American Idols: ‘Roxy,’ Major Bowes, and Early Radio Stardom

Major Bowes Amateur Magazine - March 1936

Major Bowes Amateur Magazine – March 1936

Post by Ross Melnick

American Idol is now in its fourteenth season on Fox; America’s Got Talent will start its tenth season next month on NBC; and The Voice has launched its eighth season of catapulting amateur talent on the same network. There is, it seems, still plenty of money in the “amateur hour” game. A large segment of the audience for these shows wasn’t born when Star Search (1983-1995) went off the air and their parents and grandparents have only a fading memory of the venerable Amateur Hour program on radio and television from 1934 to 1970. (Yes, thirty-six years.) But before American Idol and other contemporary amateur talent shows rose to prominence, and even before Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (1946-1958) and The Gong Show (1976-1980), the Amateur Hour was appointment radio listening as “Major” Edward Bowes and, later, Ted Mack paraded a gaggle of singers, impressionists, musicians, comedians, and other performers before a microphone and launched the careers of Frank Sinatra, Gladys Knight, and many others.

Major Bowes’ radio career, though, like his amateurs’ chance of winning, was partly luck.

Some history is in order. In 1908, Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel, a 25-year-old former Marine and traveling salesman, took a position as a bartender in a rough and tumble saloon at the Freedman House in the small coal mining town of Forest City, Pennsylvania. While tending bar, he asked and received permission to turn the Freedman House’s large storage area into a back alley entertainment center. The Family Theatre opened on December 21, 1908 with roller-skating while vaudeville launched three days later on Christmas Eve. Film ultimately proved most popular and the Family Theatre became a highly successful nickelodeon in 1909. From there, Roxy converted the 3,000-seat Alhambra Theatre in Milwaukee into the nation’s largest movie house in 1911 and performed the same trick for the 1,700-seat Lyric in Minneapolis. His growing reputation encouraged the owners of the Regent Theatre in New York City to acquire his services in 1913 and, for the next five years, Roxy opened or managed every important movie house along New York’s Great White Way—the Strand, Knickerbocker, Rialto, and Rivoli theaters. By 1918, he had become the country’s most lauded motion picture exhibitor (and a documentary filmmaker).

The city’s largest movie house was not opened by Roxy, however, but by owner Messmore Kendall and Managing Director “Major” Edward Bowes. The 5,300-seat Capitol Theatre opened on October 24, 1919, and quickly struggled creatively and financially. Needing an infusion of capital, Samuel Goldwyn and other investors purchased a controlling interest and installed Roxy as Director of Presentations. (Bowes was given a raise but less responsibility.) Over the next two years, the Capitol became the country’s most celebrated movie house and a launching pad for German (Passion, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and documentary (Nanook of the North) films.

In 1922, the Capitol also became a key site for radio broadcasting when AT&T approached Roxy about the possibility of transmitting the live performances from the Capitol Theatre over its new toll broadcasting station, WEAF. On November 19, 1922, the Capitol orchestra’s performance of Richard Strauss’s ‘Ein Heldenleben’ was sent out over the ether. Roxy introduced all of his musicians, dancers, singers, and other performers over the air and struck a chord with audiences with his informal style. The broadcast—radio’s pioneering variety show—became a fixture on WEAF known as “Roxy and His Gang.” Roxy’s folksy introduction, “Hello Everybody!,” and his warm signoff, “Good Night, Pleasant Dreams, and God Bless You,” were hallmarks. Roxy and His Gang toured the east coast over the next several years, building up his own brand name and that of the program. The Capitol Theatre subsequently became a tourist destination like Disneyland through ABC in the 1950s.

Roxy at the NBC Microphone

Roxy at the NBC Microphone

In July 1925, Roxy announced that he would be leaving the Capitol to open his eponymous Roxy Theatre that would be even larger (5,920 seats) and with new broadcasting studios outfitted for his Gang and organist Lew White. The Capitol Theatre broadcasts on Sunday nights did not end, however. Major Bowes, who took over management of the Capitol upon Roxy’s exit, launched his own “Capitol Theatre Family” program for WEAF, then the flagship station of the NBC Red network. It would be the start of two decades of Bowes broadcasting.

When the Roxy Theatre opened on March 11, 1927, Rothafel launched a new “Roxy and His Gang” weekly show on NBC Blue. NBC now had the two leading exhibitors in New York on Sunday and Monday nights. From 1927 to 1931, Roxy and Bowes kept up their weekly addresses to local and national audiences, becoming celebrities in their own right. Roxy’s weekly radio shows also continued after he took over the new Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy Theatre projects in 1931. (They opened on December 27 and December 29, 1932, respectively.) Roxy was disillusioned with the micromanagement of both cinemas, however, and he abruptly quit both in January 1934. His departure from Radio City also meant the end of his time with NBC.

Bowes, by contrast, was still in a decade-long groove at the Capitol Theatre (and on its radio show) and headed Loew’s’ radio group and its flagship station WHN. On April 4, 1934, Bowes launched the Amateur Hour with Major Edward Bowes on WHN on Tuesday nights from 8:00 to 9:00pm. Launched during the Depression after sound, economics, and double features had decimated vaudeville, Bowes booked the best (free) talent he could find and let the audience decide the results based on their phone calls through AT&T. Votes were then tabulated during the show by six harried WHN operators and results were provided by the end of the program. Part of Bowes’ ingenuity was cultivating emotional back-stories for each contestant. During the Depression, a tear jerking narrative wasn’t hard to find and played beautifully every time.

Bowes’ amateur talent show was picked up by NBC in 1935, paired with a major sponsor, and renamed the Chase & Sanborn Amateurs with Major Bowes. Bowes also used the popularity of the broadcasts to create traveling troupes of Amateur Hour winners and filmed other performers for a series of short films released through RKO.

Roxy, meanwhile, returned to radio in September 1934 for CBS. The show and Roxy were tired, though, and the reviews and market share weren’t as expected. His radio contract ended in September 1935 and, for the first time in thirteen years, Roxy was off the air. He was set for a comeback at the old Roxy Theatre for Paramount and for a new radio show at NBC when he died in his sleep on January 13, 1936 at age 53.

Bowes, by contrast, was very much alive and then had the number one radio show in the country. Radio Guide estimated that the Amateur Hour, with its broadcasts, tours, licensed merchandise, and films, was generating almost two million dollars per year. Bowes moved to CBS in 1936 where he remained the highest paid and highest rated broadcaster through the end of the decade.

Wartime restrictions on telephone usage and a growing ennui with the format lessened the show’s impact during the 1940s and Bowes retired from radio in April 1945. His longtime assistant, Ted Mack, took over the microphone and also created a new television program in 1948 (radio broadcasts continued for several more years as well). The Original Amateur Hour debuted on the DuMont TV network and would appear variously on ABC, CBS, and NBC from 1948 until 1970 when it finally went off the air.

Roxy and Bowes

Roxy and Bowes

Today, Roxy and Bowes are largely forgotten but their impact on variety shows (Roxy) and amateur talent contest shows (Bowes) remains. Two questions still linger then: Would Bowes have ever appeared on radio if Roxy had not left the Capitol in 1925? Without Bowes, when would the amateur talent show have first reached radio listeners/television viewers?

For more information on Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel, please see American Showman: Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry (Columbia University Press, 2012). For more information on Major Bowes and the Amateur Hour, please see “Reality Radio: Remediating the Radio Contest Genre in Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour Films.” Film History 23:3 (Fall 2011): 331 – 347.


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One Response to “ American Idols: ‘Roxy,’ Major Bowes, and Early Radio Stardom ”

  1. Cynthia Meyers on April 14, 2015 at 4:08 PM

    William Ensign helped produce Roxy and His Gang & then helped start the radio dept at the ad agency J Walter Thompson. JWT later produced the Major Bowes Amateur Hour.

    Someday, if I had my way, we would categorize programs by ad agency rather than by network! 😉