Television: For Whom the Gong Tolls

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In its three decades on the air, the Original Amateur Hour has introduced to the American public such virtuosos as a man who hammered out Yankee Doodle by beating his head with a mallet while producing different notes by opening and closing his mouth; another who rendered Swanee River by slapping together two bananas; a little old lady who played hoedown fiddle, slipped out her false teeth, and frantically clacked them up and down in time with the music; and, in 1935, a fat twelve-year-old named Maria Kalogeropoulos.

Maria who? Today, considerably slimmed down and grown sharp, she is known as Maria Callas. Other Amateur Hour alumni and their years are Merril Miller, '36 (now the Metropolitan Opera's Robert Merrill), and a member of the Hoboken Four, Frank Sinatra, '35. Other graduates include Teresa Brewer, Pat Boone, Georgia Gibbs, Frank Fontaine, Bert Parks and the Met's Regina Resnik.

The Oldest One. Like its sponsors, Geritol ("Tired blood") and Serutan ("For regularity after 35"), the Amateur Hour is part of broadcasting's Medicare generation. The oldest show on the air, it has been producing the tall corn since 1934, before most Americans now living were born. The late Major Bowes launched it on radio, and his top aide, Ted Mack, brought it to television in 1948. It is still the top-rated show in its time slot (5:30 p.m., E.D.T.), pulling 12,700,000 viewers a week. Last week, in a Methuselan milestone, its "wheel of fortune" went spinning for the 1,500th time.

The show is one of the few American institutions that have not changed since 1934, save for the fact that the Hour was trimmed to 30 minutes and Mack compassionately eliminated the gong that Major Bowes used as a hook. In an average week, 450 people are auditioned by Mack's nationwide talent scouts, but only nine appear in the two-minute performances. Mack, 62, is so well known that when he walks down the street, would-be artists often start dancing or singing for him. He keeps his home address in New York's Westchester County a secret for fear that "I'll have every harmonica player within 100 miles sitting on my doorstep to audition." Former contestants often write to him, saying that they have children ready for the next round of auditions.

The Thrill of Showing Off. The tastes of the audience, which ballots by mail for the winners (average weekly mail: 9,000 cards), are shifting. Going out of popularity are one-man bands, soft-shoe dancers, Dixieland, harmonicas and stringed instruments; coming in strong are folk singers, guitars, guitars and guitars. The Hour still has its share of artists who play rhythms with fire extinguishers, punching bags, bones, bicycle pumps, balloons, spoons, glasses and bottles—naturally, Geritol bottles.

The winners get no pay, only transitory glory. As Mack says, "People get enough of a thrill just showing off." Of course, the American Guild of Variety Artists estimates that 40% of its members got their start on the Amateur Hour. Some of the richest of them flunked their first test. One night 81 years ago, the audience awarded first prize to a South American who played the laurel leaf, while voting down another contestant, Ann-Margret. And in 1953, a swivel-hipped lad named Elvis Presley didn't get past the first audition.