for celebrity, or (in Time's words) the human instinct of amusement at the embarrassment of others, will be a little too steep, according to some future recollections.

. . . small-time entertainers who had wowed the local Lions Club were encouraged to sell their homes, pack up their banjos, tap shoes, washboards, and cowbells and, like showbiz Okies, head east in pursuit of theatrical fame and fortune. Some ten thousand people wrote in each week seeking auditions with Bowes. The list was then whittled down to about twenty, leaving the remaining out-of-work yodelers and wineglass virtuosi out on the street. When Newsweek reported that during a single month of 1935 some twelve hundred stranded entertainers needed emergency aid, Bowes ruled that only people from the New York area were eligible.

---Gerald Nachman, Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

Bowes will continue his weekly amateur nights---on NBC and CBS---until his death in 1946, after which his subordinate and occasional stand-in Ted Mack will take over the show (which moves to ABC during this tenure) and bring it to television. Of the thousands of amateurs who petition, never mind make the stage, on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour, a very few will find actual fame as entertainers. These will include a pair of opera greats (Robert Merrill, Beverly Sills---known then under her birth name Beverly Weinstein), a pop singer (Teresa Brewer, who hit big enough in the 1950s), at least one comedian (Jack Carter), and---easily the most successful of all the few genuine stars who caught their earliest breaks with the Major---a kid Bowes teams up with an otherwise nondescript singing trio known as the Three Flashes, whose name Bowes changes to the Hoboken Four.

A kid named Frank Sinatra.

* --- In the same decade, Fred Allen was almost as familiar for introducing amateur talent on his weekly, hourlong satirical soirees as he was for his comic genius. To his credit, however, Allen presented them as serious aspirants without avoiding a little mad fun, but he tended to avoid the kind of carnival atmosphere that was thought so often to underpin the Bowes and other amateur shows' presentations.

Allen often deployed his amateur finds as part of his comedy sketches in addition to showcasing their core talents, mindful that they may not have been real comic talents and thus enabling them to join in as they were, as opposed to as a fanciful programmer might have forced them to be.


1932: TRAINTIME---Popular stage, film, and radio singer Belle Baker---who introduced such standards as Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" on stage (in the Ziegfeld production of Betsy) and Cole Porter's "All of Me" on records, and was a periodic guest on radio's first known variety show (The Eveready Hour)---becomes the first American performer ever to broadcast on a moving train, hosting a variety show on New York's WABC (a CBS affiliate at the time) from a New York-bound train originating in Maryland.


1941: FLIGHT COMMAND---Three stars reprise their 1940 film roles* as a Navy flier (Robert Taylor) who seems romantically interested in the widow (Ruth Hussey) of his partner, who was killed testing a new fog-landing device, which alienates the flier's squadron mates until his commander's (Walter Pidgeon) crisis enables him to show his mettle, on tonight's edition of Lux Radio Theater. (CBS.) Based on the story by Harvey S. Haislip and John Sutherland and screenplay adaptation by (Cmdr.) Harvey S. Haislip and Wells Root. Host/producer: Cecil B. DeMille.

* --- Among the original film cast, as Lt. Mugger Martin, was a popular MGM contract player (usually in comedies) who was a rising radio star with his own weekly show: Red Skelton.

1945: THE GREAT DIAMOND ROBBERY---Opening night approaches for the dream theater Danny (Kaye) bought a week ago, and he's got a small pocket of problems mounting its first play, including Lionel (Stander)'s publicity ineptness and an amorous building inspector (Eve Arden), on tonight's edition of The Danny Kaye Show. (CBS.) Additional cast: Ken Niles. Writers: Goodman Ace, Abe Burrows, Sylvia Fine. Music: Harry James and His Orchestra.


1867---Harry Neville (actor: The O'Neills), Launceston, Tasmania.
1885---Joseph Granby (actor: We Were Always Young), Boston.
1902---Thomas E. Dewey (attorney/politician: The Jack Benny Program, Racketbusters' Roundtable), Owosso, Mississippi.
1906---Julian Funt (writer: Young Doctor Malone), unknown.
1910---Richard Conte (actor: Theater Guild On the Air, Hallmark Playhouse, Hollywood Star Playhouse), Jersey City.
1915---Bill Bivens (announcer: The Fred Waring Show, Vox Pox), Wadesboro, North Carolina.
1928---Vanessa Brown (panelist: The Quiz Kids), Vienna.


Blogger Andrew Godfrey said...

Only 4 hours and 51 minutes of Major Bowes still exist after being broadcast on radio from 1934-1946.

Major Bowes was a smart man having amateurs sign contract stating he would get 15 percent of profits if they got work because of being on his show.

Too bad there aren't more episodes available of this show because it was old time radio at its best.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

Some have called Bowes smart for such a contract provision; others have attached rather different appellations to such provisions, which I think came into greater disrepute when one Bowes alumnus learned the hard way about the far bigger such hook Tommy Dorsey had him on when he tried to strike solo.

Majore Bowes' Original Amateur Hour could be, at once, old-time radio at its best and at its worst. But it is a shame that more than just shy of five hours of the show have survived . . .

2:37 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home