Reality shows, and especially talent competitions such as TV’s “American Idol” and “The Voice,” have huge television audiences these days.

That kind of entertainment has been around for many years. It’s the everyman’s dream of achieving show business success, and a Lewiston man found himself chasing that dream about 76 years ago on a nationally-known radio show called “The Major Bowes Original Amateur Hour,” live from New York City.

Alexandre Lemieux was on a two-week vacation in New York early in 1938. He was a popular young Lewiston tenor and a winner of state and district vocal contests. He had no intentions of singing on national radio.

A detailed account of his experience on that forerunner of reality show competition was found in the Lewiston Journal Illustrated Magazine Section of March 12, 1938. It was a piece written by Emmie Bailey Whitney.

Lemieux was lunching with Raoul Nadeau, a New York baritone who had performed at an Orpheon concert in Lewiston. Nadeau urged Lemieux to apply for a Major Bowes audition, and in short order he had an appointment.

The newspaper story said, “Having an audition didn’t mean he was to be heard and judged at once by Major Bowes. In fact, he never met the conductor of one of the most popular hours on the air until what Mr. Lemieux terms the ‘dress rehearsal,’ on the afternoon preceding the broadcast.”

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Prior to that he met with Bowes’ secretary and they went over a number of songs and arias for possible performance. It was narrowed down to “The King of Ys,” from Edouard Lalo’s opera, “Le roi d’Ys.”

Lemieux said it was not his first choice, but it was relatively short and that increased his chances of getting a turn at the microphone.

Lemieux told how he watched many hopeful performers go in and quickly out of the “try-out studio.” He said there was plenty of rehearsal, including some drills on possible questions Major Bowes might ask about birthplace, experience, and “numerous other quizzes irrelevant to his reason for being there, his singing.”

Eventually, Lemieux was one of 20 picked as possible acts for a Thursday show.

“He did not feel at all sure of going on Thursday night, not even when he got his door ticket to the broadcasting studio” in the old CBS theater, Whitney’s story said. “He was uncertain whether to send word to Lewiston and Auburn friends that they might hear him if they listened in, and his uncertainty continued thru the program up to 9:40 p.m., when his number was called.”

Lemieux told Whitney that people always asked him later if he was nervous.

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“Not very,” he said. “Of course it was a bit nerve-racking waiting to be called and not knowing whether I would be left out or not. And then I was anxious not to bungle my answers to Mr. Bowes and so waste time. Everything was timed to the second. I had to answer Major Bowes with my back to him and looking straight into the microphone.”

Lemieux said the applause at the end of his song was encouraging.

“No, it wasn’t fake applause,” he said. “It came from an audience of about 1,500 persons.”

The story went on to talk about Lemieux’s fan mail after the show. It didn’t indicate whether the format included choosing a winner, but other Internet sources said the Major Bowes show took telephone calls naming best performer choices, much the same as today’s reality shows invite votes via “tweets.”

Another Maine connection with the Major Bowes show was Cloyd Brown, a youthful singer from Livermore Falls. He had come to New York with his aunt, Mrs. Riley of Auburn, hoping to have an audition, and they were in the audience that heard Lemieux. Brown sang professionally under the name David Laurent.

Lemieux also got a surprise phone call from a former schoolmate in Lisbon, Evelyn Alexander Davis, who had heard him on the show. She had married and was living in New York.

Much like today’s contestants and personalities on reality shows, Lemieux learned that there is a lot of unexpected preparation behind the public broadcast.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by emailing [email protected]


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