Seniors give it their all to become singing idol

October 22, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Less than a week before the local qualifying round in a statewide senior citizens singing competition, the contest had no contestants.

The staff at the McFaul Activities Center in Bel Air turned to Leo Mahoney.

He sings regularly at the Bel Air American Legion. He has stage presence, sophisticated sound equipment, and stacks of CDs, they reasoned.

"We told him he could do anything he wanted except his girlie act," said Jeanne Z. Kushner, social worker and senior center specialist, referring to the drag act Mahoney performs.

They didn't have to ask twice.

"They asked me because they know I will try anything," the 77-year-old Belcamp resident said.

Seniors across the state are belting out tunes this month hoping to win a spot in the Maryland Senior Idol competition in December, an event loosely patterned after the popular Fox TV show American Idol.

Kushner and Betsey Greene, the activities manager at McFaul, were determined that Harford be represented in the state competition and organized the local show.

Once they landed Mahoney, they recruited Helen Zaczek, 72, the center's favorite organist, and Tom Ford, 74, who initially said he was more comfortable as the camera guy.

"Helen offered to practice with everybody, but I told her I really needed singers," Greene said.

Ford agreed but fretted about not having time to rehearse.

"I didn't know until last week that I would be singing," he said. "I sing at church, but singing alone made me nervous."

Eventually, a dozen contestants, many confessing stage fright, stood at the microphone last week before four judges and an audience of about 100. Pastel netting and tiny lights hanging from the ceiling helped transform the center's cafeteria into a theater.

Mahoney has a vast repertoire, but he knows "Too Young" is a sure-fire favorite. Besides, he knows the song by heart and contest rules stipulate no cues from a karaoke machine.

"It ain't that easy to memorize all these words, especially for a guy who can't remember his phone number," he said.

After a few bars, he had most of the audience swooning.

"Oh, boy, that's my song," said Irene Fruhling, closing her eyes and taking in the music.

For her turn, Zaczek attached a microphone to the organ and accompanied herself on "When You Were Sweet 16."

Ford's "Your Cheatin' Heart" cleared the room, but not because of any audience displeasure. About halfway through the show, nearly half of the crowd had to depart on the only bus.

"I would like to stay, but I don't want to walk home," said Genevieve Rakowski, 86.

Rakowski, who took her turn shortly before the bus arrived, said, "I am Polish, and I am going to sing in Polish. It's a church hymn that I remember from way back when."

Vernon Scherer, 79, toyed with crooning a Bing Crosby tune but settled on "Danny Boy."

"I didn't know what I was going to sing until I got to the microphone, but I always sing without accompaniment," he said.

Several singers could not stay to hear the judges' decision. Ron Wells, 65, left for his shift in air traffic control at Aberdeen Proving Ground soon after delivering a rousing "Wind Beneath My Wings."

"I have no musical training and can't read music," he said. "But I sing with all my heart. When I don't feel the power of music, I will stop."

Joe Pacana dashed in from his job at Patient First, next door. Mahoney adjusted his sound system for his competitor, and Pacana, 59, gave his best Sinatra rendition with the right flourishes. "New York, New York" quickly had the audience swaying in their metal seats, singing along and making comparisons to the Sinatra version.

"He sounds like the Sinatra I heard a long time ago at the Hippodrome," Fruhling said. "I love that song. It don't feel like 82. I feel like 16 when I hear it."

Sally Voelker, 70, came from Edgewood Senior Activities Center, where she sings often, to perform "It's a Wonderful World," one of the few tunes for which Zaczek could not provide music. Undaunted, Voelker sang a cappella. Singing has given her something enjoyable and positive to focus on while recovering from a stroke, she said.

"I just had to give this a try," she said.

Two late entries bolstered the competition. Bud Henning, 85, asked whether he could sing "When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New," a favorite of his wife, who died a few months ago. He handed his cane to a friend, grabbed the microphone and made it through most of the endearing lyrics before his voice faltered.

"Imagine. He has just lost his wife," said Kushner. "We have people here who can't always remember the words or who have had a stroke. These folks have challenges, but they keep on singing."

Fran Wheeling, 64, came to hear the last singers and decided to compete with "Amazing Grace."

"I wanted to hear the talent, never thinking I would be part of it," she said.

While the judges deliberated, Mahoney encored with "Don't Be Cruel" and "Wild Thing." The '60s tunes had Fred Wimmer, 71, and Eleanor Phillips, 70, jitterbugging.

"I never learned to dance," she said. "He is teaching me."

The judges chose Wells, Mahoney, Pacana and Wheeling to represent the county in the Maryland Senior Idol event Dec. 12 in Brooklyn Park. The event will benefit a Mississippi senior center ravaged by hurricanes last year.

First prize at the statewide contest will be $250 in gifts and a chance to go on the road - at least on Maryland roads - singing lead at senior events with the contest's four runners-up.

"I didn't know I would become a celebrity today," Wheeling said. "I guess you are never too old."

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