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‘Idol’ finale now a Hollywood spectacular

From celeb-filled red carpet to singers themselves, it's pure show biz
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Helicopters were circling over Hollywood Boulevard on Wednesday afternoon, keeping tabs on the chaos down below. The famed street was closed and onlookers, in a frenzy of flashbulbs and cell phones, waited for the stars to arrive.

This scene has been played many times in front of the Kodak Theater, as movie premieres are common in this part of town. But it wasn’t Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts who had the throngs pushing for a glimpse of celebrity this time — rather, it was the troika of “American Idol” judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell who caused the ruckus.

A palpable shriek was heard when Simon appeared at 4:40, first to partake in a local TV interview before heading off into the venue. “Simon, you’re so hot!” a young woman screamed as pictures were snapped. Randy and Paula soon followed him in.

For those lucky enough to have tickets, this seems a good time to head into the Kodak and grab a seat. Dozens of Fox employees are posted throughout the Hollywood and Highland entertainment complex trying to guide folks in as quickly as possible, certainly before showtime. The network would be aghast if the camera panned the theater at 5 p.m. and empty seats were shown.

It’s easy to stargaze near the main entrance. Ray Romano and his family are keeping away from the crowds in an Origins boutique while Heather Locklear’s spotted coming in but she seems lost and asks for help.

The theater only holds a few thousand seats but, like much of Hollywood’s power structure, is separated into the haves and have-nots.

Tickets in the lower section are reserved for family and friends of the contestants. These seats offer the best view but, in actuality, those sitting there have the most invested in the results and have a hard time relaxing. Their applause is tepid at best.

Rather, it’s the folks in the three mezzanine sections that are loudest and most animated about being there. On this level, two pre-teen girls are seen coming out of the bathroom with gray-haired wigs, an homage to finalist Taylor Hicks. And it’s Hicks who, without a doubt, is the fan favorite among the crowd. A rough guess has it that the audience is split about 70 percent-30 percent in favor of the Alabama crooner.

The warm-up guy, whose is there to get the audience revved up, seems particularly lame tonight. As he’s done for 10 weeks at “Idol’s” other Hollywood-based set just a few miles away, he talks to people in the crowd and asks where they’re from and who their favorites Idols are.

With only four minutes before showtime, Randy and Paula dash to their table but Simon, even after being introduced, is nowhere to be found. Literally only a few seconds before the cameras turn on, Simon enters from a side door and takes his seat on the judges table.

There’s none of the friendly banter and hand slapping between the judges and audience that would occur on a typical Tuesday or Wednesday. Tonight’s serious business and everyone’s well aware.

An uncomfortable ‘Chicken Little’
During the first song, with all the Idols dressed in white, Kevin “Chicken Little” Covais seems the most uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the cavernous and prestigious theater that has done him in, but he really seems out of place here. The Idols are swaying to the beat of the song but he looks hopelessly out of synch. His lack of syncopation is a bit jarring.

The acoustics at the top of the Kodak are average at best. The music comes across loud and strong but the lyrics are a bit muddled and warbled.

Contestant Chris Daughtry of McLeansville, N.C., left, performs with Ed Kowalczyk the lead singer of the band \"Live,\" during the finale show of American Idol on Wednesday, May 24, 2006, in Los Angeles. Daughtry was voted off on May 10, 2006.Kevork Djansezian / AP

During the first commercial break, Chris Daughtry arrives on stage to sing with Live. He’s unquestionably still a fan favorite and there’s a thunderous applause as he appears. He waves to the crowd, paces a bit and waves some more. He may have been kicked off a few weeks back but if the reaction of his appearance is any indication, he might’ve provided stronger competition against Taylor than Katharine.

During several commercial breaks over the course of the night, stagehands move quickly but efficiently setting up equipment, chairs or whatever is needed for the next act. They don’t have much time but there’s at least a dozen of them and they all know exactly what needs to be done in a fairly short amount of time.

Unlike the previous weeks where the Idols are sitting on benches onstage during the breaks and can communicate with their fans in a relaxed and casual manner, tonight they’re nowhere to be found, whisked off to the wings, often in various stages of costume changes. The only time the audience will see them is when they are on TV, so there’s few secrets or personality traits to be revealed.

When the boys all sing together about halfway through the show, Randy points to each of them and they all give him a smile. As the song finishes, each of guys embrace one another and this has the makings of an Idol reunion. Some of them haven’t seen each other in months and everyone seems to be having a genuinely good time reconnecting.

Vocally, the best song of the night is the duet between Elliott Yamin and Mary J. Blige. It sounds great and there seems to still be a lot of affection for Elliott from the pro-Taylor fan base.

One of the problems sitting near the top is that it’s almost impossible to identify the unannounced guest appearances. There’s a lot of “Who’s that?” and “I think that’s so and so” whispers to be heard but, eventually, the word gets out.

This mystery guessing game is true for most everyone except Prince, of course, who receives a wildly raucous round of applause for the first few minutes of his set. Rumor has it that he turned down the “Idol” producers to have a night based on his music but agreed to perform in the finale.

Former American Idol finalist Clay Aiken performs during the season finale of American Idol on Wednesday, May 24, 2006 in Los Angeles.Kevork Djansezian / AP

Clay Aiken wannabe Michael Sandecki is absolutely stunned when his hero walks behind him on stage. After the song ends and the cameras turn off, Sandecki remains in shock. He walks off the side of the stage and people sitting near the front try to shake his hand and offer their support but he’ll have none of it. He keeps his hands over his open mouth, never moving his arms, literally traumatized by the recent turn of events. His emotions get the best of him and he begins gently weeping before leaving.

The warm-up guy is moving around to different parts of the Kodak, tossing around “Idol” T-shirts and, with microphone in hand, comes across an ill young man who’s attending the show compliments of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. His plight touches many and is given a warm round of applause.

Also, down at the judges table, the make-up artist is touching up Paula. She wants to look her best before the winner is announced.

With only a few moments left in the show, Ryan announces that Taylor is the winner. As Kat walks off the stage, the women Idols are standing next to her and Kellie Pickler is the first to run over and give her a warm and compassionate hug.

Let the celebration beginKat seems fine with the results, far from devastated. The general consensus among the fans make it seem a forgone conclusion that Taylor would come out on top. Soon fireworks go off and confetti falls from the sky. Chris wraps his arms around Taylor, who’s still in a somewhat state of awe, and lifts him off the ground. The other guys gather round and all offer their congrats, as do the ladies.

Smoke starts to fill the Kodak and the audience slowly meanders out. Up near the top, the smoke is getting thicker and odorous.

Next are the two after-parties. Fox is throwing a B-list bash at a ballroom only a few hundred yards from the theater. David Hasselhoff is probably the celebrity with the highest wattage, drawing a few stares. Harry Hamlin and Lisa Rinna can be seen noshing on food but this one is mostly industry types and their families celebrating “Idol’s” incredible run.

Flat-screen monitors in the ballroom will begin broadcasting the show in about 45 minutes and there’s a smattering of postcards strewn around several tables with Taylor’s photo on them, declaring him the champ.

Meanwhile, there’s another party down the block at the Roosevelt Hotel, which the Idols and their families will attend. Most there will reflect on how their lives have been changed forever and thrown into the cultural zeitgeist.

But all that’s probably a little too much to think about right now. Most attendees haven’t eaten for hours — mostly due to nerves — and they’re starving and looking for something, almost anything, to eat. The food servers walking around with trays of hot and cold appetizers have become the newest celebrities for the time being.

Taylor may be the newest American Idol, but, hey, a boy’s gotta eat.

Stuart Levine is a Senior Editor at Variety in Los Angeles.