"This is looking like the biggest crowd we've had this season and probably the second-largest in 'American Idol' history," noted "A.I." senior producer Patrick Lynn, gazing out at parking lots full of bright-eyed and stylishly put-together performers. And talk about a "cattle call." The hopefuls and their friends had been cordoned off into chute-like pens. Just one would be opened and slowly emptied at a time to keep order and peace in the well-oiled process.
"We're looking at a full house - 20K [20,000 people] - with at least half and probably more of them actual signed-up contestants," Lynn continued. Each performer gets to bring along a friend or family member for moral support. And if you're 16 or 17, you must have a parent or guardian in tow.
Why the explosion of interest in our city?
"Philadelphia is the only tryout town we've visited in the Northeast for this upcoming season," Lynn noted. "And because this is the last place we're hitting [after stops in San Diego, Dallas, Omaha, Atlanta, Charleston and Miami], a lot of people who tried out elsewhere see this as their second/last chance."
Take Jason Cotter, who "tried out in Miami and it didn't work out," he told me. "But Jordin Sparks [last season's winner] didn't make it at her first audition, either."
And Jason's had some other, special encouragement. "I bought him a plane ticket to Philly, to try again," said his tall and handsome older brother Jared, who got into the top 24 last season and now hosts a show on the Fuse music channel.
Yeah, Jared is a major believer in " 'American Idol' power."
Sisters Ashley and Anna Moore, from the Detroit area, drove in with their BFF Bobbie Moore and were going on just four hours sleep when I ran into them in line for registration early (yawn!) Saturday morning.
Also newly landed from the Motor City was a Sicklerville, N.J., 19-year-old, Charnae Winchester. "I was coming home on the bus from Detroit and met some people who were coming here" to try out for "Idol," she shared. "When they heard me sing, they said I had to come and do it, too. So here I am!"
And talk about being supportive. When Charnae honored me with a rendition of "Lean on Me," about three dozen other people in her vicinity chimed in harmoniously on the chorus: "We all need somebody, to lean on."
This observer also spotted signs and license plates shouting out allegiance to New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, D.C. and points farther south.
Proper Philly props
All was forgiven when the first round of "winner's circle" singers started coming out a side door at the Wachovia Center to greet the press.
While the first person introduced was a lovely woman from Providence, R.I., of exotic Cape Verdean ancestry, the second person brought out to cheers was the extremely local Teresa Anello, "from 15th and Bigler, just four blocks from the Wachovia Center," she beamed.
This very poised (and please to note the good posture) blonde cutie had won the judges' hearts with her belting of a Martina McBride song.
"I'm not just a country singer, though," Anello was quick to caution, as her very proud mom, Patty Maiellano, choked back tears.
"Teresa's only singing experience up to now has been standing in front of the bathroom mirror with a pencil in her hand" as a faux microphone, said Mom, "but she's a natural."
Rules to make and break
Too bad we couldn't hear for ourselves, due to the "A.I." rules structure. Yes, it's perfectly OK for a press person to ask hopefuls to sing for the recorder or camera while the kids are in line to register or to get into the tryouts.
The actual tryouts are off-limits to the media, however. And once a contestant successfully passes the first test, he or she is immediately muzzled - told not to share any talent or information about the competition.
"A.I." now owns your voice, your butt, your everything.
"The process is designed to keep things fair, so there's no chance of the media trying to push one person in the competition over others," explained Lynn.
Sorry, but . . . um, that's kind of my job, fella.
Of the couple dozen singers this music critic (and "Idol" watcher) did get to audition on the sidewalk, my definite fave was a West Philly native named Anthony Riley, who killed me with his super-expressive and pitch-perfect performance of the Etta James classic, "At Last."
To boot, this guy's got a great back story to share with the nation, though it doesn't really show our town in its best light.
In March, you might recall, Riley was thrown into jail for 19 hours for the crime of singing in Rittenhouse Square, thus making a nuisance of himself. (Attention "A.I." morals squad: Be on the lookout for wrist band 78687!)
"But eventually I was acquitted," Riley shared with a smile. Oh, and he and singing/playing partner Robby Torres have officially retired, "as of Friday" as a street and rail station performing duo.
"I'm moving to San Francisco to become a hippy," Torres explained with a smirk. (Dear "A.I.": please disregard previous memo.)
Truth is, "Idol" can be very forgiving of personal peccadillos. (Remember last season's top 24 pinup girl, Antonella Barba?)
While the organization starts to dig a little into a candidate's life after round one with a preliminary questionnaire about musical tastes, favorite past "Idol," family history, etc., the vetting isn't really deep.
"Things come up all the time," said Lynn with a shrug. "People are human. They have flaws. I think the viewers realize these are real people, a microcosm of America. No one will be Prince Charming." Yeah, but in the next breath Lynn did acknowledge that recent winners Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks were both "squeaky clean."
"A.I." also wants it both ways when it comes to exposing strangeness on the show. Asked whether it pays candidates to dress up in a weird outfit, host Ryan Seacrest said yesterday, "It makes an impression, but I don't know if it's a good one. As we go on with each new season, the gimmicks become more short-lived. The judges have already seen all the entertainment value in that stuff. Now they just want to hear the voice."
As for the media charge that the show exploits some people's misfortunes, Lynn said, "We absolutely do not look to put people on camera who are mentally challenged. I have an aunt who is, and this is not something that I find funny. But people do act out strangely in front of the camera, for their own reason."
Some of Lynn's production associates do bend the rules a bit, to get weird stuff on videotape. One of the most visible contestants and camera hogs in line all weekend was drag queen Salotta Tee, a popular karaoke night hostess and DJ at Philadelphia gay nightclubs.
This long-in-the-tooth Delaware County resident was claiming to be "just 17" - but then admitted that was only in alter-ego years.
"The production team rushed us in to register and told the people at the table that we didn't have to show IDs" to prove their age, said Salotta's good DJ friend Renee Kane. (Show contestants are limited to ages 16 to 28.)
In post-tryout interviews, some rejects described the judging process as "unfair and rude."
A dozen tables had been set up on the floor of the Wachovia Center, each manned by two judges from the "A.I." production staff. Four rows of hopefuls lined up in front of each table, each contestant stepping up to perform.
While told to prepare two songs, the vast majority were cut off and dismissed after 5 to 30 seconds with a curt, "You're not what we're looking for," or, "That wasn't quite good enough."
"I would have liked to have known what I really did wrong," groused Tashay Knight, who came "all the way from New York" for the tryout. "And why didn't Randy, Paula and Simon come down to personally audition me? This just wasn't right."
Other unsuccessful candidates had a much better attitude. "Just participating is fun, and it gives you the ultimate pick-up line," said Joe Dierolf, 19, of King's College in Wilkes-Barre. "Hey, guess what I did on my summer vacation?"
Tryouts were still carrying on as I was writing this. However, another insider familiar with the process, second-season finalist Kimberly Caldwell (now the "A.I." expert/interviewer in residence on the TV Guide Channel), predicted that "approximately 250" people from the initial Philly crowd would go on to the next round, facing the show's executive producers Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe at another, secret Philadelphia location tomorrow and Thursday.
Those two tough guys will cut the herd to half or less for round three of the local tryout. That's really the only one that the viewers see or care about, when hopefuls face the music in front of the show's official judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, hoping to hear the magic words: "You're going to Hollywood!"
That round of auditions also will take place in Philadelphia at an undisclosed hotel this Saturday and Sunday.
"Philadelphia is the turnaround city, so you're lucky to be getting all the judging done in one week," said Lynn. "In the other cities, we've just done the first round preliminaries and so we'll be revisiting those towns after Philly," a process that will continue through the second week of October.
The other good thing for Philly hopefuls is that Randy, Paula and Simon haven't been together since May, "so they'll be fresh and excited to see each other," shared the producer. "When they get together after a long break, they chatter away like kids."
That enthusiasm may rub off on the local talent pool. "There's no fixed number of people they can advance to Hollywood. It might be 18. It could be 80." *