Museum Musings — Act Amateur Hours

Photo courtesy of the family of Joseph Woodman. Joseph Woodman, an organiser and participant in the early ACT Amateur Hours.

I recently received a telephone call from a Melfort resident who reads my Museum Musings column. She told me that back in the mid-1930s, her grandfather (Joseph Woodman), a member of the Prince Albert chapter of the Associated Canadian Travellers, had been involved in that organisation’s decision to raise funds for the Saskatchewan Anti-tuberculosis League. Not only had he been involved in organising fund raisers, but he had also participated as a performer when the Amateur Hours were broadcast annually from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary.
I recall as a youth listening to the Amateur Hours, but had very little background information with respect to them. When I asked what information the caller could provide, she responded that she only had her own vague memories and some scanty information which she had obtained previously from the Bill Smiley Archives. Still, it was a story which I decided needed to be told, and I started searching for what I could find.
It was in 1934, in southern Saskatchewan, that Dr. George Ferguson, the Director of Medical Services and General Superintendent of the Saskatchewan Anti-tuberculosis League, had a fortuitous meeting with a group of travellers who were representatives of the provincial Associated Canadian Travellers organisation. He explained to them the need for support in the fight against tuberculosis, and they agreed to join the battle. As a result, ACT organisations across the province began coordinating the fund-raising campaigns, selling anti-tuberculosis Christmas seals, holding dances and raffles, and doing whatever they could to raise funds in the fight against tuberculosis.
The Prince Albert chapter quickly joined in the provincial fund raising campaign, doing what it could in a province which, very much deep in the midst of the depression, had little cash to spare. The local fund raising took a dramatic turn when Joseph Woodman, along with other local ACT members like Dick Dewhurst and Percy Dickinson, met with Bill Hart, an announcer with CKBI radio. They agreed that they would conduct weekly dances on Saturday nights for the young people of Prince Albert to attend. A small donation would be asked of each of them, and a portion of the evening would be aired over the radio station, ensuring that the listening audience would be made aware of the fact that these young people were doing their part in the fight against tuberculosis. To attract further attention, some of the young people were given a chance to go on air with a song or some other form of entertainment. In amongst the dance music and the entertainment, there would also be commentary calling attention to the fact that the disease could be fought only by educating the public and through an injection of money from the listeners.
To the surprise of all those involved, within weeks the broadcasts had become extremely popular and the station was receiving requests to broadcast similar shows from the halls and auditoriums of numerous smaller towns and villages throughout CKBI’s listening area. Once these broadcasts became a part of CKBI’s Saturday night programming, ACT Amateur Hours were soon broadcast on four other radio stations in the province.
The first CKBI broadcast of an out-of-town Amateur Hour was held in the village of Parkside, about 60 kilometres from Prince Albert. A princely sum of $50, more or less, was raised by that broadcast, but this first fund raiser led, through the years, to a contribution of $1.39 million to help fight tuberculosis and to assist regional hospitals in getting much needed equipment for their intensive care and respiratory units.
The Parkside show, taking place in the month of winter, meant battling icy roads and drifting snow. The crew started from Prince Albert in cars, but ended up resorting to travel by way of a railway jigger; nor would it be the only time that transportation would be an issue. Yet week after week, year after year, the ACT Amateur Hours would hit the air waves throughout the autumn and winter months.
The concept for the shows was really quite simple. Local talent was identified, given an opportunity to perform on radio, while friends, family, and supporters would be encouraged to call in with a donation for their favourite performer. In addition to providing the talent, the local community would provide the hall and a meal for those helping to produce the show. Those helping would include the emcee from the radio station, the engineer handling the technical side of things, and members of the ACT (and their wives) who would man the telephones and ensure that the donations would be recorded and announced. Aside from the meal provided, all the transportation and manpower were volunteered freely, meaning that all the donations would go to the fight against tuberculosis.
The shows were always truly amateur in nature. No rehearsals were ever held, and no adherence to a schedule was maintained. Performances would begin in the community’s auditorium or hall at 8:30, and then go on air at 10:30. Those in attendance would be canvassed for funds and, once the show went on the air, telephone donations would be received. The show would continue until finally the performer requested by the last donour had performed one more time.
Perhaps the only show which might be held to some sense of a schedule would be the annual broadcast from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. Serving inmates would be given a chance to help in the fight against tuberculosis each winter when the annual Amateur Hour originated from within the walls. For the most part, the inmates provided all the talent (although we know that Joseph Woodman was also given a chance to perform), and the emcee would usually be an inmate. Inmate Trust Fund money would often be contributed as well, and this broadcast had an especially large listening audience each time it occurred.
For over 40 years, the ACT Amateur Hours filled the air waves on Saturday nights throughout the autumn and winter months. The last show, staged as part of Saskatchewan’s 80th birthday celebration, was broadcast from Wakaw and originated with CKBI radio. It was heard on eight radio stations across the province on Saturday, October 26th, 1985.