Dressed in the floor-length, gold-sequined gown that she wore to her son's wedding, Merle Stanley trilled a bluesy "Misty" before a crowd of about 500 yesterday at the Maryland Senior Idol 2007 competition.
The song that begins and ends with the lyrics "Look at me" captured the attention of the crowd and the three judges. Before she lingered over the final "me," the audience had exploded into applause.
"You are the real deal," judge Russ Margo said at the end of Stanley's first stage performance. "It was like being with Sarah Vaughn. It just grabbed me."
Stanley, 63, of Woodlawn, won the title, a microphone-shaped trophy and a $500 prize.
"I have been singing since I was a little girl, but mostly in church and to children," she said. "I sang at my son's wedding, and I wanted to wear this dress again so I entered the competition."
She took first place with 75 points, a perfect score, among the 16 competitors who sang Broadway tunes, impersonated Elvis Presley and emulated Buddy Holly, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.
Melvin Blatt, 74, an Irish tenor from Reisterstown, took second place after crooning "That's an Irish Lullaby."
Asked why she chose the 1950s song popularized by Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Mathis, Stanley said she was adhering to the contest's three-minute rule. She had wanted the lengthier "One Moment in Time."
Throughout the performances at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park, Vivienne Shub frequently nudged her fellow judges, saying she was having a hard time rating the talent.
"I enjoyed the show so much," said Shub, an actress who has appeared on stage and television. "They were all so good."
The event, which is in its third year, is sponsored by the Maryland Department of Aging. The competitors had won local competitions held in recent months at senior centers.
Juanita Barker of Havre de Grace had perhaps the longest day of any contestant. The 68-year-old school bus driver awoke at 4 a.m. and made three bus runs to high, middle and elementary schools before picking up 21 seniors and taking them to the competition.
As she launched into "Rock A Bye Your Baby," the audience cheered. The judges later told her she was a close third, trailing the winner by two points.
The performers had the audience swaying, clapping and singing along softly.
Leo Mahoney, 78, of Belcamp warbled "It's Now or Never" in full Elvis regalia, including a pompadour wig, sideburns and a sequined scarf. Orlin Cantrell of Annapolis chose "Jailhouse Rock," another Elvis tune, but stuck with basic black as he played guitar and sang.
With her hair in a ponytail, Janice Connolly, 66, of Catonsville donned a poodle skirt, saddle shoes and bobby socks, dancing while she sang "It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To."
David Hooper, 64, of Bel Air strummed his 1962 acoustic guitar and belted out a lively rendition of "Peggy Sue," in the best Buddy Holly spirit he could muster.
"I flashed right back to my teen years," said judge Ron Walls, the 2006 Maryland Senior Idol winner.
Lorena Hauser was a crowd favorite. The 96-year-old Charlotte Hall resident played guitar and sang "It Had to Be You," which drew vigorous applause and prompted her to roll into "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Baby" for an encore.
After Stanley was named the winner, she led the performers and the audience in a stirring rendition of "God Bless America."
Family and friends surrounded her on stage. Her husband, John, presented her with a bouquet of flowers, which she clutched as she accepted congratulations.
"Your fan club is all here," said the Rev. Janice Mosby, pastor of Heritage United Church of Christ in Liberty Heights, where, she said, "Merle is our diva there as well."