Mitzie Luke will sing her septuagenarian heart out.

Chris Labalestra will pay musical homage to a friend.

Brenda Hugo will continue on a path her husband encouraged her to take.

The three are among nearly 20 vocalists who will compete in the seventh annual “Heights Idol” — Columbia Heights’ take on TV’s “American Idol.”

The competition, set for 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the John P. Murzyn Hall, is part of this weekend’s Heights Jamboree, the annual festival that the city co-hosts with the local Lions Club chapter.

Heights Idol had a preliminary round last month, but unlike on the TV show, nobody was eliminated then, said Liz Bray, the city’s recreation program manager. Rather, everyone gets a do-over.

On Saturday, vocalists in two categories — youth and adult — will perform songs of a wide variety of genres and styles.

The idea behind the competition is to highlight local talent, as well as to help performers of all ages and backgrounds stretch themselves artistically and get in front of an audience.

Judges consider a performer’s stage presence, voice quality, music choice and ability to entertain. The judges “take it seriously and they make positive comments. They give helpful hints for how to improve,” Bray said.

For Saturday’s final round, there will be a panel of celebrity judges, including Don Shelby, the retired WCCO news anchor; Pat Proft, a Hollywood screenwriter who grew up in Columbia Heights; and Meisha Johnson, who hosts the CBS Sports Show, “Sled Head 24/7.”

Besides cash prizes of up to $75, the top singers receive trophies and gift certificates. The winner also gets a guitar donated from Guitar Center, a sponsor of the event.

Veteran judge

Proft, a four-time judge whose writing credits include the “Naked Gun,” “Hot Shots” and “Scary Movie” films, said he doesn’t mind coming back to his hometown to see familiar faces and to hear from contestants. As an observer, “I find it interesting to see what people like, what’s in everyone’s heads with music right now,” he said.

Plus, he can empathize with the contestants. “I know what they’re going through. They have a lot of nerve to stand up in front of people they don’t know in a mosquito-infested area,” he said.

A creative outlet

Labalestra, a Coon Rapids resident, said the competition seemed like a good way to get back into performing music, which he’d gotten away from.

“I answered this ad for the competition and in between, things have been happening super fast,” with other music gigs lining up, he said.

The song he’ll sing Saturday, “Catalyst,” is one he wrote in honor of a friend who died in Iraq.

Ultimately, he wants to spur social change through his songs, which often convey a message. “If it can affect the world in a positive way, that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.

Mitzie Luke, 78, has always been involved in one creative endeavor or another. She signed up for the competition “to entertain and add something special,” she said.

When it’s her turn, she plans to sing “What a Wonderful World.” “I will sing my heart out, right from my soul,” she said.

That’s her calling, she said, adding that she likes to do the Golden Oldies. “I have more fun than the crowd,” she said. “I just love it. I will sing until I’m old and gray. I’m already a little gray but nobody knows it.”

Brenda Hugo usually sings at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights, where her husband, William, is the pastor. He encouraged her to try out for “Heights Idol.” She’ll do “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the musical “Funny Girl.”

“People of my generation or older will know the song,” which means they’ll probably be expecting Barbra Streisand, she said.

In the first round, she came in second, even though she was fighting a cold and an ear infection. “It’s nerve-racking,” she said, adding, “I’m always terrified I’ll blank out on the words.”

‘Butterfly Fly Away’

Daje’ Abram, 13, who is performing “Bubbly,” by Colbie Caillat, is working on being more energetic and enunciating her words more, as the judges in the first round suggested. Even though she’s done “Heights Idol” before and she made runner-up in the youth category last month, she’s still trying to overcome stage fright. “I’m looking forward to becoming more used to the stage, not being shy and stuff,” she said.

For Kristen Theders, 11, who is performing Miley Cyrus’s lullaby-like song “Butterfly Fly Away,” the first round was her first time onstage. “It was freaky and the lights were burning on us,” she said.

But now, “I’m feeling good. I don’t care if I win or lose. I just care about singing,” she said.

Suzanne Nereson, 10, will sing “Tomorrow,” from the musical “Annie.” Nereson’s mother, Paula Haller, is also a singer, like her mom before her. “I think it’s a great community thing. It does gather a fan base,” Haller said. “As kids, we all think of being rock stars. This is a way of doing it.”


Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.