State Fair showcases ‘mini’ performers
By Kevin Corbett On a warm, sunny August morning, the grassy yard in front of the Youth Building on the grounds of the New York State Fair had been transformed into a tent city. Young performers and their families arrived early to pitch the makeshift dressing rooms to allow the kids to don their costumes and apply makeup to their faces. Nearby dance students limbered up, singers tested their vocal cords and parents offered last-minute advice.Soon each contestant crossed the blacktop walkway and climbed the stairs to stage level for a brief turn in the spotlight at the 2008 Talent Showcase, the State Fair version of American Idol. Every year about 2,000 aspiring stars put their talent and dreams to the test, their sights set on taking home the $500 grand prize in their age group, known as the minis, for age 12 and under.
As parents milled around between the tents and the stage, the kids swarmed the backstage area. “All the acts right now are signing in,” explained Talent Showcase emcee and announcer David Baker. “They’re in line to get their assigned positions for this morning’s mini competition.” Each act does one presentation—most sing or dance—in an order determined by a lottery.
A different trio of judges reviews each round from a tower that faces the stage, with the 10 top-rated acts chosen from each preliminary event to advance to the semi-final round on the Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day weekend. The champion is crowned at the finals on Labor Day.
Some performers are new to the fair, but it’s not their first stage experience. “They’re all already winners,” said Tawn Campolieti, director of Tawn Marie’s Dance Centre of Liverpool. “They’ve already won in Onondaga County. That’s how they got to be here. We’ve got a group and a soloist today. They’re all members of our competition team. These kids compete all year in various competitions all over the state.”
Campolieti was cheering on Shannon Wilkinson, dancing a jazz routine titled “Orange Colored Sky,” and the tap dance ensemble 5 Guys Named Moe as they competed against a variety of vocal soloists and duos, dancers of assorted disciplines and a drummer. “There’s a lot of variety,” acknowledged John Besten of East Syracuse, a judge for 18 fairs. “You’ll have days where there’s not many vocalists and days where there’s quite a few vocalists. We judge by what we see, not by category, dancer or vocalist.”
Talent Showcase coordinator Phil Natoli of Marcellus had begun preparing for his 19th competition nearly two months before the first act stepped into the spotlight. “All of the counties that have fairs with a talent contest are represented, between 40 and 50 counties,” said Natoli, who has been working on fair entertainment since 1967. Since Onondaga County has no county fair, a talent fair is arranged to decide who goes to the State Fair.
Besten, a high school music teacher, joined with two other judges to score each entrant based on three categories totaling 80 points. “There’s technique and natural ability, 30 points; execution, choreography and quality of performance, 30 points; and stage presence and showmanship, 20 points,” he explained. “You don’t judge them on cuteness. It’s not a beauty pageant.”
There are, however some really cute contestants. Seven-year-old Bryn Milne, dressed in a shimmering light blue dress and long white gloves, was charming as she sang “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” Last year was her second go-round, making the trip from Portville, near Olean, with her mother, Chris Milne.
Six-year-old Sadie Lincoln declared that she had been singing “my whole life” after belting out an a cappella version of “Chantilly Lace.” Sadie denied being nervous, having won her trip to the State Fair after competing in Otsego County.
“She likes to sing,” acknowledged her father, John Lincoln. “We got up early and came up today. It’s wonderful. We all have a good time and that’s all that matters. After, we wander around a little bit.”
The youngsters get a thrill from their time in the spotlight, and parents and coaches pack the bleachers to applaud and shoot photos or videos of their little stars. “There’s audience reaction,” Besten said. “At the end of every act, you’ll hear applause while we’re doing our totals, putting down our numbers. You learn by years of experience not to be swayed by the audience. The applause is not a factor. This isn’t American Idol.”
Even so, the contenders and their parents find the contests exciting. “It’s really a big thrill,” said Campolieti, who was a finalist when she competed as a youngster. “We get a huge crowd. It’s outside during the summer. They can go on the rides after. They get a really nice variety of talent to compete against.”
Helen Allis of Horseheads, Chemung County, couldn’t contain her pride in the dance routine performed by her daughter Megan Allis. “I think she did fantastic, awesome,” Allis said. “She was here and competed a couple of years ago. She loves to tap, but she just loves dancing in general.”
Despite rampant partisanship in the audience, sportsmanship rules among the crowd. “In the 18 years I’ve been doing it, there may have been a reaction, but it never came back to me,” Besten said. “They announce the 10 winners at the end of every show and that’s the end of it. There’s really no communication between us and the parents or the teachers. If they wanted to find us, they would. But they’ve been very good about it and we’ve been good about not mingling.”
The kids have shown resilience in overcoming disappointment and turning their focus to enjoying the fair. “It’s fun to win but I don’t know how important it is to them to win,” said mom Sue Furcinito-Edwards with a shrug. “They like to have fun and hang out with their friends. And they get their shaved ice.”
NICK LOPRESTI PHOTOS
Shannon Wilkinson of Tawn Marie’s Dance Centre competition team performs a jazz routine called “Orange Colored Sky” in last year’s Talent Showcase
Megan Allis of Horseheads, Chemung County, enjoys her tap dancing
Otsego County resident Sadie Lincoln, age 6, sings “Chantilly Lace”
In her second time at the fair’s competition, 7-year-old Bryn Milne performs
Kalista Kimball, Ruthie Van ver Heive, Jennie Lapp and Kyerra Walker play around on the grass