ST. PETERSBURG — Hundreds of people were turned away from the first of two tapings for NBC's hit unscripted variety show America's Got Talent on Tuesday at the Mahaffey Theater, even though some held tickets printed out weeks earlier.
But those who managed to get inside found a version of the NBC summer hit percolating with new energy, thanks to the star power of newly hired judge and shock jock Howard Stern.
At the show's first taping at noon Tuesday, one staffer told fans they stopped seating after about 1,200 people were let inside, leaving hundreds to wait in the sun, including some who had seen their tickets marked by other attendants with assurances they would be seated.
Fans had signed up online for tickets, which they printed and brought with them for entry.
"This was horrible … just an outrage," said Jerry Cabot, who drove from his home in Boynton Beach, spending his 77th birthday waiting on the asphalt road behind the theater for more than an hour. "I've never seen a crowd handled this badly."
By 5 p.m., some kinks seemed to be smoothed, as several fans who had been turned away earlier in the day were given priority seating for the later show.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster also came to the evening performance, greeting and getting photos with star judges Stern, Howie Mandel and Sharon Osbourne. Area shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem was also on hand, watching former boss Stern, who once featured Clem on his Sirius XM satellite radio channel.
But the real star of Tuesday's proceedings was Stern, who earned a frenzied standing ovation when he walked into the Mahaffey and inspired chants of "Howard, Howard" from fans throughout the proceeding.
Wielding a gavel, occasionally with comic effect, Stern tossed off sharp observations with wicked flair, dismissing one surreal-looking dance troupe as "hippie nonsense" and advising another performer who worked in the fast-food industry to "stick with that Taco Bell thing."
Together, the three judges are evaluating a wide range of performing acts in four shows over two days, choosing who will move forward to the competition's next phase in Las Vegas.
In November, producers from the show screened performers at the Tampa Convention Center for the first time in the show's history, picking contestants who returned to the Mahaffey on Tuesday and today. Here, they performed on a huge stage where a raucous crowd often served as the fourth judge.
Stern, who replaced original judge Piers Morgan after the British host began working on CNN, seemed to fit in with Mandel and Osbourne easily — calling himself "the tough judge," deftly capable of sizing up when a contestant deserved a little needling for a substandard performance.
As contestants performed, each judge could press a buzzer activating a huge red "X" above the stage bearing their name. Three X's stopped a performance in its tracks — a merciful end for some on stage.
Two hours into the evening show, less than half the acts had been put forward to Las Vegas, including one group of performers whom host Nick Cannon personally lobbied for, walking on stage to ask for reconsideration after the judges had already rejected them.
America's Got Talent has two more auditions scheduled for noon and 5 p.m. today. The show debuts on NBC with two-hour episodes May 14 and 15.
Fans expecting to attend today's shows should know that possession of a ticket may not guarantee admittance.
Lines form early and many who were seated Tuesday afternoon arrived as early as an hour beforehand; the tapings may last up to five hours.