When professional football kicked Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour off television in 1970, Mack spurned retirement (though he was 66) and hired himself onto the lecture circuit. The veteran showman entertained college kids and club ladies with his memories of television’s early days after The Original Amateur Hour became the first commercial TV show in 1948. Then, in 1973, he was asked to host a talent show at Jamestown Community College in upstate New York. “I didn’t know how the students would react. I was afraid they might tear up the seats and throw them at us,” says Mack. As it turned out, the show got a standing ovation, “and I was on my way again.” Since then he has averaged one college show a month for a $1,500 fee. (Instead of a gong to stop acts that bomb, Mack uses sound effects of barking dogs and a cavalry charge, and the hapless performers are carted off in a wheelbarrow.)
Recently some 700 hopefuls flocked to Busch Gardens, a Los Angeles amusement park, to audition for Mack. Not surprised by the turnout, he explains, “There are still so many people dying for a break in show business.” During a week of competition 40,000 people came to catch the acts and the unabashedly cornball formula that seems to work as well today as it did on TV for 23 years. Among the 450 acts that qualified were the usual song and dance numbers. There were also such beguiling—and expected—oddities as a musician who played the William Tell Overture with his fingernails clacking on his teeth, and another who rendered the Skaters Waltz with sleigh bells attached to his body. The winning act—a husband and wife comedy team—won $1,000 and a subsequent booking at Busch Gardens.
Mack reports that on his college tours students and professors alike volunteer enthusiastically. “The dean of one university came onstage in all his dignity and did a takeoff on the Geritol commercial,” recalls Mack. “The dean said, ‘Kids, if you’ve got your health you’ve got just about everything.’ Then he fell on his face.”
Ted Mack was studying to be a lawyer at Denver University as William Edward Maguiness when he started playing the saxophone professionally. Shortening his name for easier billing, he appeared with such big bands of the ’20s as Ben Pollack (Glenn Miller was also a member), emceed vaudeville at Broadway’s Paramount Theatre and became a studio orchestra conductor in Hollywood. In 1935 Major Bowes of radio’s Original Amateur Hour hired Mack to host a traveling show of kids who had appeared on radio. He stayed with Bowes for 11 years, then, after the major’s death in 1946, Mack took over the program.
Mack admits that the Amateur Hour missed a few real comers. In 1957 the 16-year-old Ann-Margret belted out Them There Eyes but lost to a man playing a laurel leaf. And Elvis Presley was asked to leave an audition because of the way he rolled his hips.
When Mack is not on the road, he and Marguerite, his wife of 49 years, and their miniature schnauzer, Heather, live a quiet, comfortable life in New York’s Westchester County. There Mack likes to bicycle and play golf occasionally. The Macks have no children of their own but took two boys from disadvantaged backgrounds into their home and put them through school. Both are grown now and working.
Mack is recognized wherever he goes. “It seems so many people I run into either were contestants on my show or have an aunt, a brother-in-law or somebody they knew who was,” he says. He still finds himself subjected to impromptu auditions. Mack was enjoying a quiet dinner in a restaurant with his wife on one occasion when the chef spotted him, left the kitchen and burst into a rendition of O Sole Mio. He got the gong.