Stars in his Eyes

With a twinkle and a grin, Ed McMahon stops at Golden Ring Mall in his latest search for tomorrow's stars. He clearly gets a kick out of the quest, even if he doesn't always stay for the show

April 26, 2000|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

The big blue tour bus roars up to the entrance of Golden Ring Mall and there's Ed McMahon in front, waving as if he's running for Congress.

Cameras click. Felt-tip pens are readied for autographs. TV news crews scurry into position. The most famous TV sidekick in history steps onto the parking lot and flashes that dazzling, million-dollar smile, and for a brief moment this tired strip of eastern Baltimore County seems transformed into a slice of Beverly Hills.

"How you doing?!" McMahon yells to the crowd of about three dozen there to greet him.

Then he launches into a flurry of genial glad-handing and interview-giving. If there were any babies to be kissed, well, he'd surely buss their little bald heads, too.

The show business legend is here on this fine spring evening to flack his latest business venture, "Ed McMahon's Next Big Star," being billed as the world's largest Internet talent competition.

This is the 29th stop on a grueling 40-day, 40-city bus tour. The idea is this: At each stop, local residents get to perform for the "Next Big Star" crew.

Their performances are professionally taped and then posted on a Web site (www.nextbigstar .com), where anyone with a computer can vote on his or her favorite performer in any of 20 categories.

Every 13 weeks, the winners of the online voting will go on national TV in a final competition hosted by McMahon himself, with the big winners receiving a million bucks in cash and prizes, as well as a huge leg up toward a career in the wonderful world of entertainment.

"Convergence is the big buzzword these days, and we now have the Internet and television converging!" McMahon gushes. "Can you believe I'm in cyberspace now? Pretty soon I'll be up on the Mir!"

Much as he did during his days hosting the syndicated show "Star Search" -- which launched the careers of superstars such as Rosie O'Donnell, Drew Carey, Britney Spears and Martin Lawrence -- McMahon seems positively energized by this latest beating of the bushes for raw talent.

"Did I tell you about the 5-year-old drummer?" he asks a newspaper reporter.

Uh, no. We just met for the first time.

"We're in Norfolk, Va., the other day and one of the performers was this little 5-year-old drummer. You can't even see him over the drums. I asked him how long he'd been playing and he said three years.

"Three years! So he's been playing since he was in a high chair!"

McMahon is asked: Was the kid any good?

"Oh, yeah!" he says. "We're finding some wonderful talent!"

This, it seems, is the essence of what drives McMahon -- who just turned 77, who co-hosted "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" for 30 years and has more money than God -- to hit the road for 40 days and visit one antiseptic mall after another to watch an army of would-be Christina Aguileras and Garth Brookses parade to the microphone.

You or I look at a little kid wielding drumsticks and see a future member of the high school band, if he doesn't fall in with the wrong crowd and screw up. McMahon looks at the same kid and sees the next Gene Krupa, or Buddy Rich, or Max Weinberg, the fabled longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen.

If he closes his eyes, McMahon also sees the Wells Fargo trucks backing up to his home every day to unload bags of cash -- this deal, after all, involves the MSN network of Internet services and Microsoft Windows Media technologies.

But that's another issue altogether.

"Should we go inside and see the talent show?" he booms after wrapping up his media interviews.

Everyone in the crowd agrees that's a swell idea, especially because the show is already two hours late. (Part of the "Next Big Star" crew was stuck in traffic on Interstate 95 outside Washington.)

So with mall security leading the way, and a bevy of Golden Ring executives tagging alongside, McMahon heads inside to see if the next Sinbad or Ray Romano is camped out near the food court, just waiting for a chance at the spotlight.

A mall transformed

The Golden Ring Mall, on Rossville Boulevard in the Rosedale area, has seen better days.

Even on a sunny afternoon, it has a sad, worn look to it. Too many vacant storefronts, too many merchants with worried eyes standing in front of their shops with nothing to do except fret about their rent payments and re-fold the sweaters for the 100th time that day.

The customers have gone elsewhere, to the glittering new malls in Towson and Owings Mills, to the Targets and discount retailers in White Marsh. On most days, you could get up a touch football game on either level here and not bump into any shoppers.

Still, when the McMahon entourage sweeps into the stage area, a ripple of electricity goes through the crowd.

By the time the mall closes on this Monday evening, more than 85 people will have signed up to perform over two days; some three dozen, along with various supporters, have been here since sign-ups began two hours earlier.

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