Original Amateur Hour

Courtesy: wlmoorman3@yahoo.com

The history of the Original Amateur Hour deserves some mention, as it invented virtually everything that the "Idol" franchise is doing now-unknown talent, audiences picking the winners, telephone voting, and winners being signed by the producers for further work. But "Idol" has a long way to go to match the list of notable performers who got early exposure on the Original Amateur Hour. A partial list includes:

Frank Sinatra (1935 with the Hoboken Four)
Tiny Grimes
T. Texas Tyler
Maria Callas
Beverly Sills (1939, age 10, as Bubbles Silverman)
Alan King (comic)
Bert Parks (later a longtime Miss America pageant host)
Joey Bishop (later a Rat Pack sidekick)
Rev. Louis Farrakhan (then 16 yr. old violinist Louis Walcott)
Robert Merrill
Jerry Vale
Robert Blake (then a child actor)
Pat Boone
Teresa Brewer
Gladys Knight (age 7, sang "Too Young")
Georgia Gibbs
The Johnny Burnette Trio
Ann Margaret (lost to a Mexican who played a tree leaf like a kazoo)
Jose Feliciano
Connie Francis (talked out of playing accordian to sing instead)
Penny Marshall ("Laverne & Shirley")
Robert Klein (comic, then in a doowop group that lost to a one armed pianist)
Jim Stafford (hit songwriter)
Joey Dee & the Starlighters ("The Twist")
The Gentrys ("Keep on Dancin'")
Freda Payne ("Band Of Gold")
Irene Cara ("Fame")

The Original Amateur Hour began on radio in 1934, and ran on radio and then television until 1970. The founder and first host was Edward "Major" Bowes. His first announcer was Ralph Edwards, followed by swing band vet Ted Mack, who became host after Bowes' death in 1946.

The show was an immediate hit with depression era audiences, and the contestant applications, which are preserved at the Library of Congress, are fascinating and often poignant, as desperate amateurs sought to win small cash prizes. The top winners were signed to perform in several "Original Amateur Hour" traveling shows.

The show had a "wheel of fortune" that inspired the later hit song, and a rejection gong that became the basis for "The Gong Show". In conjunction with the idea of amateur talent, the show would spotlight a different city each week, and the resultant telephone call-in voting became an early innovation in market research.

Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was another show that boosted little known talent, but they were usually already professionals without wide recognition, and tended to be safer choices. His biggest "discovery" was Patsy Cline, but also included Pat Boone, Tony Bennett, Steve Lawrence, Eddie Fisher, Leslie Uggams, The Chordettes, Marvin Rainwater, Roy Clark, and Lenny Bruce(!).

From the basic template provided by The Original Amateur Hour came Star Search, The Gong Show, and the American/U.K. Idol shows. There is reason to hope that more footage of the Johnny Burnette Trio and others will emerge. A specialty company is now releasing some of the TV episodes on DVD; other titles by this company include DVD's of Elvis, Darin and LuLu, as well as such titles as "The Poetry of Ireland". For more details see this link:

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