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Inside an ‘American Idol’ elimination show

Cheer when you’re ordered to, and don’t chew gum
/ Source: contributor

"American Idol" is watched by over 30 million television viewers, but just about 300 actually fill the studio seats to watch the show in person each week. Tickets are free, but they’re extremely hard to get. Many viewers score free tickets from someone associated with the show’s network and producer, others are friends or family of any of the Idols. Fans who don't fall into those categories must line up on Los Angeles' Beverly Boulevard and hope an extra ticket falls their way.

While "Idol" is a FOX show, it's filmed at CBS Studios, where fans start gathering in the early morning the day of a show. On this Wednesday night, taping begins at 6 p.m., aired live on the East Coast. By 4:30 in the afternoon, both ticket holders and the first group of line dwellers, are moved to a holding area in back of the stage.

Sitting patiently is Sharon Pickler with her niece and two other girls. Pickler’s dressed in a “Pickler for mayor/council” T-shirt but, surprisingly, she’s not related to dopey but adorable Kellie — they just happen to share the surname. Her shirt is left over from the days when her father was an Anaheim councilman. Pickler’s rooting for Kellie, of course, and offers some motherly advice: “I think she’s darling but I hope she doesn’t overdo the makeup.”

Doors open at 5:20. The cameras have a way of making the "Idol" stage set seem like a mini Madison Square Garden but, in reality, capacity is only 300. The crowd looks to be a majority of 12- to 14-year-old girls, with moms and big sisters in tow. After the initial rush of being there slowly wears off, the fans look for any whiff of celebrity. The Idols are tucked away backstage and won’t make an appearance until just before the show starts so contestants’ families, now mini-celebrities in their own right, will have to suffice.

Families are all seated in the first five rows. Sharp-eyed fans can spot Katharine McPhee’s mom and sister chatting with well-wishers and, just to their right, Ace Young’s hunky brother —easy to identify as they’re practically twins. A batch of girls catch sight of him and shriek as only 12-year-old girls can do. He waves to his adoring female fans, who shriek again and wave back.

Gumming up the worksThe CBS pages hurry up and down the aisles holding Styrofoam cups, asking anyone with gum to toss it in. Young adults working at the studio, hoping this is their way into a showbiz career, are gum collectors. “Yeah, it’s kind of gross,” says one woman. “I don’t look in the cup.”

Fifteen minutes before showtime, an MC named Cory bounds on stage to warm up the crowd. He yells into the microphone, picks a couple of unsuspecting fools to join in a few dance moves and the energy of the place rises considerably.

Cory coaches, “When the bottom three are announced, make sure you go ‘Oooh,’ ‘Aww,’ gasp out loud in shock and act surprised. All of this will help the ratings.” I really don’t think my vocal amazement that Bucky might be booted is gonna kick up the ratings from a staggering 30 to 31 million, but hey, if that’s what it takes.

In almost rock-star fashion, Cory announces the arrival of Randy, Paula and Simon. “Stand up and put your hands together for Ran-dy, Ran-dy, Ran-dy,” he howls. The biggest round of applause, by a slight margin, is for Paula. When Simon’s name is called, there’s a very small smattering of boos but, mostly, it's raise-the-roof adulation.

Like athletes, all three judges high-five their adoring faithful on the way in. Randy and Paula — whose makeup is sparkling, even from several yards away — run through much of the audience to soak up the love. Simon skips the audience love and makes a beeline straight to the judge’s table but with a big smile on his face.

Now the Idols arrive from behind center stage and make their first appearance. They all look a tad shorter in person than on TV (except for Taylor, who towers above the rest) and, in general, appear more nervous. Mandisa looks thinner than earlier impressions, Kellie Pickler a little cuter.

Ryan Seacrest races to the back of the audience for his intro only seconds before the show goes live at 6 p.m., and the crowd is shushed by the stage manager, a small woman with a headset mike. As soon as Seacrest finishes, she now instructs the crowd to cheer wildly. During the commercial breaks, the Idols banter with one another and wave to the fans. The audience howls for its favorites — “I love you Paris!,” “You’re so hot, Chris!” — and the Idols never stop smiling, acknowledging their new-found fame with aplomb. One man's sign proclaims that he drove 1,400 miles from Kansas just to see Paula in person. He's rewarded with a warm hug and a peck on the lips from Paula herself. 

Sky falls for Chicken LittleFinally, Bucky, Lisa and Kevin are announced as the three singers with the fewest votes. During the commercial, the three stand in their assigned spots, fidgeting and silent. One girl shouts out that she wants Kevin to go to the prom with her. He doesn’t respond. There's a general sense that Bucky will get the boot, but in a bit of a shock, Kevin is told to say goodbye, to audible disappointment from the crowd.

He sings his final version of "When I Fall in Love" on the cusp of the stage. With the band accompaniment and the room’s wall-to-wall speakers and soundproof acoustics, the song comes across vocally strong, much more so than on TV. That might be the biggest difference between being here and watching at home. When the Idols sing, it sounds so much better in person.

The red lights on the cameras turn off a few seconds into Kevin’s song but that does nothing to change the somber atmosphere. During the song’s final moments, Kevin walks over to his fellow Idol contestants and dedicates the song to them, pointing to all of his friends who’ve gone through this surreal adventure with him.

As soon as the song is over, Kevin looks completely dejected. The first person to offer condolence is Paula, who runs up from her seat and gives him a long and compassionate hug. Soon, the other Idols do the same, and Randy and Simon join, too.

When the hugging ends, Kevin is forced into doing a TV interview, the Idols slowly head off stage and the crowd meanders out. As people scatter, CBS pages offer studio audience tickets to a taping of “Game Show Marathon,” in which more “American Idol” tickets will be raffled off.

Only six more days until the hysteria starts up again.

Stuart Levine is a senior editor at Daily Variety in Los Angeles.