The contest that began with a whimper 10 weeks ago at Ferg's sports bar ends with a bang tonight.
At the debut of the Rising Star Talent Competition in February, three contestants performed before a sparse audience. Now, more than 50 people have displayed their talent before much larger crowds at the open-air Central Avenue venue.
Tonight, 15 finalists who earned the most votes over nine nights will perform for a panel of local judges. The winner receives $500.
"It looks like we're going to have a tremendous night," Jimmy Danelli said. "The tough part will be finding a winner."
Last Thursday, a man balanced plastic containers under colored lights. Then Vickye Schofield, 38, strutted the stage, belting out I'm Going Down by Rose Royce.
The ever-enthusiastic Danelli, who moved to St. Petersburg to care for his mother, took the microphone after her.
"Wow, what can I say but Vickye Schofield!"
Schofield, the mother of three supportive boys, said she used to be shy about singing. But then she won a karaoke contest, and singing at Ferg's has built up her confidence even more.
Schofield, a customer service representative who spends most days on the phone, said she hopes this experience will help her land a paid gig. "This is what I want to do, so I can quit my day job," she said, laughing.
The contest was open to any soloist. Each Thursday night, Danelli distributed slips of paper and audience members cast votes for their favorite contestants. At the end of nine weeks, Danelli counted up the ballots. The 15 top vote-getters perform tonight.
They also receive a two-night stay at participating hotels, and appointments with a franchised agent of the Screen Actors Guild in Orlando, Danelli said.
Ferg's has scheduled three more competitions. The next round starts June 26.
"What a great opportunity for them to get out before the public," said Ken Klotz, 60, who has attended about half the shows. "They fail, and they don't get beaten up."
Drew Giordano, 17, a junior at St. Petersburg High School, was one of the competition's three original contestants. He's also a finalist tonight. (Soloing's) "the rawest way of playing," he said.
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or firstname.lastname@example.org.