Take a story and audio trip back in time with 1812Blockhouse today when a young girl and her hometown — Mansfield — had national attention for an evening.
The roots of talent competition TV shows like the popular America’s Got Talent go back to a time before television, to the days of old time radio and a man called Major Bowes. We want to tell you a bit about Major Bowes, his Original Amateur Hour show, and how that show gave Mansfield a moment in the national spotlight 80 years ago.
Edward Bowes was born in 1874 in San Francisco, California. He made his fortune in real estate. He lost that fortune in the well-known San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and then he built himself back up (partially by marrying well) and headed to New York in 1919. There he produced Broadway shows and was a funder for the Capitol Theatre, where he ran local productions and regional radio shows, including Major Bowes’ Capitol Family, a local (New York area) forerunner to the Original Amateur Hour. In 1935 the Original Amateur Hour began airing nationally on NBC (the radio broadcasting network which would later become the NBC television network).
So what exactly was the Original Amateur Hour? Americans seeking to showcase their particular talent, often singing or dancing though it certainly ran the gamut, would appear on the show and compete for votes from the public. In the earlier days of the show, Major Bowes had a gong which he might strike during a performance if he felt that the contestant was simply too terrible to continue. Audiences objected to that practice so the gong went away, leaving the contestants to be briefly introduced by Major Bowes (during which they would answer any biographical questions Major Bowes posed by reading from an approved, prepared script), perform their act or talent, and then make way for the next contestant.
And where does Mansfield fit into this story? Each week the radio show would select an “Honor City.” On the program that aired on September 21, 1939, Mansfield was the selected Honor City. One of the amateur performers on the show that evening, singing “A Heart That’s Free,” was Helen Dickson of 256 Wood Street in Mansfield. More than that, the local Chamber of Commerce had put together a packet of information for Major Bowes that he then communicated to the national audience during the show, touting Mansfield’s growth, its strength as an industrial city, its natural beauty and more.
About halfway through the program the announcer (a young Ralph Edwards, who would go on to fame with his shows This Is Your Life and Truth or Consequences) mentions a long list of city and county officials and notables who have sent their good wishes to Major Bowes. The program was very popular with the public. As was reported at the time, millions of listeners were able to hear Major Bowes’ salute to Mansfield.
The method of voting was a bit more difficult in 1939 than it is in the age of smart phones. New Yorkers were given a phone number which they could call to vote, and the same happened for residents of the Honor City. As the Mansfield News-Journal reported the day before the broadcast, “Mansfield radio listeners wishing to vote…will only have to lift their telephone receiver and ask the operator for Main 9900.” Mail-in voting was also allowed, which would generally have been the only option for the rest of the country. Results were announced on the following
weekly broadcast; however, there was suspicion that the process was rigged in favor of a particular amateur regardless of the actual vote totals.
We do know that, when local votes were tabulated in September 1939, Mansfielders had voted overwhelmingly for Helen Dickson.
The Original Amateur Hour did launch some careers, perhaps most famously that of Frank Sinatra. He appeared on the show in 1935 as part of a quartet called the Hoboken Four. Helen Dickson on the other hand returned to Mansfield; for a number of years after appearing with Major Bowes she would sing publicly at local recitals other gatherings. According to her June 1966 obituary, she left Mansfield for Cleveland in 1947 and had last been employed locally at Empire Reeves Corp. Sadly there is no mention of her brush with fame on September 21, 1939.
The Original Amateur Hour show was not without controversy, particularly owing to Major Bowes himself. (Historians have found that he insisted on being addressed as “Major Bowes”, though the title came only from his retired Army Reserve rank.) Bowes dealt with accusations of unfair treatment of the amateur performers, who – it should be noted – paid their own way to get to New York City for a chance to appear on the program. Bowes and his staff created a multi-million dollar franchise, yet performers reported having to sign contracts that limited their ability to make money from future performances and at times would grant Bowes a percentage of future income.
For anyone curious about what the radio show sounded like that evening, we have a link to it for your listening enjoyment. The entire program is 1 hour; Helen Dickson’s appearance is within the first 10 minutes. Click here to listen.
Sources: jimrasberg.com; Film History by Ross Melnick; Library of Congress article on Major Bowes; Wikipedia; Mansfield News Journal