One Magic Year – The American Idol Experience

April 18, 2012

Dear Mom,

Hi. You know, this project has been pretty fun. Along the way, I’ve met some pretty neat people and gotten to do a lot of neat things. Well, today I think topped everything to date.

Mom, today, for a few hours, I became a rock star. I sang What A Wonderful World, dedicated to you, in front of 900 people, all because the folks at American Idol wanted to let me tell you all about it.

How cool is that?

Now, I’ll be honest, I hadn’t expected to do this. And in the end, I wasn’t the winner – nor should I have been. The person who won the show I was in, and the overall winner for the day, were both way more talented than I was. But I got the chance to ride the most exclusive “roller coaster” at Walt Disney World for a day. And to bring you along for the ride, Mom.

It started as a lark. I was walking along the path behind the American Idol stage and the ABC Commissary, headed toward the Muppetvision ride when I passed the Idol Experience audition entrance. 414489_208872662562170_747865737_oI’d walked by this probably a hundred times before and always kept going. After all, Mom, let’s be blunt – I’m old, I’m fat, and my voice, while OK for some character roles on stage, is definitely not a rock and roll voice – it’s too low in the register and  I’m so out of shape I don’t have any sort of the breath control.

But today something inside me said Oh, just go take a look at the list of songs. Probably the manic side of me. So I did. I saw a couple of songs that actually might work for me. And as I’m lingering over the list for more than a couple of seconds, the young lady at the gate walks over and explains how this works.  I go in and sing an acapella song of my own choice. If I impress them, they decide whether to pass me on.

I looked at the list once more and decided that maybe, possibly,  a couple of the songs might be something I could do – “Wonderful World” and “You’ll Be In My Heart” from Disney’s Tarzan, which I didn’t think was too high. After a moment, I thought, What I have to lose?

Besides any dignity I brought with me today, that is? So in I went.

461199_208872715895498_1004458291_oTypically, you wait in a queue area. From the size of this, there must be heavy lines at times, but it was Easter Sunday, and nobody was waiting. I think this probably played in my favor – light crowds and not as many contestants. So I walked straight in and was whisked to see Jennifer, one of the talent evaluators.

Jennifer was in a room labeled “Studio 4” – really a small soundproof office with a wooden floor and an inset star that said American Idol on the floor. As I walked in, she had to wonder what she had – a guy who looked a lot like Santa Clause wearing a sports coat on a warm Florida day. She looked me over with a very critical eye, asked my name, typed in some stuff on her computer, and then had me sing.

I decided on “Mister Cellophane” from Chicago. In case you’re not familiar, Mom, that was the solo from my first major role in a musical, all the way back in 1984  – what, now three decades ago? I have since made it my default audition song, my go-to number. I know it by heart because it truly speaks to my life in so many ways. Even now, as my voice has settled downward in range, it’s still easy for me to perform.  I know all the dynamics and beats by heart.  So I killed it. I actually had Jennifer smiling by the end of the final chorus.

465023_208872882562148_1249819649_oShe asked me my story. Why was I there? That’s when I explained about One Magic Year. She looked at me, stunned. I don’t think she’d ever heard of anyone doing what I’m doing, Mom. After a moment, she types on her computer and then hands me a contestant number, a pair of safety pins, and a list of songs. She asked if I was comfortable with any of them. I was honest – I wasn’t sure. She suggested Wonderful World, had me try it and nodded. Then she said congratulations – I was in for a second audition with the show’s producer.

Jennifer handed me a clipboard of paperwork to fill out – release forms. Then she escorted me to the Coca-Cola Lounge. I was on to my second audition.

My throat went dry. Mom, I’d fully expected to get “Thank you’d” at the first stage since I’m musical theatre, not a rock star. It was now a case of hanging onto the big fish I’d caught. “Oh God, now what do I do?”

In the lounge, they had iPods with all the musical tracks, both with lyrics and without. This is where I learned the hidden secret of the American Idol Experience – it’s Karaoke! They have the words on a 40-foot screen at the back of the auditorium. Tough to miss, but still just as tough to do well.

I listened to my pair of audition songs, singing along. Both songs were in higher keys than I initially remembered. I’m thinking Could be every rock star these days hasn’t finished going through puberty. Wonderful World would be OK, but the Tarzan song would be a problem. And nothing else would work. Okay, so I was going to crash and burn in the second audition. It’s already been a fun experience, and definitely something to write to you about. I finished filling out the paperwork and waited.

Fifteen minutes later, I was brought in to meet Dan, the show’s producer. He conducts all the second level auditions. He first off congratulated me – he said Jennifer only lets about 10% of people through. That surprised me. As I said, between the low number of people auditioning due to the holiday and my story, I still think I got a mercy pass.

Now, it was my turn to sing. Same deal – wood floor, metal AI star. Robert was going to watch me on a monitor and take notes while I watched the lyrics and sang, giving my best performance of the two songs. All I was to do was watch the screen and sing as if I was on stage. He stepped back, I stepped up and sang my heart out.

I was right – I was fine with Wonderful World, but the Tarzan song was a disaster, too high in my register at the end. I strained for the note, my voice warbled and then cracked. You know, Mom, I was shocked at my reaction. I was disappointed. I found myself wanting to go through. I’d gotten that far, and at the moment I’d started to believe. Then I’d crashed and burned that song, Mom.

Robert looked at me at the end and must have seen my crestfallen expression, because he said, “That’s OK. Wonderful World is obviously the song you’d do. You sing it from such a great point of view – full of life experience, so expressively.” He then stepped behind his desk, sat down and looked at me.

“As you know, we have a lot of people try out for this, and not everyone can go through. I did want to thank you and congratulate you for getting this far. And at this point, Ryan Seacrest has something to say to you.”

Ryan Seacrest? Ah. To make the American Idol experience real, they have the verdict delivered via video, so you feel a part of the show. Ryan would say thanks for playing and enjoy the rest of the day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

And there’s Ryan now, on the screen where my lyrics had been, saying, “Well, I can’t say to you ‘you’re going to Hollywood.’ But I can say you’ll be performing today—“


“— in the American Idol Experience – the most exclusive roller coaster ride at Walt Disney World. Congratulations, Idol contestant!”

The screen went dark.

I looked. There’s Dan, holding a yellow tag that says “American Idol contestant. Vote for Me!”


Oh. My. God!

I almost fainted. You know how on TV they run out screaming? I actually wanted to do that.

477706_208873112562125_1043043177_oDan handed me the tag, we took a picture, and then he passed me over to a production assistant outside. I regret not getting her name, because I hugged her! She gave me a call time to show up 3:50 p.m. – about an hour before my 5 p.m. performance. So off I went, for three hours to contemplate and anticipate.

So what did I do? I walked around the park in a daze for about an hour. I have a PhotoPass somewhere that shows me wearing my fedora sideways.

Overwhelmed, I eventually went out to the parking lot and sat in my car. One problem with this moment, Mom, was the small donut hole currently in my life. When a piece of magic falls in like this, there is no one right here to share it with me. If I get overwhelmed, there’s no one there to share it with. Maybe someday there will be. I hope so.

At this point, I just needed to be alone. I bought a couple of bottles of water and, then just listened to the radio as I thought about the show.

461820_208860609230042_1557926973_o (1)At my call time of 3:50 p.m., I showed up at the stage door and met my competition, Kyle and Kt – short for, believe it or not, Kaitlin. Okay, that was the Universe playing another game with me, putting me up against someone who spells their name exactly like my daughter.

Kt and Kyle are an interesting couple. They were both in a band together, had just arrived from Canada that morning, and this was the first day of their vacation. Did I mention they were dating?

Hmmm…. Maybe one beating the other would be bad for their trip.

Oh, and they were huge American Idol fans. Yeah, this was going to go well.

We were ushered into the green room, and heard the 4:00 p.m. show get underway. While that show was running, the production team was doing three things to us contestants for the next go-round: primp and prime (make-up), vocal and performance coaching and then a run through of the show before we went on.

Backstage was comfy – a pair of love seats, tea and water to hydrate with (I chose a cup of lemon zinger), some books showing Idols from previous seasons for inspiration, and finally a cubby to stow my stuff.

Kt and Kyle went in first, so I just relaxed. For about 7 minutes. Then it was my turn with Karen, the vocal and performance coach. I did what I planned – kept it pretty subtle as I sang, one hand in the pocket, sort of a Tony Bennett look as I felt the lyrics. At the end, a thank you to you, Mom.

She hated it. HATED IT. “Too contrived,” Karen said. “Try to be more relaxed. Relate with the audience. And don’t say ‘Thank you’ out loud.”

I said I’d work on it.

414550_208873362562100_652149759_oFrom there I went into makeup. I have a skin condition that causes my face to be very red, but Audrey, the cosmetologist, was a dear. She asked my story, and as we talked, she told me she’d be rooting for me. Audrey also promised to help me with getting pics with any of the other characters. And as you’ll see from the pictures, she made me look great!

By the time I was finished in make-up, the 4:00 p.m. show was finished. Those contestants exited – the winner given a call time to return, the departing contestants received consolation certificates. We were then escorted backstage. Another couch, this time directly below an American Idol logo lamp.

We met the stage manager, who already knew my story. She informed me I needed to find a way to tell it in as few words as possible because they were always crunched for time.

I said I’d work on that, too.

I was shown475922_208876222561814_262454619_o how to hold a microphone – one finger away from my mouth at all times. I had something called an autopilot attached to the back of my collar – this kept the spotlights following my head at all times. We then walked through a rehearsal, and I performed my song once. I worked the stage, used both hands, and as taught, didn’t say Mom. They didn’t think it was contrived this time.

Backstage, we were told our order. I was first. Kyle was second, singing “Drops of Jupiter” by Train. Kt would finish up with “Alone” from Heart. She sang that in the band she and Kyle were in. Both she and Kyle were darned good. As I heard them in rehearsal, I realized a simple truth – I stood absolutely no chance of going forward from that show.

You know, I was okay with that realization, Mom. I was just determined to have fun and not embarrass myself out there. This was already making a great letter to you. May as well go all the way, right?

As soon as we went backstage from the run-through, the castmembers opened the doors and the audience filed in. It is amazing how quickly 900 people can fill an auditorium – especially one with air conditioning in Florida on a warm day.  The noise level goes up in the house, and the anticipation backstage does, too.

Chris Kim, the host, came back to greet us. He asked our stories. I told him about you. He asked me, again, to say that in two sentences.

I told him I‘d work on that as well.

A warm-up comedian came out to get the crowd fired up. They cheered and took their cues as instructed. They were told to cheer for me. And then, the countdown for the show started. Ryan Seacrest’s image came onto the screen.

He announced that hundreds had auditioned, and a select few had made it through and now, here on the stage, you the audience got to decide who moved on to pursue their dream. And then he uttered that famous line, “This is the American Idol Experience!” Familiar theme music played, the iconic show opening started, and my name appeared on TV monitor all around the theater. And they even spelled it right.

459382_208860525896717_1626061171_oOh. My. God, Mom. Goosebumps time again.

Chris Kim goes out, gets the audience excited again, and announces us. We walk on stage.



Then he introduces the judges. We walk offstage, right on cue—

–and I make a U-turn. I’m headed back on. One of the stage crew hands me a mike and wishes me luck. My name is announced, and it’s time.

As I start out, I have this impulsive idea.  I have a hat flip trick, where I take my fedora and flip it onto my head. If it works, it looks cool. If it fails, well, I look like an idiot. I have no idea what possessed me – I didn’t do it in rehearsal – and you NEVER do something in performance you don’t do in rehearsal. But I did—

— and pull it off without a hitch. Hat rolls up my arm and drops on my head, smooth as ever.

414201_208843812565055_2084096560_oI walk to my mark and have a short talk with Chris. It took me three short sentences, but I manage to explain One Magic Year. He asked who my favorite Idol was, and I said, “Without a doubt Kelly Clarkson. First and best.” At that point, they cued up a generic video of Kelly exhorting me to not be nervous and do well.

Chris turns to me and tells me its time. So I walk center stage as the dim, the spotlight hits me, and on a 100-foot wide stage, in front of 900 people, I stand alone. For the next two-and-a-half minutes, I become a rock star.


I see trees of green
Red roses, too
I see them bloom for me and for you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I walked downstage to the edge, then crossed right about midway over. I looked out at the audience and close my eyes for a second between verses. In my mind, I think, Breathe, Donald. Then I opened my eyes, put my hand in my pocket and started to cross left in an easy stroll.

472027_208842375898532_1387733540_oI see skies of blue
And clouds of white
Bright blessed days and dark sacred nights
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

A gentle smile and nod as I reach the mid-point on stageleft, the I reverse to move to down center, about four steps upstage from where I started. It was a sweet spot for the lights I noticed when I’d walked the stage before. As I move, I reach out my left arm to the audience, to include and emphasize these lines in the bridge.

479029_208841895898580_803693732_oThe colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people passing by
I see friends shaking hands
Saying “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you.”

Now my left hand comes back and covers my heart.

I hear babies cry
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world

I think to myself…

I made it that far, Mom. I’d stayed strong. But in a wave, it hit me. All of today, all of the last few months. I thought of you and how much you mean to me, how this fight has gone, how it might end. And I broke. It was just a touch, only on the last note. But you could hear it.

The tears started to flow.

475284_208856079230495_193357492_oWhat a wonderful world.

As I bowed to the audience. I quickly wiped my eyes and got my walls back in place. I don’t think anyone saw me cry.

The judges were kind. One said that someone who had as much world experience as I did (I read that as a nice euphemism for “old”) brought a depth of feeling to that song that others might not. The second thought I could have interacted with the audience more, and the snarky judge called me a little “Shatner-esque.” Who knows, maybe he was right. I should have a career, and a life, that long, that rich, that adventurous.

Anyway, they were done, the audience applauded again, and then I was offstage, my brief moment in the spotlight ended, my time as a rockstar finished.

Kyle and Kt performed and as I’d guessed, they both nailed their songs. They were amazing. It really was a contest between them. Sure enough, when all three of use were called back for the results portion of the show, they announced I’d been eliminated quickly. I mean, wow, really quickly – do those lights on stage switch to red fast.


In the end, Kt was the winner of our preliminary. She eventually went on to win the Grand Finale later that evening. Her prize? A guarantee to be heard by the judges at any American Idol audition in the upcoming season. That is no small thing, Mom. In previous years, up to half of the finalists making the live show have come from the Disney auditions.

478439_208861049229998_1882438809_oAfter this show ended, everyone came over to congratulate me on the One Disney Year project – the judges, the host, members of the crew, even Kt and Kyle. They all specifically asked me to pass on their wishes for your luck and speedy recovery. Afterward, I retrieved my gear, received my consolation certificate and was on my way.

So there you have it, Mom. My day as a rock star…


And we made another dozen new friends, fans, and people who are rooting for you. Mom. Actually, that’s wrong. Make that another 900, all cheering on the idea that I could create a memory to share with you. So in the memory box, you’ll find my original audition number.

I may have been a star for a day, Mom. But you’ve been one all my life. Never forget that. Stay strong.

Looking forward to seeing you soon. All my love.

Your son,