Like Medieval Mongolians, hordes of marauding
tap dancers descended on the state of Iowa each summer. Their aim
was to plunder first place talent show trophies that rightfully
belonged to some deserving local kid who only wanted a shot at
performing on the Mainstage of the Iowa State Fair.
I was one of these local kids and
no matter how loud I may have belted out, "Don't Rain on My Parade," those
tap dancing attention hogs always seemed to get in my way.
Each of Iowa's 99 counties could
sponsor a local "Bill Riley
Talent Competition." The first place winner in each age group
would then advance to the State Fair competition where there were
quarterfinals, semi-finals and, of course, finals, which were televised
statewide. Oh sure, Omaha had Show Wagon , but winning
that was a decidedly minor honor when compared to the prestige
of being the Bill Riley Iowa State Champion. Bill Riley was the
Oscars and Show Wagon was the Cable Ace Awards.
Bill Riley was only a name on the franchise until you advanced
to the State Fair. The first time I made it to the Mainstage I
was only 10 years old and shocked to discover just how small in
stature this legend was. He was a leprechaun of a man. At 4 feet
11 inches, Riley presided over his self-titled talent show with
the kind of flair and showmanship not seen since Robert Preston
starred in The Music Man.
By 14, I had made it to the State
Fair a couple of times, but had never advanced past the first
round. I learned not to expect to beat those flashy tap dancers
and, instead, to look at performing as "practice" for
my larger ambitions as an actress-performer. Nevertheless, I
harbored secret ambitions of being the Bill Riley State Champ.
As a competitive, over-achiever, it was difficult to accept the
idea that I couldn't win The Bill Riley Talent Competition. After
all, I had won state and national oratory titles. In fact, I
was used to winning at most things. Why couldn't I win this?
Every time I qualified for the State Fair, it gave me hope that
it was finally my year. So, at 14 I decided to try something
new. I figured if I picked the right routine, I was certain it
would be my year. No show tunes, patriotic medleys or interpretations
of Whitney Houston hits this time I would charm them with jazz.
I planned to wear a royal blue, satin gown complete with a tea-length
bubble skirt and matching gloves. I would perform a jazzed up version
of Blue Moon because when I heard it on an Ella Fitzgerald cassette
it seemed much classier than the doo-wop version that I always
heard when my dad played the oldies radio station.
The best and worst thing about
The Bill Riley Talent Competition was that you weren't confined
to your home county. If you lost in Montgomery County, you could
travel to Pottowattamie County the following weekend and have
a shot at winning there. If the first place winner already won
somewhere else, the second place winner would advance to the
State Fair. Normally, I would hit two or three county shows before
earning my ticket to advance. Inevitably though, my chances of
placing first at the state or local level were crushed. If I
advanced, it was because the kids who won first place had already
qualified somewhere else and were simply racking up trophies
and experience by going from competition to competition. I almost
never placed first not because I wasn't doing the best
damn Annie medley around but simply because I wasn't
a tap dancer.
My career as an amateur child performer began with a little record
player from Sears and the album from the movie version of Annie .
On summer afternoons, when I was 7 years old, I climbed the stairs
to my attic bedroom, Dad's tape recorder in one hand and the Annie
soundtrack in the other. Originally, I requested that the entire
attic be painted orange, but was forced to compromise with my mom
who felt that it would be better to only paint the molding orange.
I relented only when she agreed to paint a giant rainbow across
the wall. I had the whole attic of our tiny old house to myself.
I could even touch the ceiling where it met the walls! My favorite
spot was a little nook in the back of the room. It was a balcony
of sorts that overlooked the staircase and seemed to float above
I shared the room with my little
sister, but that was okay since she always did what I said. I
would scale the long staircase (perfect for Slinkies by the way),
pass the giant rainbow and the orange shelves filled with books
and toys and crawl into my floating nook, gingerly placing my
beloved Annie record on the denim covered, Sears record player.
I'd press the record button on Dad's old tape recorder and set
the needle down on the vinyl. Bubbling with the anticipation
of recording my own version of "Tomorrow, I
spoke to myself as the record began to crackle, "Oh boy, this
is gonna be great." As Aileen Quinn, the movie Annie ,
belted away, I wailed along with her. I expected to sound like
I was on the album when I played the tape back. Of course, when
I did, the results were startlingly amateurish. My excited gurgles
at the top of the song were audible on the tape and I didn't really
know the words that well. I was constantly a beat or two behind
Annie and this was deeply disappointing to me. However, one thing
was impressive. I was loud. Really loud.
My mother must have heard me belting
away from downstairs. She decided that anyone with a set of "big lungs" like
mine must be a talented singer and so I was volunteered to perform
songs from the musical Annie at the upcoming Silver
City Ice Cream Social. Not just songs, but a medley of songs and
thus began my career as an amateur child star of the American
Silver City, Iowa (population 287) was my first home and it was
here that I would begin my performing career. It was the kind of
town where my mom could send me to the grocery store when I was
four years old to pick up an order, which the owner would then
put on a tab for Mom to pay later. I could ride my bike anywhere.
We would find fossils in the limestone along the railroad tracks,
have imaginative adventures along the creek, play in the streets
and leave the doors unlocked.
The first annual Silver City Ice
Cream Social was held during the sweltering Iowa August. Temperatures
would easily reach 90 degrees, if not higher. The humidity was
often unbearable and yet the old German farmers had all learned
to bear it. The makeshift stage was a lowboy a flatbed wagon used for hauling things like
hay. There were dozens of folding chairs and tables covered with
plastic tablecloths. Mr. Roenfeldt (don't ask me which Mr. Roenfeldt,
the county was full of them) had his giant grill and was serving
everyone roast pork sandwiches from a big hog he butchered himself.
The ice cream was homemade soft and sweet and drippy. Entertainment
was local. There was a square dance group with a female caller
(apparently it's very unusual to have a female caller), performances
by Sunday school groups, guys with guitars in cowboy hats, kids
who took piano lessons and me.
Mom bought me a red curly wig at
the costume shop in Omaha. I didn't have a full orphan costume
or the famous Annie dress, so I wore a red sailor shirt with
a red "skort" (half skirt/half
short). I sang a few verses of the melancholy song "Maybe" to
a rag doll, swung a mop across the stage for "It's a Hard
Knock Life" and capped off my performance with a belted (and
most likely flat) version of "Tomorrow." Some of the
key elements to performing that last song well include: Pointing
to the sun when singing, "The sun will come out" and
remembering to gradually raise your arms to the sky on the finale.
For instance, "You're only a daaaaaaaaay," arms extended
down, "aaaaaaaaaa," lift arms to shoulder height, "waaaaaaaaaaay," arms
to the sky! Also, hold "waaaaaaaaay" until you run out
of breath. Folks will be impressed by your "big lungs."
I continued to perform at local events and the Annie costume got
more authentic and my singing more on pitch. I took my routine
to nursing homes, church dinners, a talent show at McDonald's and,
eventually, the Bill Riley Talent Competition. Singing at competitions
was excruciatingly nerve-wracking. I loved singing and performing.
I loved winning awards and getting my name in the paper. Unfortunately,
the perfectionist in me was unbearably nervous at competitions.
Even so, I felt driven to compete. Who wouldn't want another trophy
on their shelf or another newspaper clipping in their scrapbook?
As I got older the routines became
more sophisticated and Annie gave way to vintage Julie Andrews
and Barbra Streisand tunes. I did more community and dinner theatre
and my performance skills were more refined, my acting was more
subtle, my voice more trained, my routines less cheesy. By 14,
when I was singing "Blue Moon," I
was almost classy. You have to keep in mind that royal blue dresses
with bubble skirts passed for classy in the late 80s. In the summers
I chased after that elusive Bill Riley title. I made it to the
state fair two or three times, but never passed the first round.
Each State Fair experience was identical. Bill Riley was short,
it was brutally hot and I could always count on some tap dancer
with big hair to knock me out of contention.
It took a few years to figure out
the fastest way to win a slot in the State Fair line up. By 14
I learned that if I wanted a first place trophy from a county
fair, the town to compete in was Missouri Valley, Iowa. The stage
for that competition was a very slick, very non-tap dancer friendly,
tile floor. Slick floors are like kryptonite to hoofers. One
shuffle-off-to-Buffalo and they're flat on their frilly bottoms.
Other dancer repellent surfaces include: Low-boys made of splintering
wood, concrete that ruins knees and holds the potential for cracking
heads open (even with the padding from extra big hair), and muddy
parade grounds. That was the year I performed "Blue Moon" and the first year I won at "Mo" Valley.
The following year, at 15, I scored
again with a knock em dead
rendition of "Don't Rain on My Parade." According to
my mom, Bill Riley took notice when I belted out the Streisand
tune at the State Fair and maybe she's right. You could always
tell if Riley liked someone. He wasn't officially a judge, but
he could "signal" to the judges that they should consider
letting someone through to the next level. "Wow, that was
really swell. Let's have another round of applause for the little
lady with the big voice from Mills County
" and so on.
Among his favorites was a young
woman named Alexis from Denison. Alexis would later do me the
favor of moving to my hometown, but the first time I encountered
her was long before she ever moved to my turf. I was 11 and it
was the first time Mills County had sponsored a Bill Riley competition.
Our state of the art amphitheater was one of the more desirable
places in Iowa to perform, except maybe the State Fair. Yes,
my patriotic medley was a tad trite and uninspired, but that
never stopped anyone in those parts before. It wasn't as bad
as the girl who sang the national anthem and the whole audience
had to stand through her entire piece, seed corn caps over their
hearts. Performing, "You're a Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee
Doodle Dandy" wasn't milking it as much as the kid who had
his dad accompany him on guitar while he rallied the audience around
that God-awful Lee Greenwood, cheese-fest, "God Bless the
USA." In later years the raincoat and umbrella costume for "Don't
Rain on My Parade" would be more charming, but I was still
pretty good for a 6th grader from a small Iowa town.
Nevertheless, the tap dancers invaded
with their snazzy costumes full of poofs and sequins, their creepy
Jon-Benet Ramsey hair and make-up, their throngs of parents and
supporters who hooted and hollered through performances as if
they were watching a sporting event. Imagine people screaming,
cheering and shouting out, "Way
to go! Woo-hoo!" at the ballet. Worse, they would talk all
the way through the performances of other kids. Audience reaction
was supposed to be a criterion for judges. Unfortunately, not all
the judges were familiar with the Iowa tap dancing juggernaut.
I was intimidated, but also ticked off. This was my town. "They
can't take the trophy away from me in my town," I thought.
Of course, they did. I think that I took 3rd place.
The young tap dancing pair who
won in my home territory was Alexis and her partner Bobby. They
were my age and I had already seen them perform on Star Search.
I remember the pangs of jealousy that I felt watching these Iowa
youngsters get a shot at what seemed like the big time. Bobby
was a 12-year-old Gene Kelly, but with a little more make-up
than Mr. Kelly would have tolerated. Alexis was a pre-teen Barbie.
She had the big, blond 80s hair and the
long dancer legs. Years of extraordinary physical activity would
keep her underdeveloped and thin as a swizzle stick into her teens.
I, on the other hand, had been struggling with the early maturation
of my body and the inevitable weight gain that comes along with
it since I was 9 years old. I looked awkward and dumpy next to
Alexis's beauty pageant perfection. Their routine was so flashy
and polished that I knew there was no way I could ever compete.
Even Barbra Streisand herself would have been given a run for her
money by this razzle-dazzle, I thought.
They practiced year round and lived
for talent competitions. In between softball games and plays
and speech contests and swim team and hunting with Dad and piano
lessons and band and voice lessons and 4-H, I tried to come up
with winning Bill Riley ideas. I also tried to be a tap dancer.
Since I was doing a lot of theatre my mom insisted that I should
take dance lessons if I wanted to be a "triple threat." I
reluctantly agreed because I knew she had a point. I liked modern
and jazz, was frustrated with ballet and loathed tap. I was good
at so many things that whenever I was bad at something, such
as tap dancing or math, it was easy to decide that I hated it
rather than work to get better at it. My one attempt to work
tap into a Bill Riley routine was when I performed the patriotic
medley and that was my least successful routine. The fact that
these kids were beating me with an art form that I hated (if
you can call what they were doing art) probably fueled my dislike
A local legend from my neck of
the woods was Kathy Stuart. In the late 60s Kathy was only 14 and the toast of the Bill Riley
Talent Show. I think that I felt some pressure to accomplish a
similar feat. She won a Mustang that she wasn't old enough to
drive at the State Fair by balancing a cup of water on her forehead
as she did the splits across two metal folding chairs. Twenty years
later they were still telling that story and Cathy was still performing
the same routine and wearing the same outfit. Everyone was touched
by the part of the story where she turned down a job offer to tour
with Gene Kelly in order to marry her high school sweetheart. I
wanted people to still be telling the same stories about me decades
later. Well, except for the marrying my high school sweetheart
part. My story was going to end Paul Harvey style, "
that little girl grew up to be Oscar winning actress, Katrina Markel.
And now you know, the rest of the story."
At 14, performing "Blue Moon," I
did go to the State Fair and, as usual, made it no further than
the first round. Knowing that some singers had placed at the
finals, I vowed that the next year I would come back with a belty,
in your face, show-stopping number. The judges seemed to be impressed
with volume and, after all, loudness was my original talent.
Sometimes a college student who was studying opera would make
it into the finals. Even if it wasn't good opera, the general
assumption was that it was hard to do opera (and opera was loud),
and therefore took more talent. Volume was also the primary weapon
of Tracey Spencer, a teenage sensation from Waterloo. She placed
on Star Search and was awarded a Columbia recording contract.
I haven't heard anything else about her for a dozen years now.
Alexis was constantly making it to the finals, both with her
dance partner and later as a solo dancer. Another flashy pair
of hoofers from Denison, Jason and Megan, were forever winning
as well. Jason's much older sisters were the dance teachers who
had created a dynasty in Denison. They were famous for bullying
judges and trying to get contestants disqualified on technicalities
so that their students would win. They favored Jason and Megan
so heavily, that Alexis and Bobby were forced to drive several
hundred miles every week to study with another set of superstar
tap teachers in Mason City.
My final year performing at the
State Fair I sang "Don't
Rain on My Parade" from the musical Funny Girl. This time
I really believed I had a shot. I was 16 and no longer an awkward
pre-teen. I had good control over my voice and the routine had
audience appeal. There was every reason to believe that this year
I was a contender. My grandparents and my great aunt and uncle
all drove up from Missouri to check out the latest farm implements,
see the famous State Fair butter sculptures and watch me perform.
That day my performance was solid and the audience response was
strong. Riley "signaled" to the judges that he approved.
I was in. I had to be in. I knew I was in.
I didn't make it in. Some piano prodigy edged me out. I couldn't
even blame the tap dancing juggernaut this time. I got beat. Plain
As I sat under a tent eating pulled
pork sandwiches with my family, the loss stung. In a couple more
years I would be leaving Iowa, of that I was certain. I was also
pretty sure that I would move on to bigger things and a more
interesting life. At 27 I'm no longer performing, although I
am still telling stories. Oh and they
are still talking about me back home. The Omaha World Herald theatre
reviewer recently compared a young woman, performing in "Meet
Me in St. Louis," favorably to me as a teenager. Nevertheless,
I still feel a sense of unfinished business since The Bill Riley
Talent Competition had to remain unconquered.