Television Talent Shows Before American Idol

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Arthur Godfrey pitches Pepto-Bismol in the 1950s 

Launched in 2002, Fox’s American Idol has become one of the hottest shows on television. But the concept of a talent search series is hardly new in American television, with several of American Idol’s predecessors originating on radio.

Here is a short list of television shows – both famous and infamous – that helped pave the way for American Idol, America’s Got Talent and other current fare.

Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (1948-1958)

Folksy, ukulele-playing Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983) hosted this popular series broadcast over CBS-TV. First heard on radio in 1946, Talent Scouts made its television debut on December 6, 1948.

The show employed a simple premise, as various talent scouts delivered their clients to New York City where a selected few were chosen to perform before a live audience. The contestant registering the highest rating on the studio applause meter was judged the winner of that show. With Godfrey at the helm, the series certainly lived up to its grand billing, hosting the likes of such emerging talent as Rosemary Clooney, Don Knotts, Tony Bennett, the Chordettes, Steve Lawrence, Patsy Cline, Roy Clark, Lenny Bruce, Wally Cox, Pat Boone and the McGuire Sisters.

Trivia: Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts was the highest rated television show for the 1951-52 season. Both Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly auditioned for the show, but neither made the final cut as a contestant.

The Original Amateur Hour (1948-70)

This long-running talent series owes its origins to radio, where it aired from 1934 to 1952. The radio version was predominantly hosted by Major Edward Bowes (1874-1946), who in the early years of the show would strike a gong in order to put a merciful end to a particularly bad performance.

The television version debuted over the DuMont Network on January 18, 1948, with Ted Mack at the helm. Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, as it came to be known, eventually ran on all four TV networks: DuMont, ABC, CBS and NBC. Each week the series featured an array of performers – singers, dancers, jugglers, baton twirlers, comedians, et al. – whose fate would be determined by viewers casting their votes via postcard.

The affable Ted Mack (1906-1976) played host to a bevy of talent. Among his discoveries were Irene Cara, Ann-Margret, a very young Gladys Knight, Beverly Sills, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, Robert Merrill, Pat Boone and Jim Stafford.

Trivia: More than a few contestants made sweet music by tapping empty Geritol bottles. Apparently they wanted to unduly influence the voting, as Geritol was one of the show’s primary sponsors.

Henry Morgan’s Great Talent Hunt (1951)

Henry Morgan (1915-1994) – best known for his droll, sarcastic wit which he exhibited as a panelist on such TV game shows as I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line? – hosted this NBC offshoot from his regular television show. Assisting Morgan in his duties were Arnold Stang and Kaye Ballard.

The resourceful Morgan featured a bizarre array of people with offbeat talents, including one man who could seemingly repeat what one person was saying almost instantaneously, making it sound as if both speakers were talking as one. Morgan attempted to trip the fellow up by bringing in a Japanese speaker, but the man successfully continued his repetitive chatter word for word.

Trivia: Henry Morgan’s incurable habit of ridiculing his sponsors often landed him in hot water. Life Savers dropped one of his shows after only a week. Morgan’s tongue-in-cheek pronouncement that the company was cheating customers by drilling a hole into its product hadn’t been well received in the executive suite.

Talent Jackpot (1949)

Vinton Freedley (1891-1969) and Bud Collyer (1908-1969) served as co-hosts of this short, five-week series that aired over the DuMont Network. A summer replacement show, Talent Jackpot featured five acts who competed for the evening’s jackpot, with the winner determined by studio applause. The top prize: $250.

Trivia: Bud Collyer was the radio voice of Superman from 1940-49. He later became the host of TV’s popular game show To Tell the Truth in 1956.

The Talent Shop (1951-52)

Fred Robbins (1919-1992) and Pat Adair co-hosted this talent search series set at a New York City drugstore. Primarily geared for the younger set, The Talent Shop debuted on October 13, 1951, on the DuMont Network.

Trivia: Fred Robbins was a popular disc jockey who specialized in jazz.

The Gong Show (1976-80)

Philadelphia-born Chuck Barris hosted this bizarre series that featured a parade of amateur performers of questionable talent. Sitting in judgment were Rip Taylor, Artie Johnson, film critic Rex Reed, Jaye P. Morgan, Phyllis Diller and other celebrity panelists.

The Gong Show harkened back to Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour on radio, where particularly offensive acts were given the TV gong, either by an individual judge or en masse. Regular performers included “The Unknown Comic” (a guy with a paper bag over his head) and “Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine,” who was often pelted with shoes and other flying debris for his efforts. Oh, yeah, the winning contestant was awarded a cash prize of $516.32 and a Golden Gong trophy.

Trivia: A newer, syndicated version of The Gong Show ran from 1988-89. Paul Reubens – a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman – made four appearances on The Gong Show in the 1970s.

The $1.98 Beauty Contest (1978-80)

Mustachioed comic Rip Taylor hosted this syndicated series that originated from the wild backlots of Chuck Barris Productions. Three celebrity panelists judged the contest, as various women competed in embarrassing swimsuit and talent segments for the grand prize: $1.98 and a cheap tiara. Degrading to women was probably the best thing one could say about the show.

Trivia: Actress Sandra Bernhard appeared as a contestant.

Star Search (1983-1995)

Johnny Carson sidekick Ed McMahon (1923-2009) hosted the original series that ran in syndication. Big Ed – along with his omnipresent tuxedo and patented belly laugh – introduced the acts, which included the categories Male Vocalist, Female Vocalist, Junior Vocalist, Spokesmodel, Dance, etc.

A panel of four sat in judgment, with the winners returning in order to eventually secure the top spot via audience voting. Like American Idol, some winning contestants earned recording contracts after their competition was completed.

Trivia: A resurrected Star Search ran from 2003-04 on CBS, with Arsenio Hall at the helm. Beyonce Knowles appeared on Star Search in 1983.

So move over Ryan Seacrest, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson – you folks have lots of company in the long, colorful history of TV talent shows.

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