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Stars in his Eyes; With a twinkle and a grin, Ed McMahon stops at Golden Ring Mall in his latest search for tomorrow's stars. He clearly gets a kick out of the quest, even if he doesn't always stay for the show

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The big blue tour bus roars up to the entrance of Golden Ring Mall and there's Ed McMahon in front, waving as if he's running for Congress.

Cameras click. Felt-tip pens are readied for autographs. TV news crews scurry into position. The most famous TV sidekick in history steps onto the parking lot and flashes that dazzling, million-dollar smile, and for a brief moment this tired strip of eastern Baltimore County seems transformed into a slice of Beverly Hills.

"How you doing?!" McMahon yells to the crowd of about three dozen there to greet him.

Then he launches into a flurry of genial glad-handing and interview-giving. If there were any babies to be kissed, well, he'd surely buss their little bald heads, too.

The show business legend is here on this fine spring evening to flack his latest business venture, "Ed McMahon's Next Big Star," being billed as the world's largest Internet talent competition.

This is the 29th stop on a grueling 40-day, 40-city bus tour. The idea is this: At each stop, local residents get to perform for the "Next Big Star" crew.

Their performances are professionally taped and then posted on a Web site (www.nextbigstar .com), where anyone with a computer can vote on his or her favorite performer in any of 20 categories.

Every 13 weeks, the winners of the online voting will go on national TV in a final competition hosted by McMahon himself, with the big winners receiving a million bucks in cash and prizes, as well as a huge leg up toward a career in the wonderful world of entertainment.

"Convergence is the big buzzword these days, and we now have the Internet and television converging!" McMahon gushes. "Can you believe I'm in cyberspace now? Pretty soon I'll be up on the Mir!"

Much as he did during his days hosting the syndicated show "Star Search" -- which launched the careers of superstars such as Rosie O'Donnell, Drew Carey, Britney Spears and Martin Lawrence -- McMahon seems positively energized by this latest beating of the bushes for raw talent.

"Did I tell you about the 5-year-old drummer?" he asks a newspaper reporter.

Uh, no. We just met for the first time.

"We're in Norfolk, Va., the other day and one of the performers was this little 5-year-old drummer. You can't even see him over the drums. I asked him how long he'd been playing and he said three years.

"Three years! So he's been playing since he was in a high chair!"

McMahon is asked: Was the kid any good?

"Oh, yeah!" he says. "We're finding some wonderful talent!"

This, it seems, is the essence of what drives McMahon -- who just turned 77, who co-hosted "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" for 30 years and has more money than God -- to hit the road for 40 days and visit one antiseptic mall after another to watch an army of would-be Christina Aguileras and Garth Brookses parade to the microphone.

You or I look at a little kid wielding drumsticks and see a future member of the high school band, if he doesn't fall in with the wrong crowd and screw up. McMahon looks at the same kid and sees the next Gene Krupa, or Buddy Rich, or Max Weinberg, the fabled longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen.

If he closes his eyes, McMahon also sees the Wells Fargo trucks backing up to his home every day to unload bags of cash -- this deal, after all, involves the MSN network of Internet services and Microsoft Windows Media technologies.

But that's another issue altogether.

"Should we go inside and see the talent show?" he booms after wrapping up his media interviews.

Everyone in the crowd agrees that's a swell idea, especially because the show is already two hours late. (Part of the "Next Big Star" crew was stuck in traffic on Interstate 95 outside Washington.)

So with mall security leading the way, and a bevy of Golden Ring executives tagging alongside, McMahon heads inside to see if the next Sinbad or Ray Romano is camped out near the food court, just waiting for a chance at the spotlight.

A mall transformed

The Golden Ring Mall, on Rossville Boulevard in the Rosedale area, has seen better days.

Even on a sunny afternoon, it has a sad, worn look to it. Too many vacant storefronts, too many merchants with worried eyes standing in front of their shops with nothing to do except fret about their rent payments and re-fold the sweaters for the 100th time that day.

The customers have gone elsewhere, to the glittering new malls in Towson and Owings Mills, to the Targets and discount retailers in White Marsh. On most days, you could get up a touch football game on either level here and not bump into any shoppers.

Still, when the McMahon entourage sweeps into the stage area, a ripple of electricity goes through the crowd.

By the time the mall closes on this Monday evening, more than 85 people will have signed up to perform over two days; some three dozen, along with various supporters, have been here since sign-ups began two hours earlier.

McMahon takes the stage, apologizes for being late and does some shtick for the crowd. This includes another bit about the 5-year-old drummer, who by now is starting to sound like the Sinatra of the skins.

A few minutes later, however, McMahon is headed back to the bus as the talent show gets under way.

"We try to get him out before the [performances]," says publicist Matt Hallman. " 'Cause it doesn't look good for him to see just one or two acts."

Over the next three hours, one performer after another takes the stage, exhibiting wildly varying degrees of talent and chutzpah.

Some are clearly nervous and rattled by their surroundings -- how many times has Celine Dion had to sing while someone at a nearby Auntie Anne's orders a cheese pretzel?

Fateemah Ellis, 21, of Pikesville, is the first performer and trembles visibly while singing "Hero" by Mariah Carey in a clear, strong voice.

But "this is what I want to do," she says softly, smoothing her red glitter gown after her performance. "I want to be a singer. And I want to be a really well-respected singer, not just a fad."

Her heroes, she explains are Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo and Jewel.

So when her godmother, Barbara Guirtman, heard on the radio that McMahon's people were auditioning performers, the two women jumped in the car and raced across the Beltway to chase Ellis' dream.

Some of the performers are more poised and polished, such as Don Cox, 38, a bear of a man who goes by the stage name of Big Daddy Country. A service writer for Nissan West, he sings the upbeat Sawyer Brown tune "Thank God For You" in a rousing baritone that gets a nice ovation from the crowd.

Cox, it turns out, is a veteran performer. With his band, Big Daddy Country has been playing a number of joints in the Essex area for years, and is immune to attacks of the nerves.

"I belong now. I've paid my dues," he says softly before taking the stage wearing a dark shirt, brown vest, jeans, cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat.

His wife, Vickie, monitors the crowd reaction as Big Daddy Country performs. Heads are bobbing everywhere in the audience. But both realize that in the new theater of cyberspace, it will be the online voters who ultimately determine if Big Daddy Country dares to dream about performing in front of a national TV audience anytime soon.

On and on go the acts, as dusk slips into darkness and the after-work shoppers arrive, seemingly stunned that their little mall has been transformed.

By far, country singers dominate the list of performers. Every other singer seems to be belting out a tear-jerker about cheating husbands and drinking problems, or a New Nashville anthem about female empowerment or the joy of being a family man.

There are no comedians, no jugglers, no dog acts and (mercifully) no mimes.

Two adorable 3-year-olds, sister and brother, screech through a gospel song. Another young duo punishes the crowd with an off-key rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

A bearded guy does a Bee Gees cover in a voice that could shatter glass at 200 meters.

Technical problems abound. And they seem to abound most on poor Gail O'Connor, a pretty, spunky 16-year-old from Baltimore who attends Kenwood High.

Gail is here to sing "Independence Day" by Martina McBride. At least, that's the plan.

But the first time she takes the stage, her music is not cued up, so she gets bumped.

The second time she takes the stage, some 30 minutes later, the music dies in the middle of her act.

Both incidents she handles with remarkable equanimity, even when the sound guy indicates it's his fault.

Finally, after another half-hour or so, she takes the stage yet a third time -- now, clearly as a crowd favorite.

"You have no idea how much I want this to work," says the show's emcee, Emily Zolten, with a smile.

This time, the act goes off without a hitch and O'Connor nails her song, much to the delight of her sizable support group, which includes her father and mother, Steve and Gail O'Connor, baby sister Brianna and a couple of friends.

The last act of the night is Crank, a talented, energetic heavy metal band from Dundalk. With long, flowing hair, tattoos and piercings, Crank stands out in this crowd like Black Sabbath playing a Rotary convention.

By now, McMahon is probably fast asleep in his hotel room somewhere in Delaware, the show's next stop.

But Crank is ready to rock, and the band delivers a spirited performance, fueled by Michael Mohr's driving guitar and Ron Peterson's throbbing bass.

"They're playing the Zoo on May 19," Peterson's mom proudly tells a reporter.

That's a club, she hastens to add, not the zoo in Druid Hill Park.

As Crank's final chords echo throughout the mall, the few remaining spectators and performers begin heading for the exits, drifting past Tony's Pizza and Herman's Bakery & Deli and into the night, where the best dreams of stardom always begin.

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