Before 'American Idol,' Boston had 'Community Auditions'
Decades before CDs, DVDs and MTV.
Before cell phones, cable and online voting.
And before "American Idol," Boston had its own talent search: "Community Auditions."
In 1965, Gary D'Alessandro of Shrewsbury and his band, the Wildcats, performed for Community Auditions. Stephen Rose on lead guitar, Henry Gillam on organ, John "Jack" Moran on drums, and D'Alessandro on rhythm guitar, all freshmen at Hopedale Junior-Senior High School and 14-years-old, competed to win a trophy.
"Even without a prize, we would have done it anyway," he said. "It was a lot of fun."
In the '60s with not a lot to copy, the Wildcats created their own image.
"Whatever came across our little transistor radio, we tried to imitate," said D'Alessandro. "There were the radio and records, if you could afford them, and very little pop. A lot of it we made up. You didn't even know what singers and artists looked like."
Even "American Bandstand" didn't give the rock 'n' roll band what they needed.
"He had mild stuff - sweet girls and guys - not groups like The Animals, The Rolling Stones, and The Kinks," said D'Alessandro. "They were too risque for the day."
The Community Auditions try-outs began with a Rotary Club talent show, according to notes kept by D'Alessandro's mom. The band won second place and headed for the big time.
"I have no idea where we got the nerve to do this," said D'Alessandro. "I don't think we questioned it very much."
The "Community Auditions" selection process differed drastically from "American Idol." About 6,000 contestants competed, in Boston alone, for "American Idol's" fifth season. D'Alessandro's 19-year old daughter, Julie, was one of them.
On Sunday, Feb. 14, 1965, the Wildcats performed for "Community Auditions" live at WBZ's studios in Allston. They sang Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and took first place.
"I think I remember all the families going on Sunday morning to the show and throwing all this stuff in the back of a 1960 Country Squire station wagon," said D'Alessandro.
Times were different then, as a photo shows the not-so-high-tech backdrop and microphones operated on pulleys.
Six contestants competed on "Community Auditions," according to Dave Maynard, host of the WBZ show for 24 years. The showed aired Sunday morning from 11 to 11:30 from 1950 until 1987.
"It was the number one show in that time slot," said Maynard. "It wasn't prime time, but who cares when you're number one.
"I really loved doing the show," said Maynard. "Everybody was on that show. It was a very honest show with magicians, tap dancers, singers, comedians and impersonators. There were themed competitions just for policemen, firemen, and people in their 80s and over. It was great."
D'Alessandro remembers performing on the show in jazzy bright blue jackets with black lapels, which they ordered from a catalog.
The four teens returned to "Community Auditions" for two more rounds of competition, as D'Alessandro remembers, and made it to the semifinals.
In the '60s voting was done by postcard. It took a week to determine the winner. "Every Friday the winners were called and appeared the next week on the show," said Maynard.
One of D'Alessandro's most vivid memories is when his two younger brothers, Alan and Don, then 7 and 6 respectively, visited the studio. Expecting to see the real thing, they felt betrayed when Rex Trailer's "Boom Town" set was merely a facade.
When not performing at "Community Auditions," the Wildcats performed at high schools in Milford, Hopedale, Bellingham and Upton. At 14, and not old enough to drive, their parents were behind the wheel.
The band also performed in several battle of the band competitions at places like Lakeview Ballroom, later named the Myriad Ballroom in Mendon, as D'Alessandro remembers, where The Animals, the Young Rascals, and the Yardbirds with Eric Clapton performed.
Reflecting on the Wildcats' days of fame, D'Alessandro sees "American Idol" contestants as semiprofessionals.
"Kids now have music videos and a lot to copy," he said.
After college D'Alessandro sang professionally but left the music for the automotive industry. He now owns Quality Auto Body in Holliston.
Combining the old with the new, the popular talent show that ran for 37 years in Boston is back and now called "Community Auditions Star of the Day," according to Maynard, who acts as consultant for the show.
The first show aired May 6 at Mohegan Sun, according to Chuck Armstrong, "Community Auditions" executive producer.
"It runs on three different TV networks: MyTV New England WZMY, WPXT TV in Portland, Maine, and on NESN outside of Boston," said Armstrong.
Anyone in New England is eligible. People submit tapes and DVDs for their audition. If selected, they show up at Mohegan Sun and tape before a studio audience. Tapings, refreshments and audience tickets are all free.
"A new show runs every week, with 35 original shows this season," said Armstrong. "The airing of our final competition is slated for Dec. 16, 2007."
The new version reaches a broader New England audience, compared to the show which originally only broadcast in the Boston area.
"It's still the same thing at its core," said Armstrong. "It's still community based and a chance to show your talent. We tried to update the look and the feel of the last show that went off the air in 1987. We are trying to maintain the image that they feel good after the airing. Sometimes when you look at other shows on TV, that doesn't shine through."
(Kathy Uek of The MetroWest Daily News can be reached at 508-626-4419 or email@example.com.)