The hallowed stage of New York City's legendary Apollo Theater has launched many a musical career over the decades.
Billie Holiday and Count Basie performed there as amateurs in the 1930s. Other performers have included Sammy Davis Jr., Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and 1999 Grammy-award darling, Lauryn Hill.
Yesterday, with visions of joining those legends dancing in their heads, more than 70 Baltimore-area children between ages 5 and 12 showed up downtown at the Port Discovery children's museum to try to dance or sing their way into a spot on the children's segment of the weekly television show, "It's Showtime at the Apollo."
The grand prize - an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City to perform at the Apollo - was an opportunity many said they hoped would be the ticket to multimillion-dollar success a la pop megastars 'N Sync or Mariah Carey.
"I wanna be Sisqo," said Robert Hardy, 12, gushing about the Baltimore native hip-hop artist to whose music his three-member group Total Chaos danced for their audition.
"We just hope we become famous," said fellow group member Andre Butler, 12.
The auditions - which McDonald's restaurants have sponsored for the last three years - have been organized to provide all children with the means to videotape entries for the Apollo show audition.
The show requires that those seeking auditions submit an audio- or video-taped performance, so the fast-food chain holds these tryouts in 12 cities across the country.
"McDonald's is always looking for opportunities to encourage kids to reach for their dreams," said Sandy Rubenstein, a public relations representative with the company. "We recognize that not all kids have a videocamera. This is a way for all kids to audition."
The Apollo will pick 50 finalists from Baltimore-area entries - including those not submitted through the McDonald's auditions - to vie for the grand prize at a final competition Sept. 23 at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn.
In addition to the 12 winners picked from among the hundreds who audition in the regional contests, three acts will be selected from national entries to perform on the show, which airs locally on Channel 54 at 8 p.m. on Saturdays.
Yesterday's hopefuls packed the Port Discovery television studio well prepared for their shot at fame.
Karen Coates, a 12-year-old Mariah Carey-wannabe, spent $50 to pile up her hair in a sophisticated 'do and had gone for a manicure so she would have rhinestone-studded, pale peach nails to go with her diva look.
Another pint-sized girl who danced to bubblegum pop princess Christina Aguilera's music came appropriately clad in denim capri pants and a pink tank top, her long, curly hair bouncing as she threw herself into her routine.
Marvin James, 12, took to the stage in a sharp, black suit, yellow satin shirt and shiny black shoes, hoping to be spotted as the next big gospel talent. The Baltimore eighth-grader, who professed himself to be an avid fan of gospel artist Kirk Franklin, signed up for the Apollo talent show the moment he heard about it a few weeks ago.
"He's been singing since he was 3," said his mother, Michele. "He initiates everything. He looks out for the auditions, he signs up; all we do is chauffeur him around."
Even though Marvin usually has his auditions carefully planned, for yesterday's outing he had forgotten to cue his tape to the start of his gospel number "Come In."
He ended up standing on stage, mike in hand, for several agonizing minutes waiting as the sound crew tried to find his song.
"I was thinking of how my dad always tells me, 'Don't forget to cue the tape,'" Marvin said sheepishly afterward. "But then, when I started singing, I wasn't really nervous. I was thinking, 'Don't screw up. Don't screw up.'"
For Karen Coates, trying to become famous is not just about earning millions of dollars.
The Baltimore eighth-grader said she wants her classmates at Rockland Middle School who have told her she's never going to be famous to eat their words when they
see her performing on television someday.
"I'd like to make my own music and if I get big some day, I want people I know to go, 'Oh, that's the girl who was in my school,'" said Karen, who belted out a Whitney Houston number for her audition.
And if Karen does make it to the Apollo, the experience could well generate other performing gigs. Thomas Ford, 11, who won last year's McDonald's Baltimore talent search with a tap-dance routine to Will Smith's "Wild Wild West," won a spot in a Debbie Allen theater production at Washington's Kennedy Center after he performed at the Apollo.
Thomas trekked to Baltimore from his Gaithersburg home yesterday to perform during a break in the auditions.
He said winning last year's grand prize has given him something far more valuable than any other audition opportunity: faith in his talent.
"I feel I have more confidence now," Thomas said. "Now, I feel I can do stuff."
Michele and Rodney James said they wish the same for their son, Marvin.
Rodney James said he had a sense that Marvin was going to make it big someday.
"You can tell when he's singing that he sings with such emotion and enthusiasm," Marvin's father said. "He's been given a gift by God to do that."
Even if Marvin doesn't make it to the final round of the Apollo auditions, he appears to have begun living his dream life of a busy entertainer.
Soon after wrapping up his act, the well-dressed performer was watching the clock, saying he had little time to chat.
He explained he had to rush off to his next gig - playing the mayor of Munchkinland in a production of "The Wizard of Oz" at Towson University.