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Wilkens Amateur Hour

Long Running Pittsburgh Talent Showcase for Dean Martin, Roger Humphries and Doo Wop Acts
The Wilkens Amateur Hour was one of Pittsburgh's most popular shows for 23 years. Thousands of musically talented Pittsburghers competed on the live weekly talent show for a chance to win the grand prize and to maybe be discovered. A second place winner went on to became one of the biggest stars of all time as a recording artist, night club singer, comedian, movie star, and television variety show host. But most contestants just won their five minutes of Pittsburgh fame. The radio show began on WJAS-AM in 1935 and later aired on WCAE and KQV. Expanding to simulcast on WDTV in 1950, the Wilkens Amateur Hour was the first regularly scheduled live local television show in Pittsburgh's history. It ran until 1958.

Each week listeners tuned in to hear acts like the sixty eight year old retired coal miner who played, "The Cuckoo Waltz" on a concertina held over his head, or an Hawaiian guitarist playing "The Tennessee Waltz!", or a barbershop quartet of twelve year old singing "Sweet Adeli". Brought back by popular demand on several shows was Margie Jean Dollman the Baby Cry Express. She was on for several weeks imitating crying babies.

Beginnings in 1935

Lewis L. Silberman, the advertising director of of the four store Wilkens Jewelry chain, was the creator of the show. He purchased a one hour time slot for $400 on radio station WJAS in 1935. Silberman was the show's first producer and writer. The show sought out a variety of performers including tap dancers, whistlers, yodelers, accordion players,  singers, instrumentalists, choral groups, orchestras, bands, impersonators, hill billies, and novelty acts. 

Jerry Mayhall, a guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and an arranger of ballets and theatrical productions, was the music director of the show for 5 its first five years on WJAS. He accompanied contestants on piano and led the live band, When Mayhall passed away Harry Walton succeeded him as music director.  Harry Mitchell was the show's organist.  Jack "EZ-Credit"  Logan was the announcer who read the Wilkens commercials.

Ruth Lake was hired as the Girl Friday of the show in 1935 and remained with the show for its entire 23 year run. Potential contestants filled out application cards in the Wilkens stores or wrote to the show telling of their talents.  Auditions were held on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons.  The producers ran the auditions and picked the weekly contestants.  Ruth Lake kept a notebook of all the acts who had auditioned. They could be called to compete on future shows.

The show, which was broadcast live from the Moose Temple on Penn Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh was a big hit in its first year.  Listeners voted on the weekly contestants sending in post cards and letters.   Thousand of post cards poured in every week.  One show brought in 78,000 votes.  One of Ruth Lake's jobs was to tally the votes. 

The winner of the weekly contest won $10 and a chance to compete in the year end grand prize show.  The first place grand prize winner received $500 dollars, second place won $300, and third place was awarded $200.  Over time the weekly prize winners received $25 and later $50 prizes

The second season was kicked off on November 8. 1936 in front of live audience of 4,000 at the Syria Mosque with ticket proceeds going to the Community Chest Drive.  Brian McDonald, who had been vaudeville singer and the popular master of ceremonies at the Stanley and Enright Theaters, became the producer and master of ceremonies of the show from 1936 to 1943.  He left in 1944 to became the emcee for the Ice Capades.  Singer, guitarist, and radio disk jockey Al Noble became master of ceremonies in 1944 and sang popular songs during the broadcasts. Brian McDonald, replaced Al Noble returning to the show in 1955 staying until 1957.

After six years on the air in 1941 The Wilkens Amatuer Hour had presented 4,000 acts with 6,000 contestants. Millions of votes had be received from listeners.  In the 1940s that show moved to WCAE-AM and was broadcast live from the North side Carnegie Music Hall.

in 1950 the Wilkens Amateur Hour became the first first regularly scheduled live program on television station WDTV on the Dumont Network. Pittsburgh Mayor David Barr introduced the historic first show. It was broadcast live from the WDTV studios in the Chamber of Commerce Building in downtown Pittsburgh using two cameras. The show was directed byEdward J. Young who later directed Paul Shannon's Adventure Time and Hank Stohl's Popeye and Knish show on WTAE. It was simulcast on KQV-AM from 1950 to 1955. It was ranked in the 10 top most popular television shows in Pittsburgh.

Guest Stars

To attract listeners the Wilkens Amateur Hour frequently featured guest celebrity appearances.  Among those guests were Gene Autry, Rudy Valley, band leader Baron Elliot, fighter Fritzy Zivic, Roddey McDowel, Francis Langford, Jackie Heller, Broderich Crawford, Tyronne Power, and Jerry Colona.

Contestants and Stars Who Went on in Show Biz

In 1943 the young singer Dino Crocetti of tiny Mingo Junction, Ohio won second place on the Wilkens Amateur Hour. Changing his name to Dean Martin he went on to super stardom partnering with Jerry Lewis before his solo career in night clubs, records, movies, and television.  According to Ruth Lake, Dino remembered the show sending congratulation telegrams every year on the show's anniversary.

Margie Hirth of the winning Hirth Sisters became a singer with Guy Lumbardo. The Kinder Sisters,Elaine, Barbara and Shirley became live performers on KDKA radio show "Music Please" in 1938, performed in area clubs, recorded, and  went on tour with the Ice Capades from 1942 through 1945.

Tiny Ellen Sutton, a 250 pound yodeler and singer from the North side billed as the "Mistress of Melody", began singing at age 13 on WWSW-AM.  She became a popular regular cast member on the Wilkens Amateur Hour in 1940.   She sang popular songs every week and acted the Wilkens Stock Company skits.  Cowboy singer and movie Gene Autry who appeared as a guest on the show convinced Tiny to return to Hollywood with him in 1941. There she sang with Gene on his weekly Sunday radio show on the Columbia Network, toured the world with performing with Gene and the Camel Caravan during World War II, and became a night club / cruiseship performer.

Jazz drummer Roger Humprhries who appeared on the radio show at age four with his piano-playing cousin, went on to tour and record with Horace Silver, Ray Charles, and others. Singer Sandy Evans became a vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey band. 

The harmonica playing Sgro Brothers, from Wellsville Ohio won first place on the Wilkens show in 1950 and came to the attention of booking agents to launch their professional career. While still in high school the duo performed in clubs in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Drafted in 1953 the USMC put the brothers on a 52 week nationwide tour billing them as the "The Marine Corps Own Harmainiacs". They appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, the Herb Shriner Quiz Show, the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show and the Easter Parade of Stars. Leaving the marines they joined Herb Shriner's Harmonica Orchestra and recorded a single on Columbia Records. In 1956 they became members of Johnny Puleo’s Harmonica Gang playing night clubs in Havana, Los Vegas, and New York, made an appearance at the London Palladium and opened for Frank Sinatra. Working later as a duo they first harmonica act to perform at the Grand Ole Opery. They performed at the White House in 2004.

Another of the regular cast members on the television series who continued on in show biz was Gloria Okon who played the part of Jane Wilkins.  After graduating from Carnegie Tech where she was the campus queen she become a teacher at Monogehela High School.  Gloria was hired on May 1, 1951 to replace Jack Logan as the Wilkens announcer. On her first appearances in 1951 she was seen only as a hand model for jewelry. They billed her 'The Most Beautiful Hands in Pittsburgh" Eventually she appeared on camera singing the EZ-Credit song. Gloria moved to New York City and became the weather girl on WPIX during the 1960s and 1970s.. She also sang in night clubs and appeared in many commercials. At one point she was considered for the lead role on the TV detective show "Honey".  Gloria's other claim to fame is that her son Tommy Okon played the little boy who Mean Joe Green tossed his number 75 shirt to in return for a Coca-Cola in the iconic Coke commercial.
During the 1950s Doo Wop Era, the El Vinos, the Four Coins, the Donnybrooks, singer Jerry Mason, and the Five Playboys competed on the the television show.

The EZ-Credit Song

Each week on Wilkens Amateur Hour television show   Abbe Neal and her Wilkens Westernaires sang the Wilkens Jewelry Store's theme song"EZ-Credit" ..." Wilkens is the place where you can get it ..." It was one the most recognized jingles in Pittsburgh. School music teacher wrote the show asking for copies so that they could teach it to their students.

Easy credit. Easy Credit.
Wilkins is the place where you can get it.
Where credit won't cost you an extra cent.
You get quality and value for what you spent.
So here's a little tip for every lady and gent:
It's easy credit. You said it.
That's the Wilkins easy credit tune.

The song was written during a snow storm in 1950.  The cast was stranded at the William Penn waiting out the storm when they talked about ideas for a catchy new theme song.  Singer Hank Fort, who was the guest star that week sat down at the piano in the hotels Terrace Room and dashed out the song.  The show paid her $250 for the song. It became the show's signature theme.

Annual Twin and Triplet Show

Beginning in its first season on radio, the Wilkens Amateur Hour held an annual "Twins" show. Pairs of twins and set of triplets were invited to compete or to attend the live show. In 1940 325 Pairs of twins and 11 set of triplets turned out for the broadcast. The annual twins show continued through the 1949 season.  Contestants on the 1949 show featured 12 sets of twins, three sets of triplets, and the 15 month old Zavada quadruplets.
MC - Brian McDonald
Al Nobel
Kinder Sisters
Srgo Brothers on Ed Sullivan
Roger Humphries at 3
Twin and Triplet Show
Gloria Okon