Karaoke for the masses, finally

During the filming of “SwankyOke” last December, contestants did everything they could to keep the crowd captivated. One man spit beer. Others dressed up like the stars they were representing the “Blues Brothers” were there, as was Madonna. Some even shed their clothes. This is former Portlander Tennessee Reid Norton’s vision of karaoke. And if he has his way, it will be America’s too. “SwankyOke” is an “American Idol” meets the “Gong Show” hybrid currently in development. Norton, 35, is both creator and host. In addition, he edited the 16 hours of film compiled in Portland into a 30-second “teaser,” a cross between a commercial and a movie trailer, using editing software on his home computer.

The teaser was presented to executive producers in Los Angeles on March 17. Now Norton must sit back and wait. He should know in a few weeks if he has the financial backing and network support to take his show on the road. “Everything is in limbo right now,” he said. “It’s the nature of the business.”

The pilot for the half-hour show was filmed Dec. 22 at the now-defunct Molly Maguire’s Bar and Grill. Twenty-eight singers competed before a packed room of about 50 people, vying for nothing more than a few seconds in the spotlight.

“You can see a cross section of America by going to karaoke bars,” Norton said. “All over the country, there must be different subcultures. It’s a huge selling point. They aren’t professional singers, they’re real people. You’re getting a slice of life.”

Though he now calls Los Angeles home, Norton worked as an animator at Portland’s Will Vinton Studios from 1998 to 2001. He and his work friends would go to Molly Maguire’s to sing karaoke and blow off steam. While singing favorites like Neil Diamond’s “Cracklin’ Rosie” and Bobby Darrin’s “Beyond the Sea,” he found his calling. “Karaoke is where I found my true passion. I said this is it for me,” he said. This eventually led to deejaying karaoke one night a week.

Molly’s co-owner Kathleen Foster, who hired Norton, knew he had star quality. She described him as “outgoing, fun and boisterous.” “I told him that all the time,” she said. “I said, “I think you have a very serious interest in being an entertainer. That’s what he’s all about.” Once Norton started deejaying, Foster said, “the rest is history.” “The place was so busy on Thursday nights you could hardly get a seat.” While at Molly’s, Norton started cultivating the attitude and dress of his stage persona, Bachelor Donnie Smooth. Over the years, Smooth has evolved into a cross between Bobby Darrin and Wayne Newton. In other words, he is a “schmaltzy” lounge lizard with a penchant for white tuxedos and ill-fitting blond wigs. This is also the feel Norton tried to create for the pilot: swanky, but not too serious.

“Karaoke is inherently cheesy. It’s both entertainment and something you laugh at. And I guess the closest thing to that is lounge,” Norton said. The concept for a TV show came about by accident. Norton was on the set of a show his friend produces when he met a development producer who shared a common interest in karaoke. He told her about his performances at private parties as Smooth, and she thought it sounded like a good idea for a show. She helped him develop the concept and structure.

The structure of the show is fairly simple. It consists of two rounds. In the first, the audience chooses the top five performers by means of applause; in the second, three judges award points from 1 to 10 for style, ability and showmanship. If the performer is not up to par, the judges can pull him off stage with the “velvet hook.”

Norton, as Smooth, introduces performers and offers witty banter between acts. Meanwhile, backstage, a camera is capturing the performers’ reactions to the competition.

Norton said some of the best moments of the pilot came backstage. After contestant Stacie Wolfe took off her shirt and won crowd support to advance to the finals, another contestant became irate. She blasted the backstage camera crew. “She felt more deserving people should have advanced,” Norton said. “There’s lots of bleeping out.” But these are the type of moments Norton said are a “gold mine.” Wolfe, a 24-year-old student at Portland Community College, said she had no plans to take off her shirt, it just happened. “I had a great time,” she said. “I was just having fun.” Contestant Cory Webb brought about a lighter moment that night. The audience went wild as he pulled down his pants and smacked his butt. “That was priceless,” Norton said. “It was smart of him and it livened up a somewhat bored crowd at that point.”

Portland seemed like the natural choice to shoot the pilot, Norton said. Not only is it where he started doing karaoke but, it has a high concentration of karaoke bars. And its singers are less inhibited, less “polished” than L.A. performers looking for fame.

Though the pilot was advertised mainly on craigslist.org, a computer bulletin board, the interest was substantial. Almost 300 people inquired about the show over e-mail, while about 75 actually showed up. Because of space and time, only 28 made it to filming.

“I was almost overwhelmed with the amount of people who responded,” Norton said. All of the “extremely low, incredibly low” budget for the pilot has come out of Norton’s pocket, though he won’t divulge an amount. Only the cameramen were paid, but everyone involved in the production from the casting director to the hostess received a contract for “back end” money should the show get picked up. Norton hopes that corporate sponsors will eventually help provide prize money for winners.

To make ends meet, he is currently working as a freelance editor and cameraman, as well as taking his “SwankyOke” act to private corporate parties. Should the show make it to air, venues in Charlottesville, N.C.; Orlando, Fla.; Seattle, Wash.; and Los Angeles, Calif. have shown interest in hosting “SwankyOke.” Norton anticipates returning to Portland for filming sometime this December.

A year from now, Norton hopes to be “rich and happy,” working only a third of the year on the show while developing other shows and “playing” the rest of the time.

“I want to know that I’m doing what I really love to do and nothing else,” he said.

Even if the show is rejected, former boss Foster is optimistic about Norton’s future.

“He’s just a really interesting person,” she said. “He’s very creative and very artistic. If the show doesn’t work out, I have no doubt he’ll be successful.”