Sundays with Grandma watching Ted Mack meant a lot of things to Judge Bill Gibron. Luckily, this nostalgic DVD title brought back none of those otherwise powerful and painful memories.
An uneven look at Event TV from the past
Back when television was mere entertainment, before it became a way of life or a social tether to the rest of humanity, programming was stupidly simple. There were sitcoms, usually transported over directly from successful radio shows. Then there were the turgid kitchen sink sagas, potboiler plots balanced on the border between soap opera and melodrama so precariously that people could barely tell the difference. And then there were the variety hours—showcases for performers who usually made their money in nightclubs, in the theater, or on the various vaudeville stages that were slowly closing all around the nation. These Hellzapoppin' presentations, full of uncomplicated amusements and equally adroit novelties, gave the audience more bang for their boob-tube buck and dominated the airwaves for decades. From Sid Caesar to Ed Sullivan, the small screen's very foundation was forged on such shows.
Another famous offshoot of this entertainment format was the amateur showcase, and none was bigger or more meaningful to future careers, than The Original Amateur Hour. Begun on radio by Major Edward Bowes in 1935, it made the transition to television in 1948 with genial host Ted Mack taking Bowes's place (the bandleader had replaced the Major after his passing in 1946). The set-up was very similar to many of the "competitions" you see today on TV, including the infamous American Idol. Acts of all types and varieties, from singers to ventriloquists, musicians to mimics, took center stage for their two to three minutes of potential fame. Though the format fluctuated from time to time (there was a gong for getting rid of talentless attempts), the basic rules remained the same for four decades—the home audience sent postcards (and later called in via phone) to vote for their favorite. The winner was announced the following week and allowed to return for a chance at defending their throne. After three wins, it was on to the championships, where larger prizes could be won.
Unseen in its original form since the '70s (there was a brief attempt at reviving the show with NBC Weather-ham Willard Scott as host in the '90s) Kultur Video, via its SRO Entertainment label, is releasing a two-DVD "overview" of the series, a part-documentary, part-performance compendium of the various acts that graced its stage for more than 40 years. Both discs are presented by Pat Boone, who himself got his start on the Ted Mack version of the series. He walks us through a collection of the celebrities who made their debut on The Original Amateur Hour and then provides a humorous glimpse of the novelty acts that tried their lunatic luck before the audience. Of the two, the second disc offers more entertainment value. We simply see more performers in action there than on the star showcase. Besides, who wants to see a young Nick Carter (nothing worse than a pre-boy-band personality) or a non-comedy Robert Klein (he was with his doo-wop singing buddies) when you can enjoy glass organ players, musical saw virtuosos, and other unusual entertainers.
Disc One is indeed kind of a dud. Boone does his best to paint the presentation in the best light possible, and Kultur mogul Dennis Hedlund (who once did a stand-up comedy bit on the show) is there to offer personal perspective, but most of the acts are average at best. Frank Sinatra (in sound clips from the Major Bowes radio days) is barely discernible from the rest of his New Jersey quartet and Beverly Sills gets only a snippet of her aria aired. Seeing a young violinist take the stage is hardly enthralling, but when we learn he will eventually become Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, the shock is somewhat satisfying. The best moments here come from the crooners—Jerry Vale, Boone, and Ann-Margret, all adept and engaging. A real revelation, though, is a young Raul Julia, who does a dynamite comic song, complete with several dead-on accents and lots of over-the-top facial expressions. Frankly, there should have been more offerings like this one, and less of the snippets of singing we get here (though a young Irene Cara frugging her way into womanhood is a lamentable lark).
As for the novelty set, this is where The Original Amateur Hour DVD becomes a kind of interactive enigma. You can't help but talk back to the screen when you see senior citizens playing liquor bottle xylophones, an upside-down tap dancer barely hoofing, or a man who plays a series of pots and pans he found in a rubbish bin—and takes his talent VERY seriously. A surprising subtext here is how many of the performers are of color. It seems to be indicative of TV's willingness to somewhat thwart the segregation barrier, while it also comments of how limited the avenues were for minorities in '40s-'60s America.
Between people playing homemade instruments, moderately successful impressionists, and the worst break dancing ever to grace a professional stage, Disc Two of The Original Amateur Hour is a hoot and a half. It's too bad the first disc couldn't have been this interesting. Had we been able to savor four hours of freak-show entertainers, this would be a wonderful, wacky time capsule. As it stands, part of the package wants to be a serious compendium on the impact and importance of the work done by Bowes, Mack and Scott. It's the rest, however, that makes for a laugh-out-loud lollapalooza.
From a technical standpoint, these discs are achingly unimpressive. The 1.33:1 full-screen image is mostly kinescope quality, filled with flaws, and juxtaposed against newly-fashioned digital intros and inserts. As a result, the picture is passable, but hardly praiseworthy. On the sound side, we suffer through the same issues. The Dolby Digital Mono moments from the show are tinny and distorted, except when someone sings (Boone, Vale, et al, sound superb), while the Dolby Digital Stereo for the rest of the mix (many of the individuals mentioned sit down to discuss their part in the show, including Klein and Jim Stafford) is just fine. Overall, the tech specs are more or less average—not so bad as to ruin the presentation, but not examples of remastered majesty either. At least there are several smart bonuses here, chances to see the show as it originally aired (Ted Mack and The Original Amateur Hour episodes from 1953 and 1970 are offered, though in a terribly truncated manner) and Major Bowes is featured in a series of theatrical shorts from the '30s (one on each disc). Along with a look at the early days of amateur shows, this is a nicely fleshed-out presentation.
As long as you come into this set knowing that it's not complete episodes, but instead represents a clip-filled overview of the program, and if you can tolerate less than pristine sound and picture, then The Original Amateur Hour will offer up a wonderful aura of wistfulness and innocence. This is TV before the boob tube went tawdry, a chance to see the basics of broadcasting before marketing and merchandising ruined the ride. Though there is much more to the Bowes/Mack story than this DVD offers, there is a lot of good old-fashioned fun to be found in this superficial showcase. And nothing spells nostalgia like an amateur hour.
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• Early History of Amateur Shows
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