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Major Bowes and the Original Amateur Hour

About Major Bowes

This page provides biographical information about Edward Bowes and a brief history of the Original Amateur Hour.

Miguel Covarrubias, artist. [Major Bowes]. [1938]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Early Life

Edward Bowes was born June 14, 1874 to Amelia Ford and John M. Bowes of San Francisco, CA. Upon his father’s untimely death in 1880, Edward took a job in a real estate office at $3.00 per week, assuming responsibility for the support of his mother and three sisters before he had yet graduated from elementary school. By the age of 25, he was counted among the richest men in San Francisco, with expansive, diverse real estate holdings throughout the Northwest.

As his social influence grew Edward became increasingly involved in civic reform. As Grand Juror of San Francisco, he led a 1904 crusade against government bribery in the city’s Chinatown district. Following a controversial trial involving Bowes and his legal representative, a young Hiram W. Johnson, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened with advice that Bowes remove himself from the country in the face of serious threats on his life.

Bowes retreated to Ireland, returning after two years for the purpose of being witness to Enrico Caruso’s premiere performance at the San Francisco Opera House on April 17, 1906. The following morning, Bowes’ real estate empire toppled to the ground when the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 struck.

An Entertainment Career

On November 13, 1909, Bowes was married to celebrated stage and screen actress Margaret Illington, who had scandalously divorced prominent theatrical producer Daniel Frohman just three days earlier. Illington most notably starred in silent films with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players-Lasky group (including The Inner Shrine and Sacrifice) and on Broadway in The Two Orphans and Kindling. She passed away in 1934 at the Bowes’ Florida estate.

Among Margaret’s many contributions to her husband’s fledgling entertainment career was an introduction to Messmore Kendall, owner of New York’s Capitol Theater building (pictured below). The structure was leased to Goldwyn Pictures Corporation in 1918 with “a distinct understanding” that Bowes would be appointed Managing Director. His second in command was a young Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel and together the two inaugurated the rise of the great picture palaces with their lavish stage shows, impressive theater architecture, and over-the-top amenities for patrons. Then the largest theater in the world, the Capitol was New York’s central showplace until Rothafel’s Roxy Theater and later, Radio City Music Hall, were opened in the mid-1920s.

Capitol Theater. 1920. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Following his tremendous successes at the Capitol, Bowes was appointed a vice-President of Goldwyn Pictures Corporation in 1922. After a 1924 merger with Metro Pictures and The Louis B. Mayer Company, he found himself manager of the newly consolidated WHN radio station, formed of the three studios’ combined holdings of stations WPAP, WRNY and WQAO.

Bowes approved a series of historic experiments led by the Western Electric Company and station WEAF in the early 1920s, in which major advancements were made in broadcasting full orchestral music. The first broadcast of a symphony orchestra occurred on November 19, 1922 live from the Capitol Theater with Bowes presiding behind the scenes and Roxy hosting on-air. The program – titled The Capitol Family – was reprised the following week and for many years thereafter, with Bowes assuming on-air control on July 25, 1925 following Roxy’s formal resignation.

The Capitol Family broadcasts began at 7:20pm with Bowes’ 10-minute description of the newsreel footage that was to be screened for the theater’s in-house audience. At 7:30 the reel ran for the radio and theater audiences simultaneously, followed by the live stage show and orchestral performance that preceded feature films shown on the Capitol screen. The theater was among the first to perform symphonic music for film-going audiences, including a popular series of full-length works by Tchaikovsky. At 8:15, Bowes and his “family” retreated to a state of the art broadcast studio beneath the theater lobby where additional musical numbers were performed for home listeners until a 9:15 sign-off. The Capitol Family cast included arranger Bill Axt, conductor David Mendoza, pianist Hannah Klein, concert master Waldo Mayo, and singers Caroline Andrews, Louis Bave, Sylvia Miller, Betty Poulus, Westell Gordon, Carl Ferretti, Edward La Monte and Wee Willie Robin.

Among the other local radio programs that Bowes managed was a fledgling amateur hour presided over by host Perry Charles. The program was a failure that was canceled twice – in 1925 and 1931. After watching a wrestling match at Madison Square Gardens, Charles devised the idea to terminate poor performances with a gong sound effect, adding an element of humor to the amateur format. The third iteration of WHN’s Amateur Hour – Perry Charles Master of Ceremonies – premiered on March 28, 1934 and was a success.

The Original Amateur Hour

In 1935, an opportunistic Bowes signed with NBC for a national radio spot sponsored by Chase and Sanborn Coffee. The Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour premiered on March 24, 1935, with a reported “army” of lawyers ready to quell anticipated action from an infuriated Perry Charles. None was taken, and Bowes and his gong became nationally recognized overnight. The opening of the program featured Bowes spinning a loudly clacking “wheel of fortune” as he chanted, “’Round and ‘round she goes, where she stops nobody knows!” The phrase remains a common American colloquialism.

Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Radio City Music Hall, New York, New York. [between 1980 and 2006]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By June of 1935, the Original Amateur Hour was named the most-listened-to program in the United States. At the program’s height of popularity in the summer of 1936, 10,000 applications were received weekly; 600 amateurs were auditioned; and 16 performed on-air. Programs originated from the Major Bowes studio at Rockefeller Center’s Radio City (pictured at right) with a live audience of 2,000.

One of the show’s major innovations was a national telephone voting system, engineered by the Bowes staff technicians. New York area listeners, as well as residents of each week’s rotating “Honor City” elsewhere in the United States, were permitted to phone in votes for their amateur of choice in the two hours following the broadcast. Between 30 and 50 operators tallied votes, though the system was highly unscientific and often accused of being rigged.

Although amateurs were unpaid for their performances, Major Bowes promised to assign each week’s winner to one of his touring vaudeville troupes. In practice, this promise was very rarely acted upon, with most troupe members hand-picked by Bowes’ staff based on independent factors. Even those who were lucky enough to be assigned to one of the 15 troupes were only paid about $35 per week for up to four performances daily. Very little of this money was available for saving or spending because housing and food were not provided during tours.

In addition to coordinating radio and live touring performances, Bowes extended the Amateur Hour brand across various platforms including a series of one-reel films (Major Bowes Theater of the Air in 1935 and Major Bowes Amateur Parade in 1936), children’s toys, and magazine publications, making it a very early example of successful franchising. Bowes’ business acumen made him the 7th highest paid individual in America, according to a 1937 report prepared for Congress by the United States Treasury. His $427,817 annual income was surpassed only by Louis B. Mayer, J. Robert Rubin, N. M. Schenck, W. R. Hearst, Fredric March and Greta Garbo.

The huge disparity between Bowes’ personal earnings and the extreme poverty of the amateurs that he auditioned caused much public outcry. The New York Emergency Relief Bureau chastised Bowes for leaving his penniless amateurs to turn to federally funded forms of aid, like already over-extended homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The New York Institute of the Blind levied a controversial complaint after two underage handicapped boys hitchhiked from Indiana with rented accordions, only to be turned away by Bowes and taken in as wards of the state. Bowes publicly denied responsibility. The Actor’s Equity Association accused Bowes of flooding the entertainment industry with second-rate performers who depleted already-scarce opportunities for professionals.

Dozens of professional performers were “discovered” by Bowes (see Celebrity Performers), but the program is especially notable for the diversity of its amateurs. They range from age 3 to age 87 and span across economic and regional boundaries, representing all of the American states and 38 foreign countries. Over 450 of the applicants self-identified as members of minority groups – including 350 African American performers.

The program remained hugely popular until Major Bowes’ retirement, and eventual death, in 1946. The format was retained on radio and television in various incarnations by Ted Mack until 1970.

Written by: Recorded Sound Section 2013 Junior Fellow Laura LaPlaca