By Joan Fudala
Amateurs go big throughout history
As Scottsdalians hunker down in front of their televisions or streaming devices for another summer of America’s Got Talent, they might wonder if this “amateur hour” phenomenon is a creation of the new millennium. Not so! Scottsdale’s been showcasing talented residents since the city’s founding in 1888, and continues to enjoy talent shows at local schools, civic clubs and senior centers.
Founders Winfield and Helen Scott enjoyed music, and Mrs. Scott wrote poetry. They encouraged settlers to perform at small gatherings or ecumenical worship services. When the town hand-built its first schoolhouse in 1896, students and residents dedicated the one-room wooden structure with mandolin music.
Helen Smith became the town’s beloved piano teacher in the early 1900s, introducing many young fingers to the wonders of the keyboard. Later, Cora and Montague Machell became Scottsdale’s popular music teachers and musicians.
When the Scottsdale Grammar School was built in 1909, it included a stage in the lower level. As the small farm town’s only public building, residents gathered for indoor and outdoor performances – music, dancing, drama and storytelling.
Artist Jessie Benton Evans, who had traveled and studied in Europe, brought talent together at her Casa de Desierto home at the foot of Camelback Mountain, hosting cultural salons in the 1920s and 1930s.
After establishing Taliesin West as his winter home and School of Architecture north of Scottsdale in 1937, Frank Lloyd Wright and his wife Olgivanna held regular cabarets in which the school’s architectural apprentices performed for each other and guests.
Dick Griffith, one of the nation’s most celebrated rodeo trick artists, lived and trained in Scottsdale during the 1940s and 1950s. He thrilled local audiences as he jumped his horse over cars. He also taught riding and rodeo skills to locals aspiring to follow in his footsteps.
Scottsdale’s creative types combined their talents to produce the annual Miracle of the Roses Pageant every December, beginning in the late 1940s. Poet Patricia Benton wrote the script, and artists Paul Coze and Avid Read were among those who decorated the parade route in downtown Scottsdale. Members of Our Lady of Perpetual Help formed the cast for the play. Mariachis provided the music. Former ambassador and publisher Clare Boothe Luce created a mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe that was used in the pageant.
Entrepreneur Malcolm White (who became Scottsdale’s first mayor in 1951) began holding community talent shows at his T-Bar-T movie theater on Main Street in 1949. Locals performed for prizes between featured movies.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the annual Miss Scottsdale contest included a talent portion. The 1952 event was sponsored by the Lion’s Club, benefited the Cub Scouts and was held at La Fonda Fiesta guest resort on Camelback Road.
The 3rd Annual Sunshine Festival (forerunner of the Parada del Sol), held November 21, 1953, featured a talent show. Full of local amateur performers, it took place after the parade and a fashion show held at Pima Plaza.
Little theater groups sprouted up all over the U.S. during the 1950s; here, the Scottsdale Community Players formed in 1953. The amateur actors’ first performance was held at Scottsdale High; later, the group put on its plays in the Stagebrush Theater on the grounds of the old Adobe House. In 1968, the Players moved into a brand new Stagebrush Theater, designed by local architect Joe Wong, at the corner of Second Street and Orange Avenue (now Goldwater Boulevard).
L.B. Scacewater, head of the newly formed Scottsdale Parks and Recreation Department, announced a talent show would be held at the Community Center (the old Adobe House) in May 1964. Specifically for elementary school performers, the program invited 3-minute demonstrations of skits, music, magic, dancing, tumbling and other skills.
Legend City amusement park held a Scottsdale Days in September of 1964. The Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce sponsored a talent show in the park’s amphitheatre during the weekend.
Waylon Jennings, described in an April 1965 Scottsdale Progress notice as “an RCA recording star,” was the special guest at the Supai Elementary School PTA’s annual family fun night talent show, held in the school’s multi-purpose room. Jennings was a regular performer at JD’s in Scottsdale before gaining national renown.
Louise Lincoln Kerr, herself a talented musician who had played in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, opened her Scottsdale home and studio to local musicians during the 1950s and 1960s. After her death, her property became a performing arts venue of Arizona State University, where local and national talent is introduced to appreciative audiences.
Janie Ellis studied ballet at Ruth Sussman’s studio on Bishop Lane in Scottsdale. She performed in Scottsdale High School musicals, and appeared as a dance hall girl in episodes of Twenty-Six Men that were filmed at Cudia City. In the early 1960s, Janie was personally granted a Ford Foundation scholarship by the famous George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet. She had first performed with his company in The Nutcracker ballet in Los Angeles when she was 11 years old. Janie returned to Scottsdale in the early 1970s, began choreographing musicals throughout the Valley, and worked with Man of La Mancha playwright Dale Wasserman, as well as high school and community theatre groups, to stage their varied productions. She also choreographed the stylized square dance that local high school students performed at the dedication of Louise Nevelson’s “Window to the West” public art sculpture in 1973.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, various groups staged the “Fabulous Follies,” a song and dance revue that featured well-known locals. The Civitans hosted the Follies in the 1960s; future member of Scottsdale City Council Roberta Pilcher was among the performers. In 1980, the Scottsdale Boys Club sponsored the Follies. In the 1980s, the Scottsdale Arts Center Association staged the Follies, in which future mayor Sam Campana performed.
Scottsdale High grad Jed Nolan opened Jed Nolan’s Music Hall on Scottsdale Civic Center Mall in 1975, and packed in audiences until it closed in 1984. The waiters, waitresses and bar staff were all talented singers who entertained patrons with Broadway show tunes and other current melodies. Nolan himself became a Hollywood actor and producer until his death a few years ago.
Talented and nationally recognized movie, television and sport stars were products of Scottsdale schools: Wonder Woman actor Lynda Carter and Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides) attended Arcadia High, as did director/producer Steven Spielberg. The Rockford Files’ Stuart Margolin (who played the show’s character Angel) and Cy Young winner and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer attended Scottsdale High. Comedian/actor David Spade is a Saguaro High grad.
Movies filmed here such as Raising Arizona and Waiting to Exhale hired local talent extras from among Scottsdale residents. Residents displayed their acting talents in television commercials filmed here, too – GE and Proctor & Gamble both filmed TV ads in front of the Little Red Schoolhouse. Scottsdale Chamber past president and retired banker Don Ruff was among those in a 1970s Oxydol TV ad. The Springborn family showed its talents as contestants on TV’s Family Feud in the 1980s. Hundreds of Scottsdale residents, led by Mayor Herb Drinkwater, turned out to wish the nation “Howdy” when Good Morning America was broadcast live from Scottsdale in 1988.
Got talent? As history proves, Scottsdale is always encouraging its homegrown performers to show what they can do… so go for it! You might be the next winner on America’s Got Talent, American Idol or your club’s next performance.