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"Community Auditions Can Make You A Star, Again"

Ken Gardiner, a guitarist in Portland, Maine, plans to drive 200 miles Tuesday to the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut for an audition of a lifetime.

He’s trying out for the revived “Community Auditions,” the Boston talent show that featured amateur performers from all over New England who performed on live TV. The show, which went off the air in 1987 after 30 years, made a modest comeback last year on various regional stations. Next week it will return to WBZ-TV (Channel 4), its home for decades, and WSBK-TV (Channel 38). The show will air twice a week, beginning at 9:30 p.m. April 11 on WSBK and at midnight on April 13 on WBZ.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for the local bands and songwriters,” says Gardiner; he and his friend, singer Travis Searle, make up the rock duo Spyside. Gardiner heard about the show, visited its website (communityauditions.com), and sent in an MP3 file of his band’s music and a link to his MySpace page. The show’s producers called and asked Spyside to audition.

Taking a cue from the explosive popularity of “American Idol,” Chuck Armstrong, president of Armstrong Interactive Inc. in New York, said he wanted to bring back “Auditions” to give local singers like Gardiner a shot at fame. He produced the new edition of the show last year on MyTV, the CW station in Portland, and NECN.

“We wanted to make sure it was an homage to the original but updated,” says Armstrong, who grew up watching with his grandmother in Plymouth.

Armstrong said he hopes the show’s return to WBZ as well as WSBK for a 40-week run will introduce it to a new generation of New Englanders who were born after the competition went off the air.

Gardiner and most New Englanders over 30 still remember the “Community Auditions” song: “Star of the day, who will it be? Your vote may hold the key. It’s up to you. Tell us who will be star of the day.”

As a kid, Gardiner watched contestants who performed in the local talent show gather center stage to sing the jingle with host Dave Maynard. At home, their friends and family tuned in and cheered, propelling the show into a top-rated local phenomenon.

“My sister and I enjoyed watching shows like that,” recalls Gardiner, a psychology professor at the University of Southern Maine. “We would pretend we were on.”

Gene Burns served as the first host, and then came Maynard, who introduced six contestants each week. At the end of the show, viewers were encouraged to mail in postcards to vote for their favorite performer. The following week the winner was announced, and Maynard led the contestants in singing the show’s “Star of the Day” song.

“We were strictly amateur talent,” says Maynard, 78, from his home in Hernando County, Fla., where he occasionally receives letters from former contestants.

He estimates the original show featured 2,500 acts each year when it aired on WBZ before moving to WCVB-TV (Channel 5) for a brief run as “The Dave Maynard Talent Showcase.” Themed episodes featured firefighters and police officers or musicians over the age of 80. Maynard fondly recalls memorable acts such as the group of 25 kids from Hudson called “The Harmonica Hobos,” who played “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover.” Or the boy magician who watched his white bird - and his act - fly away in the studio.

“I have great memories of that show,” Maynard says. “I did it for 25 years, so I guess I should. This was for people who had talent and wanted to further it. If you had some talent, you were on ’Community Auditions.’”

Fans of the show say it was an extremely local precursor to successful talent reality shows such as Fox’s “American Idol” and NBC“s summer series, “America“s Got Talent.” After watching them gain popularity, Armstrong believed the timing was right to resurrect “Community Auditions.”

“It’s kind of how all music is being made nowadays,” Armstrong says, referring to the network talent competitions. “It’s not just a place to incubate talent but allow New Englanders to share their voice. There are not a lot of venues [locally]. There’s a passion for music, and people like to back their hometown. It’s about making people feel good about the experience.”

Striking differences abound between the old and new “Community Auditions.” The former was a live, low-budget, and homey production at WBZ studios. The new version: Glitzy, with a big band, taped at Mohegan Sun.

Another key difference: The show is only accepting auditions for singers. They can e-mail their music or sign up on the show’s website.

Instead of Maynard as the show’s host, viewers will see Boston radio personalities Lori Grande from WKLB-FM (102.5) and Jackson Blue from WXKS-FM (KISS 108). The updated show will feature a panel of celebrity judges a la “American Idol.” Last season's crop included Ernie Boch Jr., Susan Wornick of WCVB, and Ayla Brown, a contestant on “American Idol” in 2006.

In the original show, winners walked away with bragging rights, a trophy, and a small prize such as a TV set. In the new version, the winner drives home in a new Subaru and gets the opportunity to make a professional CD with record producer Bob Johnston, who has worked with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

Bryain Winbush, a singer from Roxbury, captured the grand championship in December after wowing the judges and the audience with his a cappella rendition of “Superstar” by Luther Vandross. Winbush, who works as a security guard and a youth counselor, sings weekly at his church, Grant African Methodist Episcopal. Last summer he auditioned as a backup singer for a rapper friend on “America’s Got Talent.” Although the rapper was cut, the judges asked Winbush return to sing solo. He was voted off in the second round.

Armstrong happened to spot Winbush on the reality show and asked him to try out for “Community Auditions.” Performing on the show and then winning was a dream come true for Winbush.

“NBC gave me national exposure, but ’Community Auditions’ put me over the map, not because I won but because of the atmosphere. It was very family-oriented,” says Winbush, who plans to record a CD next month with Johnston. “It was an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz[at]globe.com. - Botson Globe


Spyside EP



Originally hailing from Rhode Island, and currently splitting their time between Boston, MA and Portland, ME, Ken Gardiner (Guitars/Bass) and Travis Searle (Vocals/Keyboards) have been writing, recording, and performing together for over a decade. A live performance on the popular "Community Auditions: Star of the Day” TV program in April 2008 sparked the duo's latest trip to the studio, culminating in the July 2008 release of their self-titled EP. The 7-song collection highlights some of their most varied and formidable song writing to date. Combining Searle's warm, distinctive vocals with Gardiner's melodic guitar riffs and solid, grooved bass lines, Spyside achieves an edgy, pop-oriented sound.
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Email: spyside@yahoo.com