A unique kind of entertainment, in its rawest and most varied form, is now playing. Not as part of the Fringe Festival, but at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.
A stream of showbiz hopefuls — as many as 500 — are trying out for the fair’s amateur talent contest. They face a team of judges and an audience willing to experience something completely different.
Where else can you see an all-women’s bagpipe group, someone tap dancing to the Beatles’ “Come Together,” and a 10-year-old singing, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” — all in one night?
The fair has been holding tryouts for 45 years, long before “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent,” karaoke bars and, even fringe festivals.
“The talent ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. But real talent, when it hits you, it’s like a torpedo between the eyes,” said Nate Dungan, entertainment supervisor at the fair and a former audition judge. “You’ll watch a dozen karaoke kings or queens and then some little kid will sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and it’ll make you cry.”
Sometimes a star is born. Winners of the contest — from the Steele family to recording artist Caitlyn Smith — have gone on to careers as professional entertainers.
“For a lot of people, this is it. This is their showbiz break,” Dungan said.
The audition guidelines are pretty simple: You can’t be a professional. You’ve got four minutes. Aside from that, anything goes. It’s come one, come all. And they do.
“It really is a cornucopia, a smorgasbord of talent,” said Dungan. “You’ll see bird calls, animal noises, impersonators, spoken word, juggling, all types of dance routines — tap, jazz, ballet — folk, rappers, comedians.”
Add baton twirlers, break dancers, barbershop quartets and opera-singing ventriloquists. Dungan once saw “a grandpa playing heavy metal” and a trombonist performing the “Star Wars” theme while hula-hooping.
The first night of tryouts, which started Monday and run through Sunday, included young dreamers and middle-aged wannabes. Kids appearing for the first time before an audience not consisting solely of adoring parents, and senior citizens checking off a bucket list item. Some have been trying out for the contest for years. Some are on a stage for the first time.
“I want to sing for people. I want to be a singer,” said Tony Palumbo, a 24-year-old dishwasher from St. Paul who sang in front of an audience for the first time, crooning “Where Do I Begin.”
Karu Thompson, 10, played the violin while singing “Rock me, mama, like a wagon wheel” at his audition, backed by his mom and dad.
“I love it,” said Karu, who also sang “Billie Jean.” “For some reason I don’t nervous. I get better when I’m on the stage.”
Anja Breiehagen, a 12-year-old from Minneapolis with a big voice, belted out a version of “At Last” à la Etta James. “I love that song. I think it suits my voice,” she said.
Prayers from the audience
Barb Hamilton, a 75-year-old Hastings resident, has been coming to the auditions for the past 15 years. She was among the modest but faithful audience at the first night of auditions, which are free to watch.
In an otherwise quiet fairgrounds, people will come year after year, bringing picnic dinners to spread out on the uncrowded benches in front of the Leinie Lodge Bandshell. They’ll spend a midsummer evening watching everything from “Wow!” to “That’s different.”
“You see a lot of talented kids,” said audience member Don Danneker, of West St. Paul.
And older people, too?
“Yeah, that’s when I take out my rosary and start praying for them,” said Danneker, who will spend several nights this week watching auditions with his wife, Claudia.
There’s no Simon Cowell here, no heckling or ejection buzzer. If anyone’s laughing, they’re doing it discreetly. The emcee gives an unfailingly enthusiastic introduction for each performer.
“It’s always a good audience. Everyone is always cheering them on. No one’s disrespectful no matter how bad they are,” said Claudia Danneker.
The State Fair hopefuls may not always be good, but they are sincere.
“Some of it’s about chasing a dream. Some of it’s about trying something new. Some of it’s about obsessive-compulsive disorder,” Dungan said.
Cash and frozen pizza
For those who really do have it, those who go on to win the contest before an audience of 10,000 people in a Grandstand show, the experience can be life-changing.
“That’s a life-defining moment for a lot of people. They will never forget it,” Dungan said. “All the big stars, everyone from Elvis Presley on down, they all did this kind of thing.”
Lila Ammons had trained as a classical singer, but was working as an executive assistant when she won the State Fair contest in 2004, singing Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.”
“That really gave me the confidence that ‘OK, I really want to do this,’ ” Ammons said. The Minneapolis woman is now a professional jazz singer.
Caitlyn Smith won the teen division of the contest in 2001 when she was a 15-year-old songwriter, vocalist and guitarist attending Cannon Falls High School. Now she’s in Nashville, with chart-topping song credits and touring gigs with Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and Eric Church.
Violinist Sedra Bistodeau played in the Grandstand finals for 11 years in a row, starting when she was a 6-year-old playing in a family band. She also competed as a solo act and in a duet with her sister, playing everything from bluegrass to punk rock. They sometimes added clogging, as well.
She finally won as a 14-year-old, playing a classical violin solo in 2009.
“There’s no way to describe an entire Grandstand of people screaming for you when you’re announced as first-place winner,” said the recent graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
As a 10-year-old, Anne Goedtke reached the semifinals playing in a family band. But last year, when she was 22, she entered as a soloist because she was trying to raise money to pay off student loans. She wanted to enter a convent in Ohio, a religious order that ministers to the poor and requires members to have no debt.
“I didn’t imagine I would win, but I decided to give it a try and see where God takes it,” Goedtke said.
For her State Fair audition, Goedtke played a contemporary cello piece. She was chosen as a semifinalist and then moved on as a finalist at the Grandstand show.
“It was definitely the largest crowd I’ve ever played for in my life. I felt very small with just me and my cello on a huge stage,” she said. “Right before I walked on, I remember saying a prayer and saying, ‘This is it.’ ”
Although she played better than she ever had before, she was still surprised when she won.
“It was just total joy,” she said.
The grand prize — $10,000 and a year’s worth of Jack’s frozen pizza — helped pay off her student loan. For Goedtke, it was also a sign she was on the right path. The Springfield, Minn., woman will be entering a Franciscan Sisters convent next month.
“I felt like the Lord was helping me out,” she said.