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Home DUCTS.ORG Issue 12 | Winter 2003 the webzine of personal stories
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The Bill Riley Competition

Katrina Markel

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 the stairs.

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 Heartland.

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 for them.

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, "… and 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 and simple.

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.

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