Senior stars get a day to shine

The 18 seniors who made it to the final round of the Maryland Senior Idol competition yesterday brought the sounds of Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ray Charles to life.

They sang golden oldies, country and pop, and had the audience at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park applauding, cheering and at times, teary.


One contestant was dressed like Liberace. Another trilled like Whitney Houston and a few swayed like Elvis in the event loosely patterned after the popular Fox TV show American Idol.

But the man who had the theater most energized, the man who had them shouting "Hallelujah!" was the man who came to praise the Lord.


Ron Walls, 65, took home the title of Maryland Senior Idol.

Walls, a Vietnam veteran and Senior Olympian, belted out a rousing "I Came Here to Praise the Lord" and had the audience in the aisles and on its feet.

"If prayer makes you nervous, step outside," he sang. "I am gonna say 'Amen.' I might move my feet."

The four staid judges could not resist clapping and stomping to the beat.

"That's what they call bringing down the house," said judge Russ Margo.

Walls, who works in air traffic control at Aberdeen Proving Ground and lives in Forest Hill, won the Harford County competition two months ago with "Wind Beneath My Wings."

"For the finals, I wanted something fast and something nobody had heard of," Walls said. "I figured the audience would either connect with this song or be turned off."

To meet the three-minute requirement, he trimmed 20 seconds from the song's beginning and "started in quick." Not a soul was turned off.


First prize was about $250 in gift certificates. It also means Walls will tour as the state's idol for the next year.

The concert, which benefits a Mississippi senior center still rebuilding after last year's hurricanes, drew a soprano who studied opera in Milan, two veterans who had performed with USO tours and Alice Wilhoit, 54, of Woodlawn, the lead singer in a local band, who won the runner-up trophy with "I Will Always Love You."

Wilhoit's voice and Whitney Houston's signature song generated shouts of "Bravo!" halfway through the number.

"I chose it because it has a range to it," Wilhoit said.

If audience support meant points, Leo Mahoney, 77, had an edge. He arrived with a busload of seniors from Bel Air, most of them sporting T-shirts that said 'Leo's Groupie' in bold red letters.

"Too bad the audience doesn't get to vote," Mahoney said.


At rehearsal Monday, Mahoney, "a nightclub type" singer who chose "Too Young" for the competition, was encouraged to jazz up his routine with a little movement.

"How can you move when you're singing a slow song?" he said. "Besides, if I move around, I might forget the words. Sinatra didn't move. Dean Martin didn't move. Andy Williams usually sat on a stool and sang."

Maynard Huddleston, 78, of Severna Park moved around a bit as he played guitar to "Grandma's Feather Bed" by John Denver and the story of a honeymoon night gone awry - "sleeping experiences," he called them - both of which won laughs from the crowd.

"Music is a talent you can share with anybody," he said. "The key of C is the same in the U.S. as it is anywhere in the world and people tend to connect through music."

Gini Pielke, 67, of Towson sang "You Raise Me Up." "It is important to keep singing because it is so good for your spirits," she said. "It's easy to sit back and do nothing. But we are in this world to make a difference, to reach out, sing and renew our spirits."

While awaiting the judges' decision, Joyce Tuck, Maryland's first senior idol, reprised last year's winning performance of "Over the Rainbow."


"People tend to forget about us seniors," said Tuck, 63. "Then there's this contest that lets people know we are alive and maybe not high-kicking, but kicking."

After hearing the competition at rehearsal, Mahoney said he knew he would be outsung. The show, taped for Retirement Living TV, will air several times on a local Comcast cable station, and that gave Mahoney consolation.

"It's gonna be on cable TV so I will have my 3 1/2 minutes of fame," he said.

Jeff Krulik, producer for the cable show, called the program wonderfully spirited.

"There is a lot of camaraderie and talent and a lot of hams here today," he said.