'American Idol' May Be Ending, But Skokie Idol Is Just Getting Started

By Mae Rice in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 19, 2016 8:53PM

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Contestant Angelo Battung (Scott Richardson)

Skokie Idol, for any uninitiated Chicagoans, is American Idol—just writ small, and in Skokie.

This past Saturday, I was basically its Ryan Seacrest, although with the inner life of Simon Cowell. I went to the open auditions, where I was promised “full access,” and found my journalist persona veering dangerously close to a host one. I asked several contestants, to my own horror, “Did you have fun up there?” (They did.)

I didn't think my mid-twenties would take me to Skokie Idol, or even to Skokie. But when I heard about the event, I was hooked. American Idol—which every TV critic ever describes as “limping” into its final season this winter—has gotten so stale that even creator Simon Cowell has quit judging. The show is almost 14 years old. So Skokie Idol, which just began last year, at first struck me as a knock-off of a tired thing not worth knocking off. Like a fake airport keychain.

It’s not that I’m too cool for a singing competition. In middle school, I loved American Idol. I enthusiastically watched it with my parents every night it was on, the way ironic people watch The Bachelor now, but I wasn’t being ironic back then. I rooted for Ruben Studdard so hard that, to this day, I think of him as my blood relative. I really wanted Kelly Clarkson to date Justin Guarini (and turns out, she did!).

Skokie Idol’s determined parroting of American Idol tropes gave me deja vu. The parallels start with the logo: Like American Idol’s, Skokie Idol’s looks like a blue neon sign at a car dealership. Skokie Idol’s format is similar, too. It begins with auditions, during which contestants wear numbers pinned to their shirts like auction cattle, even though according to producer Wayne Mell, Skokie Idol had a highly countable sixty entrants this year. (For comparison’s sake, American Idol gets tens of thousands).

The tone is different at Skokie Idol, though. “There is no Simon Cowell, nor should there be,” said Mell. “None of these people are getting into this to be humiliated in front of the entire town.”

That's why the judges don't say anything mean during the auditions. In fact, they don't say anything at all. They listen silently, and pick the top 11 contestants in Skokie Idol’s three age brackets—juniors (grades 4-8), high schoolers, and adults—to move on to the show's weekly sing-offs. The judges give critiques at these, but as singer and returning judge Charlene Brooks explained, “It's not like we're on TV, and we're trying to get ratings by being as outrageous as possible. We're trying to be helpful.”

After each sing-off, the judges and audience vote off one contestant per bracket; after months of song, one singer per bracket gets crowned Skokie Idol, and takes home a Grand Prize. American Idol winners get a record deal, albeit one with a lot of strings attached. One Chicagoist freelancer guessed the nature of the Skokie Idol prize last week, when I mentioned my hopes of attending.

“I bet the prize is a gift card,” he said.

It is! Well, really it's the following: a performance slot at Wednesdays on the Green, a typically outdoor show at the local library; a three-song recording studio session; and a $100 Visa gift card.

You can see why I had to go.

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The Skokie Theater marquee (Mae Rice/Chicagoist)

Before this past Saturday, I had never been to what is officially known as the Village of Skokie. Located northwest of Chicago, it covers 10 square miles, and has roughly 64,000 residents.

(Understandably concerned by this number, I asked Mell if he thought Skokie and environs had enough idols to keep Skokie Idol going annually. “The problem was there were too many idols!” he said.)

Skokie’s real claim to fame is that, like Evanston, it has its own train line, the Yellow Line. If the El were a hand, the Yellow Line would be its weird, tiny thumb. It has a grand total of three stops; Skokie Theater, home of Skokie Idol, is walking distance from the Oakton one.

The theater was built in the early 1900s, and a decade ago Skokie residents raised $1.5 million dollars to remodel “the decaying town movie theater” into an “acoustically perfect” concert hall, according to Mell. Since then, the theater has changed hands a few times, and was briefly owned by Gorilla Tango. Currently, MadKap Productions, which Wendy Kaplan runs with Mell, owns the building and runs its programming, including Skokie Idol. They started it less than a year after moving into the theater; this year is its second season.

When I arrived at the theater there were less than twenty people inside. Auditions were staggered so there was never a crowd, Mell said—which meant that a beat after I sat down, the judges asked if I was ready to sing.

An alternate universe scrolled through my head, where I went up onstage, belted out “Love Story,” didn’t make the cut, and learned a life lesson. In real life, I said no and laughed nervously. I would have been worse than every single person I heard.

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Contestant Lauren Krause (Scott Richardson)

I was later than I meant to be, so I only ended up seeing five auditions. The songs performed were, in chronological order: “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen; “Listen,” which BeyoncĂ© signs in Dreamgirls; an Irish folk song, which I believe pertained to rains and fogs; “Somewhere That’s Green,” from Little Shop of Horrors; and “Give Me Love,” by Ed Sheeran.

None of the singers were noticeably, upsettingly bad. Some people were pitchy, or slightly off-key, but there was no screeching, no “Pants on the Ground” guy, no weird inbred sibling act. Going in, part of me believed that self-awareness only existed in major metropolitan areas, but self-awareness reigned, even among the men. The “Hallelujah” and “Give Me Love” singers, the only two men, accompanied themselves on guitar—and rightly so! They knew how to play guitar.

All of them, except for the Irish folk song lady, made it to the sing-offs.

Really, in my experience, the funniest part of Skokie Idol is the moment you find out it exists. The second funniest part is experiencing Mell’s stormfront of enthusiasm for the event. “These are normal civilians with a song in their hearts,” he told me over the phone beforehand. In person, he had the thick, graying hair of a movie star, perhaps Tom Sellick.

The contestants I saw certainly weren’t very funny. You needed to be kind of a dick to even internally chuckle at them. (The theater was way too intimate to chuckle in real life without doing devastating emotional violence.) Luckily, I am kind of a dick, so I noticed certain things.

First off, there was the guy who sang "Hallelujah." He was wearing a graphic tee that said “Bagel Ball” on the front. Why? He beat me out of the theater, so I never got the backstory, but like, it was in a font where every letter looked like it was made out of bagel chunks.

Then there was the blonde, Converse-wearing high school freshman who sang “Somewhere That’s Green.” She—beautifully!—sang the opening verse, which is about being in an abusive relationship and getting a black eye from a boyfriend, while her dad beamed supportively in the audience. Life is weird.

In a similar vein, high school senior Jonah Rawitz, who is not of drinking age yet, sang “Give Me Love.” I have since downloaded “Give Me Love” and listened to it on repeat for several days, because it’s catchy as fuck. Rawitz did it justice, too. He sounded like a lovely amalgam of every white-guy singer-songwriter—Ed Sheeran himself, Matt Nathanson, Graham Colton, lord knows there are thousands—but with specifically John Mayer-esque facial contortions.

His performance was only humorous because we weren't on the same page about the song. It sounds sweet, but when I listen closely, I’m pretty sure it's about Sheeran chivalrously (in his own opinion, at least) promising to get shitfaced and booty call his ex in just one second.

"Maybe tonight I'll call you," Sheeran croons repeatedly. "After my blood turns into alcohol."

"It's my favorite song by Ed Sheeran, who's one of my favorite artists," Rawitz told me afterwards, beaming, his mom roughly six feet away. I felt unsettled but also impressed with Skokie for keeping its teens so friendly, so musical, so uncynical about Ed Sheeran's intentions. It all felt related, somehow, to how clean the streets were.

All of these contestants were vying for a chance to become Turrell Brown, last year’s adult-division Skokie Idol and a judge of the current season. You can see Brown sing “Stand By Me" to an enthused crowd, while wearing a golden suit, in the video above.

“I've been singing since I was young,” Brown told me. “I knew this is what I wanted to do when I was in high school." At Columbia College, he studied vocal jazz; Right now, he has a day job as an office assistant at Bain and Company, but he also sings, produces and works as a vocal coach.

He originally found out about Skokie Idol from his stepdaughter, who saw a flier for it, and auditioned with Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose.” He sang over an acoustic backing track and made it in, despite having a cold on audition day. Months later, when he won the whole competition, he remembers, “It took a minute to hit me.” It was only when people started congratulating him that he realized it was real.

According to Mell, last season was a resounding success in terms of everything from ticket sales—the finals sold out, and they had to turn away “at least 50 people”—to the winners’ careers. According to Mell, Brown and the adult division runner-up, Katie Somers, now book singing gigs all around town.

Brown, who’s judging this season of Skokie Idol, cast the perks of winning Skokie Idol as more holistic. “I love the fact I was able to meet friends,” he said.

Winning also gave him the confidence to keep pursuing music. “I did Skokie Idol.. why not do American Idol, or The Voice?”

Ever the avid journalist, I didn’t let Brown leave without asking him what he bought with his Visa gift card last year. He told me that though this year winners get $100 on their card, last year’s winners got $50. He used his to buy groceries.

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Contestant Krish Om Pahan (Scott Richardson)

I said this before and I’ll say it again: I loved the early seasons of American Idol wholeheartedly. In special cases, I called in to vote. I still listen to Kelly Clarkson, even though it is literally 2016, and when I listen to “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”—yes, that is its real title—I become measurably stronger, I think.

American Idol was weird, though. It put the worst singers in the open auditions through a gauntlet of snark, and the winners, though I don’t know all the details, went through a different type of gauntlet. They were thrown, with little prep, into a sea of music industry executives and Us Weekly reporters and straggler paparazzi who had fallen off the Kardashian trail.

Skokie Idol is different. I think at the end of the day, it’s so deeply off-brand, it’s actually unique. Despite the “Idol” in its name, it’s not about idols, really, or about winning the crown. The not-at-all-life-changing prizes make it less about the finish than the process: getting the whole neighborhood together for months of shows, and teaching local singers how to improve a bit each week.

“When you see a young person, or even an older person, whose heart is laying out there [on the stage], you want so much to help them along," Brooks, one of the five judges, told me.

It’s really true. I felt it, too. Singing in front of an audience is a vulnerable thing, especially when the audience is small. Heather Mall, a musical theater student at Columbia College and the singer who auditioned with “Listen,” noticed it, too. “I get really nervous in front of small crowds,” she said. “Once it's a bigger crowd I feel better.”

Skokie Idol does get big crowds for the sing-offs, way more raucous than the small group I saw. (You can hear them screaming in the video of Brown singing above.) Still, Skokie Idol never gets the huge, American Idol-sized audiences that makes the singers feel far away, and a little sub- or superhuman. No culture accrues around audience members wanting Skokie Idol contestants to date each other. It’s on a totally human scale, at a theater that seats 120, in a suburb whose entire population could more or less fit in Soldier Field.

It definitely looks lame in a certain light. But all nice things do, especially to Simon Cowell-hearted people like me, who need American Idol and its ilk to to keep us from falling into a black hole of irony. At the end of the day, the idea of a town where people's neighbors sing to them, competently and sometimes fabulously, mostly just for the hell of it—that’s as nice as it gets.