'Heights Idol' shines a light on local talent

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2013 - 1:52 PM

Saturday’s Columbia Heights competition gives singers of all ages a chance to perform in front of an audience, get critiqued by celebrity judges and come away with prizes.

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.

  • Heights idol

    What: “Heights Idol” singing competition

    Where: John P. Murzyn Hall, 530 Mill St., Columbia Heights

    When: Saturday, June 29, 6:30 p.m.

    Cost: Free

    Note: This year’s lineup is full, but people interested in future competitions can contact organizer Liz Bray.

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