When an emcee announced his name, Ron Gifford slowly approached the microphone, removed a Golden Melody Harmonica from his shirt pocket and placed the instrument against his mouth. Then he made music. After finishing his second song, Have I Told You Lately that I Love You?, a crowd of about 100 clapped and cheered. "I could have played all day for them," said Gifford, 87.
Gifford, who lives in Dunedin, was among 32 contestants — all 55 and older — at Wednesday's Bright House Networks' Bright Stars Senior Idol audition at Japanese Garden Mobile Home Park. Each had five minutes to showcase his or her talents before a panel of judges. The event was one of four auditions (the others were in Bradenton, Brandon and New Port Richey).
Wednesday's participants will find out within a few days if they are among the lucky 10 to advance to the regional competition Feb. 18 at Clearwater Central Catholic (proceeds for that show benefit two seniors-related charities). From the regional sites, 12 people will be chosen to compete in the March 2 finale at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
The final will air on Tampa Bay on Demand, channel 340, from March 23 to April 6. Cable customers can watch the program and vote for their favorite act. The performer with the most votes will be crowned "2009 Senior Idol" and win $1,000 cash.
Wednesday's audition had a little bit of everything. A singer whose voice mimicked Johnny Cash's started things off, and was followed by crooning, guitar jamming, harmonica blowing and one contestant who played the trombone. During some performances, those watching sat quietly. Other times, they got into it, either by dancing or clapping during a performance.
"I know most of the people in there," said Jay Wygant, 80, of Pinellas Park, who competed — and advanced — out of the Bradenton audition. "I'm just here to cheer them on."
For Gifford, a widower and grandfather of six, the audition was simply another chance to perform, something he has done for about 74 years. He began playing the harmonica as a teen while living in his native Canada because "it was relatively relaxing" and never stopped.
Gifford still owns his first harmonica (along with 11 others), and "it still plays." Today, he's a member of the Gulfport Senior Citizens Harmonica Club and he claims he can play just about any song he hears. The question is, did he play well enough Wednesday to make the cut?
"Maybe," Gifford said, smiling.
Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 445-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.