Ted Mack


The gentleman in the photo is Ted Mack, the wise and benevolent host of "Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour," which was broadcast on various TV networks from 1948 to 1970. In some ways, the "Original Amateur Hour" was a forerunner of today's grotesque showbiz-competition gladiator matches, but with two key differences.

First, the "Original Amateur Hour" featured not only singers but instrumentalists, tap-dancers, jugglers, comedians, people who made sound effects, a spoon-and-harmonica player, Dixieland bands, people who spun plates on the ends of sticks, ballroom-dance exhibitionists, card-tricksters, ventriloquists, yodelers. Was this vaudeville's last stand? Viewers would vote by mailing a "signed postal card" to Box 191, Radio City Station, New York. In later years, viewers could telephone their votes on JUdson 6-7000.

The second and more important difference is that if you won, the payoff was not a movie deal or a life-changing jackpot but rather a little glimmer and a few bucks. Contestants who won three weeks in a row were awarded $1,200 in 1960 money -- about $9,000 today. Then they'd return to their day jobs -- quite a few elevator operators on this show, for some reason.

A few contestants did go on to bigger things. In 1949, a young violinist named Louis Walcott performed on the "Original Amateur Hour" He was later known as Dr. Louis Farrakhan.

By the way, many of these contestants spoke with regional accents such as you don't hear anymore -- Midwestern accents and Boston and Brooklyn accents. The mass media had not yet homogenized speech patterns in the U.S.

The show was famously sponsored by Geritol, the over-the-counter remedy for "iron-poor blood." I'm discussing Ted Mack not to praise Geritol -- I'm not quite ready for that, thank you -- but to raise the subject of what it is to be an amateur.

The true amateur has no choice but to yodel or spin plates on the ends of sticks or pursue some other peculiar line of activity, with little or no thought of fame or remuneration. The true amateur must keep making that yo-yo "walk the dog," or else he will go mad. Maybe he is already half-crazed.

I'll gladly count myself among their number. When I see the clip of the baton-twirling sensation Judy Kassouf of Lakewood, Ohio, I feel that this is what I aspire to in some small way.

The amateur doesn't do it for the big break, though going after the big break can be a beautiful thing too. When you're 22 and you've got that first serious band sounding good and you're vying for that record deal or that pressurized showcase, and it's your own small group against the big world, that's a heady experience. Heck, you see some of those aspiring young bowl-haircut rock bands from 1965 on the Ted Mack show. When I think back on my own 1980s band in Boston -- as I have been doing maybe too much lately -- the image that comes to mind is a Saturday afternoon we all piled into a car and went to the old E.U. Wurlitzer store on Newbury Street, just to help the keyboard player buy a new instrument. Great times, and I wouldn't trade them for anything.

These days, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when I see three or four young people walking up Bedford Avenue with guitar cases on their backs, scheming among themselves to conquer the world, I can appreciate that feeling, even if I'm not crazy about their music.

That's all nice, but it's a non-amateur phase. The great majority of performers, even the ones who get to quit their day jobs for a while, begin as amateurs and end up as amateurs. The irony, of course, is that if you pursue music all that time with any vehemence, you play better as later-phase amateur than you did when you were trying to impress a record company. For one thing, the pressure is off. As an amateur, I'm free to get my records sounding as good as I can possibly make them, no matter how long it takes. I don't have to please anyone but myself, and if the records don't please me, they won't please anyone else. The amateur can afford to be pretty damned ruthless, even if the music is bouncy and ear-friendly, and maybe especially then.

To get it right, sometimes I have to work with real professionals, on the bandstand and in the studio, and on a good day I can keep up with them. I'm unschooled and I lack technique, but maybe a certain amount of passion and determination cuts through and can move the listener in some way.

And that points to the day-and-night difference between the amateur and the mere hobbyist. Again, this has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with intent. The true amateur is out for blood and will continue to pursue this peculiar activity to the death. The hobbyist is out for relaxation after a hard day at the office, or to recapture a lost opportunity from youth. Which is fine. But the hobbyist isn't trying to learn anything new, or can't get to a place where he is learning anything new.

(For more on the weekend-warrior musical hobbyist, please refer to the Bottle Rockets track "White Boy Blues." Disclosure: That's me on the organ.)

So yes, I'm an amateur. When the Jim Duffy Combo performs at the Lakeside Lounge, I'm not shy about passing the silver champagne bucket for tips -- I'm not that much of a purist. Anyway, the tips are for the cab fare -- I play for free, and I'd be playing anyway. The tips are compensation for moving the non-musical parts of your life out of your way so you can do this. Maybe Ted Mack wouldn't dig it, but this is how I understand "amateur."

Someone who is reading this may snicker and say that "amateur" is just another word for "never got your big break." And you know what? I'll accept that too, without batting an eye.

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