Well, here we go again. As the aforementioned “Major” Bowes used to say, “Around and around and around she goes,” referring to the spinning wheel on the Original Amateur Hour. A few years after Bowes took his final bow, Ted Mack (pictured) took over as host of the show, which, when revived in 1948, was both heard on the radio and seen on television. The concept has been going around and around as well, there being more amateurs than ever on television to root for or laugh at. Another season of The X Factor is currently underway in Britain, with Simon Cowell once again heading the panel of judges, rolling his eyes, and uttering his standard “if I’m being perfectly honest” until the winner is being declared by audience vote just in time for the release of the Christmas single.
Here is how casting director Marie Correll (wife of Amos ‘n’ Andy co-creator Charles Correll) described the auditions for the televised Amateur Hour to the readers of the Radio and Television Mirror back in the summer of 1949:
“The wonderful part is that auditions are open to everyone,” she tells you. “We get hundreds of letters a week and every letter is answered, although it may take from two to three weeks. Our staff sorts the mail geographically. We set dates and enclose application blanks for those close enough to New York to audition here. We tell the others about our out-of-town audition staff and give dates when it will be in their vicinity. But every affiliated station helps as a clearing house for local talent.”
Application forms are numbered when they go out. Applicants are auditioned in numerical order on the day they appear. No favorites are played. Everybody gets the same chance. Even second and third chances.
“It’s amazing how much performers can improve even in a matter of months sometimes,” Mrs. Correll says. “We’ve had talent audition, be rejected, write in later for another appointment and make the grade. We never discourage anyone. We try to get a little background on them, find out what they’re aiming for. If they are singers we sometimes make suggestions about numbers that may suit their voices better, though I must say that nine times out of ten they stick to the same numbers. And you’d be surprised how many come to the first audition with only one number prepared, staking everything on a single effort.”
Space being at a premium even in New York’s huge Radio City, the room where hopefuls wait their turn is really a long corridor, flanked on both sides with chairs that leave only a narrow passageway between. Every chair is filled. Standees lean on their instrument cases, huddled in little groups.
Youth and hope predominate here, with a sprinkling of the middle-aged and a few elders [. . .].
Tonight’s auditions are fairly typical. There are about half a dozen young boys, whose occupations were listed on their applications as shipping clerk, parcel post clerk, plasterer, salesman, and the like—all eager to break away from the routine of their jobs and get into the glamorous show business world. They sing the same numbers in about the same way.
“It isn’t that they’re bad—they’re just not good enough,” Marie explains.
There is a harmony team of five Negro boys, a choral group with an earnest leader, and two schoolboys who have written their own material. (Under “type of talent” on their application forms they had put, “Comedy—we hope!”).
Yes, our “weekly wheel of fortune” goes a-spinning, even though talent has long become secondary to hitting the no longer quite so elusive jackpot. Discontented, determined or delusional, they are lining up by the thousands for a chance to enter that allegedly “glamorous” realm of show business, to be enfranchised and marketed, which is why decent plasterers are harder to find these days than celebrities behind bars and disgruntled clerks prepare for their seconds of fame by slipping plastered behind the wheel . . .