December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
They were drawn like moths to the lights of New York City: amateur fiddlers and piano players, singers, tap dancers, and yodelers, mimics and comedians from all over the country. Many sold their properly to pay for the trip, some hitchhiked, and others rode freight trains into town. Their object: to audition for what was declared the nation’s favorite radio program on December 1—“Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour.”
Aired on more than sixty NBC stations coast to coast, the Sunday-evening program was hosted by Maj. Edward Bowes, a radio veteran whose showmanship was exceeded only by his knack for making money. He began each show with the line that became its trademark: “Around, around she goes,” he intoned, referring to the wheel of fortune, “and where she stops, nobody knows.” During the carefully rehearsed program, about eighteen amateurs would perform; listeners responded by phoning in to vote for their favorite act. What made the show especially entertaining, however, was the practice of cutting short bad routines with the clang of a gong. “Amateur Hour” capitalized on people’s tendency to enjoy the embarrassment of others.
It capitalized on the Depression too. By December 1935, after less than a year on the air, more than fifteen thousand poverty-stricken hopefuls applied to audition for the show each week, but only about six hundred were heard and eighteen ultimately selected (one of whom was a New Jersey boy named Frank Sinatra). What happened to all of those ukulele strummers and brass bands from places like Minot, Wichita, and Birmingham? Until they gave up on being called back by the studio and could manage to return home, they were fed and housed at New York City relief stations. Some twelve hundred amateurs requested food and shelter in September 1935 alone.
Those who went on the show—many of whom were unemployed professionals—were taken to an eat-all-you-want dinner beforehand and then were handed ten dollars, far under the current minimum for radio talent. Bowes’s overhead was thus negligible, and he took home much of the $7,500 paid weekly by the show’s first sponsor, Chase & Sanborn’s Coffee. With touring vaudeville shows spawned by “Amateur Hour” and such sidelines as Major Bowes highball glasses, alarm clocks, and fabrics, Bowes was grossing $30,000 a week by September 1936. Long before his show expired at his death in 1942, he became one of the richest men in radio; most of his performers remained among the poorest.
• December 5–15: Having set a precedent by crossing Antarctica by plane, the aviator and explorer Lincoln Ellsworth and his pilot find they have run out of gas sixteen miles from Little America, their destination. After wandering on snowshoes for ten days, they reach their goal. Ellsworth becomes the first man to have traversed both the top and the bottom of the world.
• December 16: The Frick Collection, displayed in the Fifth Avenue mansion of Henry Clay Frick, opens to the public. Critics are delighted that the public will see the works of art in the industrialist’s magnificent former home.
• December 28: The Works Progress Administration opens the WPA Federal Art Project Gallery in New York City.