Mount Airy got a taste of big-time television Saturday night when four local talent contestants vied for a $10,000 prize as part of a new show to appear on the AMC cable network.
A near-capacity crowd jammed into the Andy Griffith Playhouse for the taping of the competition that will be part of a one-hour episode to air in the spring. Mount Airy is one of only eight cities selected across America to be showcased during the upcoming reality-TV series “Showville,” which will chronicle the drama behind small-town talent shows.
And there was plenty of that to be had Saturday night when the four contestants took the playhouse stage for their climactic performances averaging about five minutes each.
They included Charice Bender, owner of DanceWorks Studios, who performed a dance routine to a hip-hop song; Dru Billings, who sang “Heaven Help Us All” during the competition; Angela Shur (owner of Miss Angel’s Heavenly Pies) and her husband Randy, who performed a comedy skit; and Betty Tilley, who sang a gospel song, “This Man Called Jesus.”
The winner, of a huge trophy along with the $10,000, was decided via paper ballots completed by audience members. However, The Mount Airy News is not reporting that result per a special request from a “Showville” producer.
This continued a trend of secrecy the entire week surrounding the local taping, with the production team explaining that it wants the outcome to be kept under wraps as much as possible so as to not diminish the impact of the show when it is telecast.
The four finalists were selected from among more than 50 people who auditioned Wednesday, also privately.
Although their identities were to be kept secret as well, it was quickly obvious Saturday night before the talent show that word had been sufficiently leaked. Individual performers seemed to have their own cheering section present, which held up signs for their favored contestants.
As the crowd waited outside the playhouse until about 6:30 p.m. as the camera crew readied the stage for the production that was to have started at 6 p.m., there were chants of “Charice, Charice, Charice!” by Bender’s supporters including her dance students.
Not to be outdone, sign-wielding backers of Billings responded with “Dru, Dru, Dru!”
After everyone was admitted into the theater and took their seats, one of the first orders of business was the taping of stock footage of audience members laughing, applauding and holding up signs. This is to be blended in with the upcoming episode, which also is to include scenes of various locales here shot during the producers’ visit all during last week.
At different times, a “coach” — one of a small army of crew members and hands who dashed on and off the stage during the nearly three-hour event — told the audience to cheer with differing degrees of enthusiasm, some of the time while laughing as well.
One highlight was the appearance onstage of actor Alec Mapa, who has been in an episode of “Seinfeld,” among other productions, along with choreographer Lisette Bustamante. They served as performance coaches and mentors for the four finalists who were selected Wednesday.
“Tonight our job ends and yours begins,” Mapa told the enthusiastic audience, “because you will pick the winner of tonight’s talent show.”
Mount Airy Mayor Deborah Cochran, emcee for the event, introduced each contestant.
Bender seemed to dazzle the audience with her dance routine that concluded with a backflip off the playhouse stage.
Another highlight was the comedy act by the Shurs, in which Randy dressed in drag as Julia Child, the French chef, who was interrupted in a hastily set up stage kitchen by his wife, portraying a hillbilly cook of Mayberry.
They get into an argument about the culinary prowess of each. And after “Julia” drinks some of Angela Shur’s moonshine and then comes on to her, the two end up throwing cream pies in each others’ faces ala The Three Stooges.
This left a mess that took the stage hands about 10 minutes to clean up so Dru Billings could deliver the last of the four performances.
After the acts were complete, the stage hands passed out paper ballots and pens so audience members could vote on the winner. These were then taken backstage and tallied under the guidance of a notary.
In the meantime, camera crews conducted one-on-one interviews with viewers, who were asked what they thought of the show. Each person questioned was asked to sign a release form.
Also during that time, the entire crowd was told to raise right hands and promise to not disclose the show winner, specifically on Internet social media sites such as Facebook. No photographs of performers were allowed.
All the various “Showville” activities here during the week will be condensed into the one-hour episode. The series also will feature talent competitions in Holland, Mich.; Walla Walla, Wash.; Kingston, R.I.; San Marcos, Texas; Hugo, Okla.; Athens, Ohio; and Fairfield, Iowa.
Mount Airy was the sixth city on the list visited. From here the crew will go to Athens, Ohio.
While TV documentaries and similar productions have been produced here in the past, many in Saturday night’s audience, containing people of all ages, agreed that the “Showville” experience was the first ever of its kind for the city.
Tommy Barker, a longtime employee of the F. Rees retail store who sat on the second row, seemed to sum up the occasion:
“I thought it was a little different,” Barker said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.