Pop Culture

Hometown fans welcome back ‘Idol’ finalists

Everywhere they go, “American Idol” contestants attract a crowd of admirers, well-wishers, gushy handmade signs and screams fit for a vintage Beatle. But when it comes to feting finalists, home is where the “I (heart) you” is.

In what’s become an annual “Idol” rite of passage, the remaining three contestants — David Archuleta, Syesha Mercado and David Cook — headed to their respective hometowns Friday for a dose of family and the inevitably intense local rah-rah routine, showing just how stirred up communities get when one of their own shines on TV’s biggest stage.

Children are pulled from school. Elected officials make grand declarations. Pro sports teams clear the national-anthem calendar. Motorcades roll.

In Murray, Utah, Archuleta was greeted by the same sound that reaches the “Idol” stage every time he steps on it: screaming girls. There was no shortage of caterwauling Friday, from the cheerleaders who greeted him outside the KSTU-TV studios, to the students at Murray High School (where Archuleta is a junior) and intermixed among the thousands of people gathered for a glimpse at The Gateway, a Salt Lake City mall.

At the Murray High football stadium, many people wore T-shirts that read, “I Voted For David Archuleta.”

“This is the biggest thing ever for Murray,” said 12-year-old Marnie Hartbrecht. She and two friends explained how they get together as often as possible to watch the show and vote for the 17-year-old, lining up about seven cell phones for maximum effect.

They trio held a sign that said: “I (heart) you David.” Another group held a sign above their heads that read: “Future wife (s)” — with arrows pointing to each.

Earlier in the day, Archuleta appeared for an interview at the Salt Lake City Fox affiliate, KSTU-TV. “Wow!” the pint-sized crooner exclaimed as he took stock of the cheerleading squad outside his stretch limousine.

‘What are you guys doing here?’In Bradenton, Fla., about halfway between St. Petersburg and Sarasota, hundreds of fans — including schoolchildren who were bussed in by the dozen — awaited the arrival of Mercado. Manatee County Commissioner Gwen Brown whipped the crowd into a frenzy by setting a few things straight: Most importantly, she said, Mercado belongs to Manatee County — not Sarasota, as her hometown is listed on the show’s Web site.

“She is our girl,” Brown said, asserting that Mercado went to high school at Sarasota’s Booker High, but lived in Manatee County. “We just loaned her to Sarasota for a few hours a day.”

Running about half an hour late, the 21-year-old’s entourage finally showed up — a sport utility vehicle stretch limo and Manatee County sheriff’s cars carrying friends and family.

In Kansas City, Mo., the crowds withstood wind and drizzle for a glimpse of the shaggy-haired and raggedy-voiced rocker Cook, a native of the suburb of Blue Springs. His hometown tour — during a day which Missouri and Kansas City officials declared “David Cook Day” — started bright and early with TV appearances on the local Fox affiliate, followed by his late-morning appearance at the Power & Light District.

“What are you guys doing here?” Cook said, teasing the screaming crowd. “Guys, thank you, seriously. ... I don’t know what else to say. This is the coolest day of my life.”

Fans sang along loudly as Cook performed Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and a rocked-out version of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” taking over the lyrics at times while Cook strummed his guitar and grinned.

“So do you guys watch the show, seriously?” Cook asked between tunes. “Man, you guys are fantastic.”

Local fans support their favoritesTen-year-old Jake Lamb said he joined the tens of millions who watch the show solely because of the local connection. “We just started watching the show since he was on it,” Lamb said.

Safe to say he probably also wasn’t the only kid missing school on Friday on account of “Idol.” His mother, not seeing any harm in a missed day of classes for the occasion, was behind the plan.

“This is once in a lifetime,” said Gusti Lamb. “We want to support (Cook) and watch him go all the way.”

A bigger concert in Blue Springs, scheduled for later in the day, was sold out.

“How often does ‘American Idol’ come to your town and you get to see it up close and personal?” said Rachael Hufford, of Kansas City, Kan. “I wasn’t missing it for nothing.”

Her friend, Anna Bergen, of Leavenworth, Kan., called the whole experience “inspiring.”

“You think that this is hard to reach,” Bergen said. “But look at David Cook, he made it.”

For all the adoration, the “Idol” hopefuls were still going to have to sing for their supper — each was expected to tackle “The Star-Spangled Banner” later that night: Archuleta at the Jazz-Lakers NBA playoff game, Mercado at the Rays-Angels game and Cook at the Royals-Orioles.