The microphone is seldom quiet on Karaoke night at Sneakers Pub and Restaurant in Long Reach.
Male and female patrons -- solo, in duets or groups -- grab a moment in the limelight. Even the waitress belts out a Janis Joplin "Me and Bobbie McGee" that's so good it raises goose bumps.
Any Karaoke night in the county has the same basic ingredients: machine, masters of ceremonies, variable raw talent and guts.
Its concept is simple: Each performer reads the lyrics off a screen and sings along with the music.
The boxy Karaoke machine -- the word is Japanese and means "orchestra without voices" -- can play the original background music to hundreds of songs that patrons may choose from a selection book. Customers list their choices on a request card and are called up to the mike in order.
The lyrics on the TV screen turn green and disappear as they are sung. Singers also can buy an audio or video tape of their performance.
It's the freedom that's infectious. Freedom to be surprisingly good -- or bad.
"Those who do good, or very very bad, they get the most applause," says Bill P. Huffman who, with wife Shirley, runs Sneakers.
Like other Karaoke converts, Sneakers' master of ceremonies Matt Salisbury speaks with fervor.
"Everyone sings in the shower and with the radio in the car," he said. "They read our book and say, 'I always sing that song.' Karaoke is a venue to get it out, express yourself artistically. For people who acted in college or high school, it's an opportunity to do it again."
Vickie Murphy had never seen a Karaoke machine, but was curious. Her husband had sung Karaoke-style on business trips, and she wanted to give it a try too.
She brought a friend along to Sneakersfor support.
"She's shy like I am, and I figured our shyness together would create a song," Murphy said. "I had to rewrite the requestslip three times because she kept crossing out her name."
The emcees work hard to break down inhibitions. At Sneakers, two young men bound around the room cajoling, organizing, explaining. They warm up the crowd with some songs and reassuring patter. They get involved with some performances, foisting a cowboy hat and a coonskin cap on a set of country-and-western performers, who feel free to toss them off again.
"This is dedicated to my mother, who is getting married tomorrow," says a young woman who launches into "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes.
Some get hooked seeing how much fun someone else has or thinking "I could do better than that!"
"It's addictive," said Bob Mroz, whose Karaoke company appears at MD's Country Pub in Glenelg.
AtTurf Valley, patrons expecting a more formal atmosphere one evening found the ambience almost rowdy. It was late and the crowd was thinning. Several tables of strangers had collaborated on a performance in which the singers were surrounded by people weaving in and out holding up table candles.
"I've done this three times," says Frank Eastham, a teacher and social worker. But, he quipped, "This is the first time we've bonded with another table."
Groups huddle, plot and rehearse in the back. When the selection is good for dancing, couples fill the dance floor.
"The crowd gets younger as its gets later," says Eastham.
But it's hard to generalize here.
A middle-age man in dress shirt and tie and swings into an Elvis tune. Karaoke favorites are rock classics, but also include country and western, hard rock, rap and old standards from the '50s and beyond. There's even children's and seasonal tunes.
James "Jim Bob" Morris, a grocer with Giant Food, did it on a challenge.
"My friend at work knew I walked around humming or singing. She said, 'You can do it.' "
Now Morris is a regular, one of the self-dubbed "brat pack" that follows a Karaoke show several nights a week.