Back in the X Factory; or, the Legacy of Major Bowes

Major Bowes in a contemporary publicity photo

Today marked the beginning of the second season of The X Factor on ITV1. It had pathos, it had romance, and it had its fair share of wackiness—just like Major Bowes’s Original Amateur Hour. The Major, pictured left in his lavish New Jersey home, was the first talent scout to enter broadcasting, to captivate and to make millions. According to radio historian John Dunning, the “rise of Major Edward Bowes in the summer and fall of 1934 led to a national rage of frantic and sometimes tragic proportions.” It offered hope to many a poor laborer and fueled the delusions of many a talentless wretch.

To get on Bowes’s programs, contestants were known to have sold their homes and hitchhiked to the studios of the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York City. Back in 1935, Bowes’s program attracted up to 10,000 amateurs a month, of which about 25% could audition each week.   Of these 500 to 700 hopefuls, twenty were chosen to perform on the Major’s weekly broadcasts, a ratio of rejection that, during the Great Depression, caused hundreds of homeless rejects to apply for shelter in the Big Apple.

The X Factor does not come close to such real life drama, of course—drama, that, back then, was not part of the program, but the harsh reality behind the scenes.  Still there were poignant moments of blind ambition on tonight’s X Factor premiere, snapshots that told of shattered dreams, thwarted ambitions, and years of therapy.  How dairy farmer Justin, who returned as drag queen Justine to win over the flabbergasted judges, got through the audition process must be attributed to the producers’ desire to stir up controversy and keep reality-show fatigued audiences watching and voting.

Simon Cowell may have claimed to be in search of someone “normal” this time around, but the producers certainly seem to be after amateurs with the F factor—freaks to be gawked at, fools to be ridiculed, and frumps to be pitied.  The Major, who cut off performers with his gong, was accused of setting up contestants for ridicule as well, even though he denied such charges.  Then as now, the audience went for the joy ride and flocked to the public beheading of swellheaded nobodies and self-awareness lacking airheads.

The major auditioned all sorts of wannabes, such as jugglers, tap dancers, and mimes—which, to be sure, did not make for the best in aural entertainment. On The X Factor, the moves, the make-up, and the general stage presence is all part of the act, to be appreciated or, if wanting in quality, deplored by those tuning in.  As in the case of 16-year-old Trevor, appearances and voice might be at odds, leaving viewers to decide whether vocal cords really matter more than personas in today’s celebrity business. 

Once the audition clip shows are over, contestants will be given a chance to call in their votes.  The Amateur Hour was interactive as well. Each week the program aired, an American town was chosen as a so-called “honor city,” which made its citizens eligible to cast their votes along with the NYC audience. Votes were phoned in or submitted in writing.

As is the case for programs like American Idol today, talent was later sent on tour across the country.   Yet whereas today’s instant celebrities are given the opportunity to make a fortune, the Amateur Hour, which made Major Bowes a millionaire, at best secured found talent a salary of $100 per week.

Today, even the William Hongs among the contestants get lavished with record contracts. Don’t remember William Hong? Well, I guess his 15 minutes of infamy were up last fall.  The main question for me as I tune in to The X Factor is whether there will be another Rowetta.  Don’t remember her either? Major Bowes’s gong sure is beaten faster these days.

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