'American Idol': A trip to Idol Camp
In a world of brand extension and merchandise obsession, "American Idol" is king. Spearheaded by FremantleMedia, the company that owns the "Idol" trademark, there are the requisite T-shirts, journals, water bottles and CDs. There is also Dreyer's Choc 'N Roll Caramel "American Idol" ice cream, Karaoke Revolution's "Idol" video game and a new attraction at Disney World.
Then they opened Idol Camp.
Idol Camp is a two-week performing arts sleep-away gathering for aspiring singers, aged 10 to 15. The camp, which opened in Massachusetts last year, moved to California this summer. It costs $2,995.
For that price, the Idol Camp grounds are a tween's dream. A skate park full of half-pipes beckons thrill seekers. A 20-foot-tall inflatable glacier floats in a pond, ripe for the climbing. Among the all-terrain vehicles, the go-karts, the rope course and the horse stables, there is something for every personality.
But for the 60 or so lucky kids who have come to Lake Arrowhead's Pali Mountain to attend Idol Camp, half-pipes and go-karts are just distractions from practicing for the end-of-session production. In the grand finale, campers will sing, dance and play instruments while their proud parents and counselors look on.
When I arrived at Idol Camp's lush grounds last week, camp director Dean Cudworth -- better known as "Crunch" -- was there to greet me. Cudworth's nickname may be playful, but his attitude about show business is serious. "I in no way want to coddle these young men and women," Cudworth said of his campers. "I want them to know how hard it is."
Cudworth, an actor since age 7, is intimately acquainted with the difficulties of the entertainment world, and he readily shares his insights with his campers. "I say, 'Look, there's always gonna be someone slightly better than you. It doesn't mean you can't work, but if you get caught in this complacent state where you think you're gonna just slide through, you have another thing coming,' " Cudworth said.
Although he is devoted to giving his campers a wake-up call, the atmosphere in the open-mike bungalow was decidedly more forgiving. One by one, campers stood before their peers and sang, either a cappella or with a tape. The style is reminiscent of "American Idol" auditions, but there was no Simon Cowell in the room. Even after performances by campers that -- let's face it -- are never going to be professional singers, the other campers were unwaveringly supportive. Every time a singer finished performing, the others bellowed "Oh!" and made "O" shapes over their heads, a gesture I later discovered is the Idol Camp-equivalent of a standing ovation.
Seated beside me at the open-mike was Vonzell Solomon, better known to her fans as "Baby V" Solomon, who finished third on the fourth season of "American Idol." She was not the only "Idol" alum scheduled to visit the camp this summer. Jon Peter Lewis, Chris Sligh and Paris Bennett are also slated to appear.
Solomon, a former postal worker from Fort Myers, Fla., said she is more than happy to remain under the "American Idol" umbrella, mentoring children at Idol Camp. She said, "I always wake up and pinch myself 'cause I feel like I'm dreaming, and I'm gonna have to wake up and deliver the mail, and I'm like, 'No!' "
During her week at Pali Mountain, Solomon ate every meal with the campers, played improvisation games with them and watched them perform. On the day of my visit, the tables were to be turned and Solomon was to perform a concert for the campers. Singing for a group of rowdy kids was quite a change from Solomon's last gig -- performing for Michelle Obama -- but she seemed to be having a blast.
"All the kids wanna know how the judges are in real life and what it was like being on the show and what has my life been like after the show," said Solomon.
She was surprised, she said, by the campers' willingness to perform on command. "They're only 10 to 15, and they get up at the drop of a dime," she marveled. "They're just like, 'I can do it!' "
When I caught up with the camp's videographer, Jake -- a.k.a. "Machine" -- he echoed Solomon's sentiment, saying he can't get over the campers' fearlessness.
"Idol kids run up screaming and smiling and waving to the camera. Like, they are camera-hungry. They're just loving it," marveled Jake, who was working on a take-home DVD for the Idol Camp families chronicling the two-week experience.
"They love the camera," agreed the camp still-photographer Mandy, also known as "Dot." "Any time I'm like, 'Hey, girls, you wanna smile,' at least seven more pile in the picture."
Once I had an image of the average Idol Camp camper, I couldn't resist asking about the average Idol Camp parent. Jake said that as a general rule, they are not stage parents. Still, he admits that "some of the parents are just as, if not more, outgoing than the kids. . . . There was this one mom I met that was kinda like, 'C'mon, c'mon get out there.' Like pushing the kid!"
But from what I could tell, most of these kids don't need pushing. After videotaping a conversation with bunkmates Elizabeth and Chelsea for our Show Tracker blog, I asked the girls if they would like to sing for me. Before I knew it, the tiny campers were belting something fierce.
I also caught up with Chad, a camper whom I had met in February at the "American Idol" Top 24 party. Since Chad, then 14, seemed to have a passion for all things "Idol," I asked whether he was planning to audition for the show when he turned 16.
"If my music career hasn't taken off yet," he mused then.
Chad has returned to Idol Camp, he said, first and foremost, "just to get better at what I love to do." He's enjoying his percussion class and considering picking up a beat-boxing course.
"My ultimate goal is just to get better at music and enhance my career," he said.
And although not all of the children at Idol Camp are as career-oriented as Chad, they do share a desire, however vaguely plotted, to see their name in lights. When I asked bunkmates Elizabeth and Chelsea whether most of the kids at Idol Camp want to be famous, Chelsea looked at me as if I had asked the dumbest question on the planet.
Then she burst out laughing. "Why wouldn't they?"