There's a guy standing in a corner of the cavernous Crown Ballroom inside the Charlotte Convention Center. He's facing the wall. Gesturing wildly. Talking to himself. People are avoiding him.
Yet he turns to greet a visitor with a broad smile, and an explanation: "I'm just rehearsing!"
His name is Mike, he's from Panama City Beach, Fla., and although he doesn't want anyone to know his last name, he wants everyone to know about the 200-plus comedy videos he has uploaded to YouTube ( youtube.com/mikeisalivingcartoon).
Current occupation? "I haul junk to the dump for people ... and trim trees. It's paying the bills until I get discovered."
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On Friday, Mike and hundreds of other aspiring entertainers pinned their dreams of stardom - or at least fleeting national TV exposure - to a 90-second audition for the NBC hit show "America's Got Talent." Thousands are expected over the course of the open casting call, which continues today.
Host Nick Cannon (a former student at Quail Hollow Middle School) and judges Howie Mandell, Sharon Osbourne and Howard Stern are not in town, since this is a screening round for producers. But there are plenty of lights and cameras, and lots of people clamoring to get in front of them.
They have come here, after all, to be on TV. So when a production assistant announces that they're about to shoot some crowd shots, about 75 people demonstrate their talent for moving very, very fast. And their talent for screaming, "AMERICA, WE'VE GOT TALENT!" for the camera, once, twice, three times. "Even bigger, even bigger!" the production assistant encourages.
Leisha Greefkes of Fredonia, Wis., rushes into the room with her daughter, Angelina, 8, who just finished singing "Amazing Grace" for a producer. But they're too late - the crowd is breaking up. Angelina's face may be in the shot anyway: Jack Greefkes and Angelina's brothers, Austin and Carter, were in the crowd wearing bright yellow "Team Angelina" T-shirts emblazoned with her face.
"What are we spending, like three grand total here, maybe?" Jack Greefkes says as he mops sweat off his brow from all the hooting and hollering. "Doesn't matter, really. Worth it. ... If she moves on, great; if not, it's great experience for her."
Who knows what you'll see?
Winners of "America's Got Talent," which features a $1 million prize and a headlining show in Las Vegas, have been singers, except for ventriloquist Terry Fator in 2007. Dance groups have finished second multiple times.
When the show returns for its seventh season this summer, a comedian (like no-last-name Mike) could have a shot. So could a dance/acro squad, like the one featuring Carly Spangler, 10, Brianna Price, 12, Brianna Gamble, 14, and Candice Hector, 16, from Tammy Arrowood's Stars of Tomorrow dance studio in Shelby. A dry run through their gymnastics routine Friday looks pretty peppy.
A dance group from Atlanta named Black Roses stands out because of their attire: The women in the crew are wearing black-and-white blazers over one-piece, blue spandex body suits, with matching knee-high boots and red lace gloves.
But their outfits aren't as head-turning as those worn by Jordan Nolan of Atlanta and Charlotteans Heather Morris, Cherish Robertson and Maegan Sweat.
"We don't really have a talent," says bikini-clad model Robertson, as she stands next to the other women - who also sport tiny two-piece bathing suits. Explains Sweat: "They (the producers) wanted us to come in and ... just, you know, advertise for the Carolinas having pretty girls in bikinis."
'A fast-growing, vibrant city'
Charlotte is one of the last stops on a nationwide tour that brought "America's Got Talent" open calls to Anaheim, Austin, St. Louis, Tampa and Washington, D.C.
"We picked Charlotte because it is a fast-growing, vibrant city," says executive producer Jason Raff, whose boss is Simon Cowell. "We like to look at cities that are growing, that have a good kind of core entertainment quality to it."
Originally, the casting calls were to take place Saturday and Sunday, but a certain football game and a little bit of déjà vu prompted Raff and his team to push the timetable up.
"The last time we were in Charlotte (in 2008), it was Super Bowl weekend ... when the Giants beat the Pats," Raff says. (The New England Patriots and the New York Giants, of course, meet again on Sunday.) "That year we had a good turnout on Saturday, and Sunday morning - and then it just cleared out. ... We ended up being able to watch a lot of the game. I didn't want that to happen again."
Raff says some contestants will be flown to another audition to be seen by the celebrity judges. Could one of them be 52-year-old Christopher Rogers, a retired Boston police officer who sings jazz and R&B? He doesn't know. But he had to fly down here to try.
"I believe the Lord wants you to use what he gives you as a talent," Rogers says, as he clutches a tiny angel with the inscription "An angel is watching over me." "You try to find different ways to make that opportunity happen. So I thought maybe I'd come here ... and maybe get a little national exposure."