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American Idol Goes Geriatric

On a recent Tuesday evening, local talk radio couldn't seem to talk about anything except the American Idol viewing parties going on around South Florida. Folks had gathered to root for local contestants Syesha Mercado, an FIU student, and Ramiele Mulubay, from Miramar, as they battled for America's amateur crown. In a few hours fans would be busily texting their votes, but one result was already ensured: This year's American Idol would hopefully be a resident of South Florida.

And you know what? I wish those girls the best, but I also couldn't care less. I haven't really paid attention to American Idol since my boy Ruben Studdard — "The Velvet Teddy Bear" — won it all back in 2003. So while they're talking and texting about some Beyoncé-wannabes trying to be pop-stars, my head's still filled with the great live and local amateur music I witnessed a few hours earlier. At Holy Cross Hospital, no less — a venue that hasn't rocked that hard since Hurricane Wilma. I'm talking about Senior Idol.

I doubt you'll see feistier, cuter, and more talented singers in one place in the Subtrops. The fact that most of them have seen 70 candles on their birthday cakes is just a detail, and possibly a misleading one. I know what you're thinking. When I got the press release for Senior Idol, I figured it was some kind of gag, maybe an excuse to get some of these oldsters out of their retirement homes. But there were about 110 competitors at Holy Cross, and they weren't screwing around. They were seriously competing.

The concept is simple. A panel of judges rated the performers on qualities like pitch, range, originality, and stage presence. Contestants picked their songs and performed them unaccompanied — no instruments, no backing tracks, just the raw talent they could bring.

And they brought the talent. That's a little less surprising when you realize that many of them seemed to have been "somebody" once upon a time, with serious careers in music, before they landed in nursing homes or retirement villages.

Arnold Swartz, who turned 92 last week, spent four precious minutes telling the judges about his experience as the lead in Fiddler On the Roof 45 years ago. When his turn came, Morris Lovinger, an 87-year-old from Boca, let loose from his diaphragm like the trained opera tenor that he is; later, he told me he's looking for a booking agent. Lovinger's wife, Sylvia, who is 81 years old, also tried out at Holy Cross; she told me she hoped Morris got the nod. "He really needs an agent," she said. "A voice this great, why should it be wasted?"

That's what's so hip about Senior Idol: the lust for life.

A lot of the contestants sang show tunes, from "Annie Get Your Gun" to "Oklahoma" to Cole Porter standards. Also cool: that they remembered all the words.

"Music is the ultimate therapy," contestant Joan Mashbit, a youngster at age 66, told me. "You have people here that have Alzheimer's and can't remember their own names some days, but they know the words to these songs."

One of the judges, Jennifer Paul, just 32 years old, played the Paula Abdul role. During the lunch break, she told me that seniors in South Florida tend to be particularly vivacious and adventuresome. There was no need to take her word for that, though. The proof was all around us.

In the other American Idol, the one for the young folks, you see tomorrow's America where names like Syesha and Chikezie are commonplace. At Senior Idol you tend to get more Eunices and Manfreds, but I'll tell you what: For straight-up singing, I'd put the Manfred Orbach I saw at Senior Idol up against Chikezie Eze any day. And when the singing's done, Orbach, at age 86, has stories for days; with a little prompting, he'll tell you about his cousin, the late actor Jerry Orbach, who was on Law & Order; and about how Manfred came to the U.S. through Ellis Island, on the run from Hitler.

Last week, thanks to the Winter Music Conference, South Florida was overrun with A-list musicians. Yet for me, at least, it was stories like Orbach's that helped make Senior Idol the week's musical highlight. The competition resumes a month from now, when 12 finalists will compete at the Parker Playhouse on May 13 for the top Senior Idol prize. I can't wait, and I'm not the only one. As it turns out, Mashbit was named a finalist for the competition and when I spoke with her a few days later--the spry 66-year-old was elated. "I feel great. I don't know who thought of this, but this whole Senior Idol thing means more to us than some folks your age can realize."

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Jonathan Cunningham