Talent shows fascinate me, not necessarily for what is happening onstage, but because I can’t stop wondering about that moment when the dad said “Hey, we should start a family hip-hop troupe!” and the rest of the family immediately responded with a resounding “YES!” and then “Let’s ask grandpa and grandma to join!”
Then it was “I’ll buy turquoise satin material to make our matching outfits!” and “I’ll reserve practice space at the Y!” and “I’ll start creating choreography to ‘Getting’ Jiggy Wit It!’”
I have a hard time getting our entire family into the van to leave for a family vacation.
I’m certain they would be less than enthused about me repeatedly correcting their jazz hands technique as part of my dope choreography for our family routine to “Boom Boom Pow” by the Black-Eyed Peas.
I do, however, regularly threaten my family with this kind of public performance, in which we would all take up amateur bodybuilding, or stage our solo interpretive dance of Rochester’s early history, or present a jump rope routine in which our dog Scout and I would stand face to face (she on her hind legs, her front paws on my shoulders) and execute double unders to “Jump” by Kris Kross.
If we were ever going to do it, I know where we’d want to perform. Because if you’re ever considering taking part in—or watching—a talent show, nothing is more moving than seeing locals give their time and talent to the Eagles Cancer Telethon.
From 8 p.m. on Saturday Jan. 14 until 4 p.m. on Sunday Jan. 15, more than 100 talent show acts will perform for 20 straight hours in front of Mayo Civic Center crowds ranging from a packed house to, at 5 a.m., mostly camera operators and volunteers and KTTC personalities. Anyone can show up, for free, and watch.
So it’s gone for 63 years. In that first year, 1954, the telethon raised just over $10,000. Last year, it brought in more than $1 million, much of that from things like kids’ lemonade stands or senior living home penny drives or the brother who took donations from high school classmates to shave his head in honor of his sister with cancer.
The telethon acts consist of everything from Elvis impersonators to jugglers to yodelers to tap-dancing grandmothers to that family who decided to start that hip-hop troupe.
And the phone-in donations, I’m sure, pour in when those performers get the chance, on live TV, to explain the motivation behind their performance. Because that’s the moment you’ll understand why, when that dad said “Hey, we should start a family hip-hop troupe!” that his family responded with a resounding “YES!”
They’re here, they’ll tell you, because they lost a little brother to cancer. Or because their favorite teacher lost all her hair to chemo and she’s been gone from school a lot. Or because their infant—their little baby boy—survived cancer because of research funded from events like this.
You realize that those hours spent hip-hop dancing in that basement were about something bigger.
And while I joke about auditioning as a family act, daughter Hadley, now 18, has spent the last five years actually auditioning. Anyone who has attended one of these tryouts, held in November at the Eagles Club, knows that just having the nerve to audition is an accomplishment in itself. Those auditioners—that 9-year-old girl standing up there singing “American Girl,” or that granny act tap dancing in costume, in front of a crowd of judges and performers competing for the same slots—are as cool and courageous as it gets.
For her first two years, like a lot of acts, Hadley did not receive that precious “yes” email. She kept trying, though, if only because she wanted to get the chance to say, right there on TV, that she was doing this for my mom, her grandma, who died of cancer 20 years before Hadley was even born.
On year three, Hadley finally got that “yes” email. And, even though she got that 5 a.m slot, she felt like a star. That year, Hadley played ukulele and sang “Riptide” and the camera cut to my wife Lindy for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, most likely because she was the only person in the audience. It didn’t matter, because Hadley got the chance to tell everyone why she was there.
Last year, Hadley scored an 8 p.m. Saturday night slot and played ukulele and sang A-ha’s “Take On Me” and the Beach Boys’ “In My Room.” Most importantly, though, when KTTC’s Robin Wolfram asked Hadley why she had tried out, Hadley told the story about her aunt, my brother’s wife Tammi, who died of brain cancer at age 51. My brother and his kids, I know, were watching over a live stream back home in Michigan.
This year, daughter Emma was that 9-year-old girl standing up there—at those auditions—singing Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” She had spent hours in Hadley’s room, practicing with Hadley playing piano.
I heard “American Girl” more times in November than Tom Petty did during his last tour.
Emma didn’t get that precious “yes” email this year, though she had fun spending time practicing with her older sister and trying out.
Hadley did get into the telethon. So, sometime after noon on Sunday, she will stand up on that stage and play ukulele and sing her own version of “Come Sail Away” by Styx.
And, if they ask her, she’ll get a chance to tell everyone watching about my mom, or her Aunt Tammi, or one of the other people that she and all the other performers and volunteers are really doing this for.