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Idol Tracker: 'American Idol's' Season Eight Auditions begin

July 18, 2008 |  8:10 am

"American Idol" may not eat its children, but it certainly seems to move on past them pretty quick.  No sooner had the goliath put David Cook and the stars of Season Seven on the bus and sent them off to road school then, without a moment's ado, the search has begun for the next American Idol. 

The search began at San Francisco's historic Cow Palace, which now inhabits an area that, to hear locals describe it, is in a league with pre-surge Sadr City for mayhem and destruction.  To a bellman, every San Franciscan who heard I was going to the Cow Palace urged me to stay off the local streets at all costs. 

At 4 a.m. my taxi entered the palace's demesne and I crouched in the back seat, flak jacket at the ready as we cruised through the empty, pre-dawn streets. One turn down the main drag, however, and the cab slammed into not a raging firefight but the oddest traffic jam I have seen: In the still and darkness, cars stretched for over a mile, waiting to pull into the CP.  I finally made it to the gates and walked onto the grounds with thousands emerging on foot, car and bicycle out of the black, like a giggly zombie army.  Then I see the line -- 20 across stretching back into the void far back up to the distant end of the parking lot.

At the front of the line, ready to be the first contestants considered for Season Eight,  Shatteo, 25, Nyla, 17, and Damon 19, all Bay Area natives, sprawled on blankets, awaiting their brush with destiny, shivering together in the cold as a steady wind raced across the parking lot. Shatteo is here for his second shot at "Idol" glory, having tried previously in 2004.  Despite that earlier disappointment, he and his two comrades all express unblinking confidence that each of them individually and all of their friends in turn are the next American Idol.  They use the phrases I'll hear over and over again: "Singing is my life." "Its all I've ever cared about."  "I am the full package." Who is to say that they are not all three right?  Speaking with them, their confidence is hard to dismiss, despite the knowledge that numbers being what they are, and the audition tour is stopping in seven cities, likely no more than one or two and certainly no more than three of the 7,000-ish on line this morning are destined to take a place on the big "Idol" stage in March. But not doubting that that place belongs to them, and raring to go claim it, the group arrived at 1 a.m. to claim their place at the line's head, but had found the grounds closed.  They told me of the line of cars parked alongside the road in the middle of the night, tomorrow's superstars sleeping at the wheel.

Unfortunately for them, placement in the early morning line has nothing to do with the order in which the singers appear before the judges.  That was determined over the previous two days when each aspirant lined up in a previous line to register, being given wristbands numbered with the order in which they will appear.  The lines to get the wristbands themselves began in the middle of the night; many told of getting on the registration line at 2 a.m. and waiting for six to eight hours.

Official details about what happens once they go inside are sketchy, but details pieced together later in the day from exiting auditionees tell a harrowing tale.  After all taking seats in the Cow Palace's main room, they parade in wrist-banded order, in groups of four before table at which sit three judges (who decidedly are not Randy, Paula and Simon.)  The four stand before the three and one by one are beckoned forward to sing a few bars of a song.  Every contestant was told to have two songs ready and some report being asked to sing their second song.  Others report being stopped almost instantly. 

After all four have gone, the judges huddle for a very brief moment and tell them which if any of them are moving forward, dismissing the rest.  It seems to be the rule rather than the exception that the entire groups of four are generally dismissed.  Those who make it through are given a green piece of paper, turn their information over to the authorities and told they will be summoned in some weeks time to return to San Francisco to sing before the holy trinity themselves.

As the sun rises and I can take a better look at the line, what surprises me most is how few of the audition period's famed freaks I see.  I spot a man in a chicken suit and a young woman in an Uncle Sam hat. But the expected conclave of Trekkies, transsexuals and animal/human hybrids fails to materialize.  Perhaps they are lost in the center of the line, being shy and hiding their light under a bushel.  Maybe they are saving their best stuff for the judges.  But of the people I meet, I don't even come across too many of those horrifically, criminally deluded about their abilities.  What I meet much more of is a huge number of people who seem to really really enjoy singing and have an overwhelming hard-to-keep-a-lid-on desire to have people watch them do it.  Over and over, people tell me their tales of singing before they could walk, before they could speak.

The vast vast majority one sees quickly are severely overrating their power to captivate millions on the public stage -- but in the early morning's thin light, as they huddle together on the ground, sharing stories of their favorite "Idol" stars (overwhelmingly Kelly and Carrie) and signing impromptu duets -- if they are deluded it seems much more sweetly so than homicidally so.

Eventually the line files in.  Down the block at the overwhelmed McDonald's, the only food-serving establishment in the neighborhood, the line that earlier has run, according to reports over two hours long, has dissipated.  Up on the sidewalk above the Cow Palace, a group of writers and actors up from L.A. leading what they call the "American Idol" Truth Tour runs through their rally.  The group is agitating to credit their wordsmiths as writers rather than as producers, as is the standard in the reality TV business.

I chat with "Idol's" constant, unflappable presence at the center of the storm, the show's director of security, Michael Boschetti, for whom moving thousands of very excited people smoothly through the audition process has become a science, having under his belt responsibility not just for the "Idol" show and eight seasons' worth of audition tours, but handling the extravangzas at half the world's great awards shows.  Looking over the throng, he harks back to one season's tour when only a few hundred showed up at each audition.  For the rest of the summer, Michael and his team of eight will spend a week in each audition city working with local law enforcement and stadium security to make sure these spectacles all go like clockwork, as this one seems amazingly to as, on the nose at 9 a.m., the crowd has all been funneled into the palace.

I comment to Michael on my continual amazement that with the number of borderline-stable people whose dreams and hopes are being shattered on these days, things never turn truly ugly.  "It's the way you set it up," he nods, assuring that with his men in place, with every angle considered, America's greatest epic drama can go forward without any such worries.  We look over.  As they enter, contestants are warned that they must throw out food and cannot bring in chairs or blankets. Along the barricades an enormous graveyard of discarded blankets has sprung up in red-white-and-blue and leopard print.

At 10 on the dot the first disappointed contestants file out. I see no tears, just  a long droopy parade of vanquished bravado.  Almost as quick as just two hours ago, when they poured in shouting and whooping, they slump out heads down, flashing brave half-grins at the crowd waiting in front.

As the losers (Or the "non-winners" as I'm advised by a member of the crew) parade out, a few hundred feet away a small gaggle of reporters waited outside what we had been told was the winners' door.  In the distance the trail of non-winners staggered on and the minutes passed without a single victorious emergent.  But finally, around 10:30, the first singer to get through the first round of auditions in Season Eight stepped out into the light.  And the road to Nokia begins with Racquel Houghton, a waitress at L.A.'s own Laugh Factory.  "I'm so the person who doesn't win anything," she said, dazed with shock that winning had in fact happened.  At age 28, she came forward on her last year of eligibility and came up earlier in the week, waiting from 2 a.m. the night before for her wristband and since the predawn hours this morning. She describes her singing career as "mostly in the shower," although says she did a stint in an all-female pop band that played around town. Looking forward to her callback before the judges, the still quaking from her first go-round, Racquel pledges to herself "not to overthink things."

As more winners trickle out, to the dozen or so reporters waiting outside who look each one over, inspecting their haunches, teeth and gums, the atmosphere starts to resemble that of handicappers at Santa Anita watching the early morning test runs.  We peered deep into each set of victorious eyes, wondering, is it possible?  Could this young, terrified person shivering in the cold and wind, exhausted from waiting on line all night, nervous and hungry, actually be the next American Idol?  Stock was taken, calculations were made.  And why not?  Each person who emerged had a 1-in-2,500 chance of succeeding David Cook as the eighth American Idol.  Far from a sure thing, but walking sadly away just around the corner are a few thousand people who would murder their entire neighborhood for odds like that.

-- Richard Rushfield
(videos by Richard Rushfield)