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American Idol Grand Finale

Notes from the Audience


I’d grown tired of American Idol. I’ve followed most seasons and have attended studio tapings, but I agree with Simon Cowell, the judge who’s calling it quits. American Idol has become a tad boring. Regardless, when an email showed up offering seat vouchers for the final week of Season 9, I couldn’t resist.

Unlike the cramped studio shows, the grand finale of American Idol is filmed at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles and serves up a two-hour star-studded show. A farewell to Simon Cowell and the announcement of Lee DeWyze as the newest American Idol was just too much to pass up.

American Idol is pop culture. It’s 24 million people’s obsession every week, January through May. Watching the show on a wide screen television with kitchen and bathroom comfort is one thing. Being in the audience with thousands of crazed fans is an entirely different experience. I knew there would be lines to stand in and hours of wait, but I joined in the fun of going behind the screen and playing devoted fan.

To rock my routine drive to Los Angeles, I traveled by train. The 6:48 Surf Liner rolls south from Santa Barbara every weekday morning. In the time I could have spent creeping through rush hour, I read the news, took a nap, rolled past the Pacific shore and admired the restored 1924 Mission Revival style train station in Glendale. What a pleasant way to travel south.

Once in Los Angeles, I zipped to my hotel and then bolted to the Nokia to collect my ticket. It was no surprise to see the waiting line of hundreds at 10:30 a.m. The line was crammed with people, the first having arrived at 5 a.m. It squiggled its way down the sidewalk, around the corner and out-of-sight. I had my voucher in hand, but that doesn’t guarantee me a ticket. First come, first served is clearly stated. I made my way past camp chairs, cereal boxes, and rumpled people toward the back of the line.

Ken Taylor, with cropped blonde hair and a big dimply smile approached me as I turned the corner. “Hey, how many spots on your voucher,” he asked, referring to the number of tickets I’d be able to claim. Ken and his wife, Barby, flew in from Phoenix at 6 a.m. with a voucher for one. “We knew if we were at the front of the line, we could convince someone to share an extra spot with us. It’s a win-win thing,” said Ken. Fortunately, I had reserved for a party of two but was traveling solo and gladly joined up with the happy couple. We were 30th in line for tickets.

A taxi pulled up and a woman and her two young daughters, all dressed in shades of black, popped out. “How did they do last night? We missed it because we were on a plane,” said the mother from New York. “Our name was on the wait list since the beginning of the year and the email came yesterday. We just had to come.” As they headed down the street, I silently hoped that they’re in time to get a seat for the show, now three hours away.

By 4:30 p.m., the Nokia is buzzing with energy. The pit at the front of the stage is packed with fans waiting for their cue to start waving their arms high as the show goes live. It isn’t any accident that all those beautiful young things are up front in camera view.

Seated nearby, Dave, from Palm Dessert, here with his son, gave me the inside scoop. “A lot of those kids up there are aspiring actors, with agents—it’s a great opportunity for camera time.”

The whole audience doesn’t look that good. Trust me. Flip flops on dirty dusty feet, sweat pants, and T-shirts show up in cue with designer silks and skinny jeans with $300 labels. Often one group finds their seats toward the front of the stage, the other group heads for the balcony.

The coveted seat I gained from sharing my voucher, and dressing up, was right orchestra close to the massive stage, recreated from the dinky studio set the show is taped at throughout the season. I’m seated directly behind Adam Savage, star of MythBusters, and his young family. Every audience member I see looks sophisticated and dressed smartly.

Minutes before taping, and during commercials, Cory Almeida, the Warm-Up Guy revs the audience. Tonight he’s wearing a sparkly silver tie and is giving away ATT Samsun cell phones and the iPod Touch.

Stage manager, Debbie Williams glides across the set with her signature wide flowy pants and beret. She directs artists, cues the crew, and her voice becomes familiar as she counts down—3-2-1. Seven thousand babbling fans oblige her calls for “applause” and “quiet.”

The show’s commercial breaks seem even longer than they do at home—this is when set change happens. The judges cluster together to chat or leave their platform to greet audience members. Each judge has security guards except for Randy Jackson, who works the crowd, unguarded. And perfectly safe.

But not so safe is the nature of filming live. When some unusual auditioners joined the not-so-funny Dane Cook act, one reject grabbed the microphone. “This is a Kanye moment, Simon,” he announced, and began an unexpected rant. Cameras stopped rolling and security swept him away. “And that’s how live shows work,” said Debbie, as the crew scurries to set up the next act.

American Idol 2010 Grand Finale show was crammed full of entertainment for the millions of viewers that tuned in from home. But behind the screen there was even more. As I rolled northbound to return to Santa Barbara, I’m certain of one thing. Despite my boredom with the season this year, my trip to American Idol’s grand finale show was worth the time and effort. And after his memorable farewell tributes, I suspect that Simon Cowell left feeling the same.

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