Friday, May 29, 2009

When "Idol" Came to Cleveland

Here is one of several stories I wrote in 2004, when "American Idol" held auditions in Cleveland. This one deals with the mass auditions.

"What are we, fugitives from justice?" one American Idol contestant wondered out loud as a helicopter buzzed over Cleveland Browns Stadium.
"We're a circus," a friend replied.
Maybe you've dreamed of winning American Idol. Singing your heart out on national television, with a band and backup singers. Getting new clothes, a cosmetic makeover, an album deal, tours.
That wasn't the American Idol you would have found in Cleveland on Tuesday. What you saw there was the gritty first step people had to take toward the glamorous finish, an endurance contest with an occasionally festive air.
Among those taking part were two of the three auditioners chosen for coverage in a Beacon Journal competition, 20-year-old Ryan Thompson of Medina and 28-year-old Jessica Vaughan of Clinton. (The third, 22-year-old Tiffany Allison of Cleveland, planned to join the auditioning crowd early today.)
Thompson had arrived outside the stadium a little before 3 a.m. Tuesday, when he estimated the crowd was in the hundreds -- and people had to avoid lawn sprinklers that came on abruptly.
With him was a group of friends that included auditioners Kelly Cass, 17, and Linda Cameron, 18, both of Medina. He had also brought a change of clothes, bottled water and some caffeine-laden Red Bull.
"Until we get our (audition) wrist bands, I'm not concerned about sleeping," he said. Later in line, he and his friends passed some of the time with board games.
Vaughan, accompanied by her husband, Roger, had arrived about 5:15 a.m. with clothes, some books, crossword puzzles and her guitar. "Worst-case scenario, I get 24 hours of practice," she said.
They were among thousands of would-be Idols invited to Cleveland Browns Stadium beginning at 6 a.m. Tuesday, just to line up for the actual auditions beginning today.
With Cleveland the first site of the latest Idol auditions, people came not only from Northeast Ohio but from Detroit and Indianapolis, Buffalo and Erie.
Some passed out in the morning heat. Still, many auditioners, most in their teens and 20s, were confident, even giddy. "I'm ready for my interview now," one young man repeatedly told a reporter.
Reporters from TV, print and radio were scattered in the crowd. Levi Morse of Gladwin, Mich., got the media spotlight when it appeared he was the first in line (and he was the first to pass through the gate). His mother, Shelley, noted she had taken time off from three jobs to come to Cleveland.
But the first wrist band went to Dave Iwanowicz of Albany, N.Y., who had come to Cleveland on Sunday and spent a long time camped out in his car while waiting for the auditions to begin.
His and others' wait included lingering around and near the stadium before the line officially formed -- and the crowd was thick well before 6 a.m. People were gradually moved into rows separated by metal barriers, where they waited for the gates to open. Four hours later, they began to get through the gates after having their bags inspected, their identification checked and their entourage shrunk. (Each auditioner was allowed just one companion.)
Some baggage was also gone. Chairs, tents and coolers were banned from the stadium, instead filling large metal trash bins to overflowing). Alcohol, fireworks, beach balls, laser pointers, bullhorns, whistles and food also counted as contraband.
So people had to ponder the purchase of $3.50 bottles of water or pop, or $5.50 nachos. A sign next to one stand called those "American Idol prices," but a vendor said those were standard stadium rates. There were also Idol shirts on sale for $15 to $30.
As the morning turned to afternoon, those still waiting outside found a trail of trashed food -- empty bottles, discarded pizza slices, french fries, emptied boxes of Fruit Snacks and Skippy peanut butter bars.
And getting into the stadium meant enduring 90-degree heat. Umbrellas some contestants brought to fight the early-morning showers instead served as sun shields. Other participants used free fans with signs promoting Fox TV shows.
After marking seats in the stadium, many stretched out in the shadier enclosed areas. By early afternoon, it looked like summer at a seedy, carpeted beach.
"I expected them to move a lot faster and to be more considerate of us as human beings," said Carolina Frattaioli of Akron. "They are treating us like dogs."
Yet many people were, if not cheerful, at least philosophical about their situation.
Sure, there were occasional disputes about people jumping the line -- and Michael Boschetti, head of Idol security, easily caught a young man trying to sneak by without ID. But the early-morning hours had a mellow quality, with people playing cards, chatting with friends and occasionally breaking into song.
In the line around 9 a.m., a small group began singing Richard Smallwood's gospel anthem Total Praise. Others far removed from that group picked up the song and joined in, some clapping along, until the song ended with whoops and cheers.
Much later, inside the stadium, people passed the time at a karaoke booth. One woman practiced back flips before the crowd got too thick.
They had come not for creature comforts but for a chance at stardom.
"People are pretty cooperative because we have something they want," said Boschetti, who remembers when the show was so little known that it held auditions on city streets. "Whatever we want them to do, they'll do."
After all, somewhere at the end of the process lay a chance to be a star doing something you love.
"I know there's a lot of talented people here," said Javar Parker, 18, of Mansfield. "I just brought myself and my talent."
"I love to sing," said Tawana Joseph of Akron, who at 28 was taking advantage of the newly expanded Idol age limit. "I've been singing since I was little."
"I've always loved singing and thought I would give this a try," said Arianna DeGeorge of Akron.
Not even the unhappy Frattaioli could turn away.
"I figured I came this far, I might as well keep suffering," she said.

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