Today is the birthday of “Major” Edward Bowes (1874-1946), a major figure in keeping variety entertainment alive during the immediate post-vaudeville aftermath and in the heyday of radio.
Originally a real estate investor, Bowes was wiped out by the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 and so moved to New York, where he began producing theatre. (He produced two shows, Kindling in 1911 and The Bridal Path in 1912). He next served in World War One, which is where he earned the rank he later bore as his honorific.
After the war, he managed New York’s spectacular Capitol Theatre, a presentation house, which showed films and variety acts. It was here that he devised his famous Amateur Hour (based on similar amateur shows that had always been a staple of vaudeville).
He brought Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour to radio in 1934, and it became a national sensation. All sorts of acts went on the show; you can see a parody of it in the Buster Keaton short Grand Slam Opera (1936). Major Bowes ran a tight ship, rather like an assembly line. If somebody dawdled, he hustled them right off. His practice of striking a gong to get rid of a dreadful act was adopted by Chuck Barris for his 1970s program The Gong Show. One of the most famous acts to emerge from the show was Frank Sinatra, who appeared on the show with The Hoboken Four in the mid 30s.
At the same time, touring stage versions of the show crisscrossed the country. Bowes’s show was so popular that it outlived him by many years. When Bowes passed away in 1946, his talent coordinator Ted Mack took over. It lasted on radio until 1952; the television version lasted until 1970.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including vaudeville successors like Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.