Blogging a Dead Horse

john blumenthal

john blumenthal
January 05
john_blumenthal (On Twitter)
Curmudgeon. Formidable braggart. Comedy writer. Eight books, 2 movies. Former associate editor at Playboy Magazine. Movies include "Short Time," (major flop), and "Blue Streak" (huge hit, no idea why.) Last three novels were "What's Wrong With Dorfman?" (St. Martin's Press), "Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour," (St. Martin's Press) and "Three and a Half Virgins" (Finalist, International Book Awards.) Latest book -- a spoof of romance novels called "Passing Wind of Love."


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 10, 2010 11:15PM

TV's First “American Idol” --- “Ted Mack's Amateur Hour”

Rate: 45 Flag

When I was a kid, back in the Fifties, TV sets were heavy, unwieldy boxes with enormous rear ends that held an assortment of tubes. There was no such thing as remote control. We switched channels by turning a knob. Often the knob would break off and you’d have to use pliers.


In those days, TV sets featured fuzzy black and white images and, not infrequently, something we used to call “snow,” a term that decribed the screen’s appearance when the reception was poor --- which was most of the time. We used rabbit ears to improve the reception, which meant that one of us had to watch while standing on a sofa.


My usual mode of watching TV was to sit on the floor, clad in a cowboy hat and holster, consuming milk and cookies.


In those days, my favorite show was “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” which was our version of “American Idol.” Although it was actually called “The Original Amateur Hour,” and later “Ted Mack and The Original Amateur Hour,” everybody called it “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” after its host, Ted Mack.

The show began on radio and ran from 1934 to 1952. Ted Mack had started in show business as a dance band clarinetist and later as a talent scout for the radio version of the show. The TV version – with Ted as the host -- debuted in 1948. This is what I remember about it:  

The show’s main sponsor was a product called “Geritol,”a high potency vitamin drink -- usually meant for elderly people -- which was probably snake oil.    

After the announcer introduced the show, you’d see Ted -- an ordinary guy in an ordinary suit and tie, conservative haircut -- as he stood at a podium in front of a dull gray curtain, speaking into a visible microphone. Beside him, on the podium, was a bottle of Geritol.


Ted made some bland introductory remarks. Then, a wheel –- not unlike the “Wheel of Fortune” -- was spun to determine who went first, second, third etc. As the contraption went around, the announcer would say "Round and round she goes and where she stops nobody knows."


Like “American Idol,”— although far less embarrassing for the performers –- the first wave of contestants were screened, usually at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and those who survived were asked to compete on the show. This part was not televised, as far as I can recall.


As I remember it, most of the contestants were singers, but there were also ventriloquists, jugglers, musicians, bands, tap dancers, synchronized dancers, baton twirlers, accordion players, comics, choirs, barbershop quartets, and the like. Many were youngsters. It was cute. And corny.


They’d come onstage, and usually perform in front of a plain backdrop –- no props, no colored lights, no bells and whistles.


Unlike “American Idol,” there was no panel of judges. Winners were chosen solely by the audience by way of telephone, with the number displayed at the bottom of the TV screen.


Later on, letters (you know, those things they used to write on paper with something called a “pen”) were also accepted. As I recall, those who won the first round were asked back the following week. If you won three times, you were invited to perform your act at the show’s yearly championship.


There were cash prizes, but since many of the contestants were young, the Grand Prize was a $2000 scholarship.


How many of the winners became successful in show business?  According to the show’s official website, Gladys Knight got her start on Amateur Hour in 1952 at the age of 7. Ann-Margret appeared at 17; Irene Cara sang a song in Spanish in 1967, when she was 8. Singer Pat Boone appeared on the show. Maria Callas was a plump 12 year old when she appeared, belting out “Caro Nome.”


Others who appeared on the show included Robert Klein, Raul Julia, Connie Francis, Alan King, Freda Payne and Joey Bishop. And Frank Sinatra got a boost from appearing on the radio version.


Sure, “The Original Amateur Hour,” didn’t have “Idol’s” fancy sets or phony behind-the-scenes drama, or sophisticated bands, or prompted audiences, but it made up for its drabness because it was real. And corny. Given the choice, I’d take Ted Mack over Ryan Seacreast any day. 


If you’d like to see a video of “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” click here. 




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I think I would have prefered that to American Idol.
Very nice, I've never watched American Idol, but your colorful story made that sound interesting... I remember snow (and I'm not that old)!
You will benefit from a two for one from this point forward. Of course, O'Really? is busy doing something (strikethrough far more interesting) else so you will have to wait. You can wait, can't you? Can't you? LOL (just to annoy you).
The early days of television were pretty damn comical. Love your description of the sets themselves, with the knob/plier channel-changing mechanism and the rabbit ear reception enhancement strategy.
Both an interesting, and an extremely well-written, post!
must you remind me about how old I am?

Would you mind saying "niagra falls".
cartouche: I guess that OS lynch mob never found you. If anybody says anything derogatory about you, I'm coming after them with the business end of a wiffle ball bat.
Interesting. I saw Bob Newhart perform in Clearwater today and he mentioned a fondness for this show. You and he are of the same vintage?
@Dorinda: I'm guessing that Newhart is better preserved. And probably goes for more by the ounce. ;)
I'm in the middle of writing a post about turning 60. Thanks alot John, for helping me out on that and all!! Speaking of 60...I can remember sitting and watching the "snow" on TV on purpose!! Oh that would be IN the 60's!!
We got our first television in 1948 when I was five. We then lived in an apartment building in Queens, specifically Forest Hills. Everyone was friendly and came to our little apartment to watch the 1948 election. (This has a point, trust me). When Dewey v Truman, as in Harry, were neck in neck, I stood low amidst the adults, and when the announcer said Dewy would win I said, in my little 5 year old voice, "No, Harry Truman will win." When he did these adults all thought I was a prophet. I only studied their faces, so after that, I had to come up with predictions, which made me feel like "The Rocking Chair Boy" from D.H. Lawrence. Read that story if you want to get this point.

Then on Tuesday nights, my dad would let me stay up and watch Milton Berle who he later met. After that we moved to the suburbs. "I Love Lucy" was the rage. But I never saw "Ted Mack's Amateur Hour" so we must have been different ages, or in different places, with different receptions, or you were a boy and I was a girl. But we had the same bulky TV's & with milk and oreos on the floor. I was just writing about the 50's John. Good one, as usual.
Oh yes, I do remember watching this as a kid. Good memories.
I'd pay good money to see little Johnny in his cowboy hat and holster.
I take sadistic pleasure in verbally destroying the spirit of anyone who does not know what a TV aerial is. Youngsters have no idea how honorably we struggled between the TV antenna downstairs and the aerial on the roof. Thanks, blu for the link.
Rated for real time.
A "scholarship" as first prize? Ha ha! What a charming notion...

Rated for nostalgia!
Speaking of "rabbit ears," when I was twelve we moved to a house with a "rotating antenna" on the roof. You turned this big whopping plastic dial, and then it went "kerchunk, kerchunk" while the antenna on the roof slowly turned, allowing us to pick up remote and "snowy" TV stations in Rock Island and Ottumwa. I thought of it as my ticket to the space age.
Of course Ted Mack was a hit in my house too...I like to think he wanted me on it, but knew if I wasn't I would someday join the ranks of OSers THAT WEREN'T EITHER...we are an esteemed group!

Oh, I think I remember you John,,,loved the cowboy boots.
The memories! Great post, John. Thanks for reminding me of the "good ole days" and that tin foil had a much greater value wrapped around those rabbit ears than it does covering last night's leftovers.
John--did you have a Davy Crockett coonskin cap? My brother did. I didn't. (sob)
I'm either too young to remember this show or too old to remember this show. Either way, fine...Ryan Seacrest may be no Ted Mack, but Ted Mack is surely no Simon Cowell. It does seem that with the passage of time, some of the things we found tacky at the time seem endearing later on. I'm good to go with the current American Idol version...I like the color vision! Great post John.
And then there was Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts which ran from 1946 to 1958 on CBS radio and Television.

I believe Arthur was the only judge.
I have a picture of our first TV, circa 1952, which is exactly as you describe it - very clunky and furniture-like - and will at some point post about those old shows of our youth, so my fellow geezers can reminisce along with me.
I dimly remember the show. The Gong show was also fun. Thanks for the video link. I miss the simpler days of TV. Even Idol was kind of low-tech when it started out.
I always dreamed I would be on Ted Mack and discovered for the singer I am.....Yea didn't happen! You forgot to mention the coat hanger hanging from the roof with the wires attached to try to get better signals. I remember watching Ted Mack why am I thinking Sunday nights?
John, I remember Ted Mack and the show, plus Geritol, which I don't hear much about anymore. I once saw a phrase on an electrician's van that played off another game show, it stated "Watts my line."
I remember Ted Mack, too, but, jeezuz, pleeeeze edit this admission out before you publish my comment! I'm clinging desperately to my yout'ful fantasies, with the combovers and the inflatable priapisms (learned that today on Natalie's Munden's Maraj post) and the stuff I buy from Bendan Bentover Behind 'n all.

I agree wholeheartedly, blu. The performances on Mack's cattle call rose and fell without snarky faces from a panel of executioners. I don't mind Seacrest so much (hell, I don't watch the show, but my daughter does), as he's just a barker. But Scowlin' Cowell, the snarling misogynist (apologies - I'm just not done with that topic yet), can eat my shorts.
We didn't have a TV when I was a kid but I have seen some reruns of the show. I particularly like black and white TV.
I'm totally dating myself here, but isn;t that show just one step in the evolution of tv? I mean, couldn't you draw a line from Ted Mack to Chuck Barris (or barry?) and The Gong Show, to Seacrest and Idol?
You should give credit to Major Bowes as he created the Amateur Hour on radio. Also Geritol was the sponsor of "Twenty-One" the fifties' quiz show that was known for being rigged.

Great list of stars who appeared on the show. American Idol is a cross between the gong show and the amateur hour.
Dorinda: Thanks for being kind and calling it "vintage." I'm a cabernet. What are you?
wendyo: Ah yes, Uncle Miltie. I remember him well. BTW, my aunt lives in Forest Hills.
Pilgrim: Oh yes, I had the whole Davy Crockett get-up. I killed a b'ar when I was only 3.
Blackflon: Yup. Remember Arthur Godfrey too. And Julius LaRosa. And Perry Como. God, I'm old.
Linchlady2: I was hoping to be discovered for my ventriloquism skills. Alas, I moved my mouth.
Placebostudman: Yeah, there were many that followed. Didn't like them as much.
OESheepdog: Major Bowes was the forerunner, but it was kind of before my time. Loved "Twenty One" though. And "College Bowl."

Had forgotten that Davey patched up the crack in the Liberty Bell.
I mean Davy, drattit. Davy.
I loved all those variety shows. As a kid I was an Arthur Godfrey fan. AND Art Linkletter. AND of course Ed Sullivan who endured damn near forever. Those were the talent gold mines of the day. AND Name That Tune which had famous and not so famous singing the "mystery" songs. Oh Blumenthal, I almost feel young because I can barely remember Ted Mac! hahahaha
$2,000 eh? Today, that wouldn't pay for a college application much less tuition. If you remember from your formative college years, WBZ in Boston had a local equivalent, "Community Auditions" hosted by Dave Maynard. The amateur talent was REALLY amateur as I recall, but it's been revived.

"Star of the day, who will it be.
Your vote may hold the key
It's up to YOU. tell us WHO
will be star of the day!"

Now if you'll excuse me, I need a wee dram of Geritol.
Brilliant.. My mom will love this too. Thanks.. what a great comparison to today.. I love perspective pieces.

Born in 1965, I didn't see the show.. but I remember antennas and TV snow and knobs that broke so you had to use pliers.

Wished you could attach a photo of you in that hat, Buzz.
It has recently dawned on me that my age group will be the last to remember the days before the remote. Changing the channel with pliers? Oh yes, I've been there. Not to mention doing a veritable ballet with one hand on the antenna, trying to pick up World Cup matches from Danish TV...

Check this out: "Bojangles" on the Amateur Hour!

Apparently, this was his last public appearance.
Lunchlady2: Sorry I called you "Linchlady2. There was no implication there. Just bad typing. (I still hunt and peck.)
Ted Mack's Amateur Hour sounds so much more painless than American Idol. I say we bring it back, along with those big, classic TVs.
I remember Ted Mack well, his show anyway. It was one of those things we all watched at home when I was a kid. I first learned about Vise-Grip pliers from using them to change the channel on the television. One more thing, there were remote controls in those days, they called them kids.
I remember Ted Mack and all the talents you mentioned. In some ways that all seems like another century ago. Even another millennium. Oh wait, it *is.*
. . . and remember, Serutan spelled backwards is . . . natures.
John, I thought when you were a kid you watched the caveman's drawings, when you had enough light. I, however remember this show in great detail. A lot of good people were on there, but there were also some real sorry acts. But it was the grandfather of American Idol!
scanner: Perhaps I did watch cave drawings, but that's nothing compared to your live dinosaur-viewings. Your turn.
I remember watching this show right after church on Sunday mornings while my Mom made Sunday dinner. We'd change out of our suits (that was in the days when you wore a suit to church even if you were only 7) and sit on the floor and watch the show. It was definitely entertaining and, you're right it was better than AI or America's Got Talent or the other pretenders.
But, you also said: "My usual mode of watching TV was to sit on the floor, clad in a cowboy hat and holster, consuming milk and cookies."
That was for watching Davy Crocket after school or the Saturday morning shows including "Fury", "Roy Rogers", "Hop Along Cassidy", "Gene Autry", "Yancy Derringer", "The Rebel" or "Sky King".
Rated for a cool trip down memory lane.
This was wonderful, what a trip down memory lane. My husband says of those first TV's that he and his brothers were human remote controls... their father would say, "Go change the channel!"

Okay, so now I have to write my own Ted Mack post, complete with photos of me and my family with Ted. Maybe somebody else from back then too.

John you said "he show began on radio and ran from 1934 to 1952." The Original with Ted Mack as host ran until 1970. (If I'm gonna show pics of me as a tween, it better not be before 1952!)
Aha, the olden days. I don't quite remember the show (I certainly remember the televisions) but remember that other TV talent shows back them didn't push the backstage drama or beef up the back stories. I love your stories, John.
"clad in a cowboy hat and holster, consuming milk and cookies." Didn't I just see you at susanlivingkinky's house dressed the exact same way?
Orally: Yeah, and you were the horse I rode in on.
"Nay," I say. You wouldn't have a clue how many hands high I am or need.
Orally: You need a lot of hands? Why? Are you making a quilt? Makes sense --- you're lonely.
If I wanted a wet blanket, blu, I would have asked for you.
Your blanket is already wet, O. It's so sad that you're so lonely. Bet you've got nimble fingers by now. (I mean for making quilts and knitting and such.)
Are you off on some shopping spree, blu? Yawn.....
Yes I am, O. I'm buying you something that vibrates.
A blanket would at least keep me warm, blu. You, not so much.
I can see why you'd be cold, O since you're pure as the driven snow. Pure from lack of interest.
You're correct, blu. The last thing I'd ever be remotely interested in is you. Even if you came with rabbit ears. (How's that for bringing the comment thread back to the original topic?) And here's an LOL just for you because I know how much you love emoticons.
Please, for the love of God, not shirts and skins!
O: Bonehead, LOL is not an emoticon.
I'm the last thing you'd be interested in? If we were on a deserted island, and it was between you and the sand...well, let's just say, you wouldn't be busy.
You'd be busy sticking your head in it, wouldn't you, blu? The sand, that is. The sandflies would probably have a hard time deciphering the writing on that pencil of yours. I believe it says, "take a tip from me". In REALLY small print.
Are we back to the pencil thing again? Snore. But you're right, the pencil would have a lot of wiggle room in the Holland Tunnel.
And yes, I'd bury my head (skull) in the sand, since the alternative would be looking at you. In fact, I'd eat the sand if the alternnative were...
You probably wouldn't go near the "Holland Tunnel" (as you call it) for fear that you would have to pay a toll. Brawer has outed your frugality, you know. Apparently, you don't want to put your money where your mouth is, blu.
Speaking of money, O, how much are you getting these days? Last time I heard, you were up to a buck fifty. Even for a big spender, that's too much.
Gosh, John, I wish I were old enough to remember things like this. :)
Maris Callas? Wow. Impressive. Thanks, John.