Move over, Susan Boyle!

May 29, 2009

A National Talent Competition Has Seniors Reaching For The Stars

by Shannon Melnyk

Lloyd KnightWe all get giddy over the story of an unsung hero. Undiscovered talent. The rise of the underdog. It seems we can’t turn on the television without bumping into reality TV’s answer to our relatively recent obsession with talent competitions like American Idol, Canadian Idol, Britain’s got talent, So You think You Can Dance, and Dancing with the Stars.

Our ideas about fame, fortune and glory have traditionally been reserved for the young; American Idol set us on the sequin-studded road to cheer on teens and twenty-somethings in a bid to support Hollywood dreams and launch fledgling careers. But we need only to look to 47-year old Susan Boyle’s triumphant audition on Britain’s Got Talent to see that something has shifted; when the jaws of the world along with acid-tongued judge Simon Cowell collectively dropped as we witnessed an unlikely candidate for stardom channel the likes of Broadway’s Sarah Brightman – the elementary school adage not to judge a book by its cover came home to roost. After a decadent generation of force-fed ideals dictating what we should value in the world of entertainment, it turns out we can appreciate raw talent, period.

Enter Senior Star, the experienced population’s kick at the superstar can. It’s the brainchild of Chartwell Reit, the third largest senior’s housing company in North America. Come June, senior citizens all across Canada will be welcome to take part in regional auditions at Chartwell properties throughout the country. Ten finalists will be chosen to receive the red-carpet treatment in Toronto in October and compete for cash in an event fit for Canadian Idol at The Concert Hall at the Fairmont Royal York. In fact, Canadian Idol’s Laura Lynn Band will be pinch-hitting for Senior Star and the entire production will be aired on CTV and hosted by Canadian singing legend Dinah Christie.

In its third year running, this new kid on the reality show block has attracted musicians and vocalists with varying degrees of backgrounds but with no shortage of competitive edge, not to mention decades of experience. Chartwell’s Senior Vice President of Marketing Phil McKenzie says the event has blown away the preconceptions of the kinds of contributions the experienced population has to offer. An example, he says, was in the arrival of the finalists to Toronto in the first year. The Laura Lynn Band, used to high-profile events and professional gigs, weren’t entirely sure what to expect when it was time to rehearse. When Leonard Blomfeldt, a clarinet player from Kamloops, BC took to the stage, McKenzie said they were visibly caught off guard.

“Heads snapped back”, McKenzie laughs. “The band was expecting ten old fogies and what they got was musical precision and extraordinary genius.” Turns out Blomfeldt has a rare mastery of the instrument. He placed second on the big night, but the Swedish transplant who got his start in his family band as a child says it was gratifying to be chosen amongst the tremendous talent he saw in the regional auditions.

“My wife was extremely nervous”, Blomfeldt remembers. “You could feel the pressure. One slip and you’re done!” McKenzie also recalls an Edmonton native who showed up to a regional audition. “The man was in his early 90’s and was blind”, he says. “He was expected to play the piano and sing, but in the warm-up felt the piano was out of tune. He turned to a competitor and said, can I borrow your guitar ? and proceeded to sing Granddaughter, a song he wrote himself. It was so moving, the room filled with tears.

Lloyd Knight knows a little something about emotional performances as last year’s Senior Star champion. On the insistence of his barber’s wife, the 74-year old Stouffville, Ontario resident entered the competition and won top prize after belting out the contemporary You Raise Me Up originally made famous by 28-year old singing sensation Josh Groban. He has his grandmother to thank for teaching him church hymns from the age of seven. But after years of singing in church, he couldn’t possibly have predicted a whole new career. Since his 15 minutes of fame, Knight has been booked for 27 singing engagements.

Ironically, Knight admits to having been influenced by a culture that too easily forgets the incredible value offered by the senior population. “Seniors get set aside, perhaps unintentionally”, he says. “Part of me thought: I’m at a certain age, the singing stuff might just be over”. But his passion for performing and his pure love for connecting with an audience convinced him to persevere, serving us all with the reminder to get bold, not old. Singing professionally will be challenging to Knight, but only because he will have to juggle his gigs in-between his roles as a Producer at his sons’ production company and the President of a corporate health and wellness company, as well as the hockey he manages to find time to play twice a week.

“As seniors, the wisdom and experience we have to offer can bring so much value”, Knight says. “Retirement is not in my DNA.”

About the Author: Shannon Melnyk is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Vancouver. Dividing her time between newspapers, magazines, television and the world wide web, her latest adventures in word slinging can be seen at www.shannonmelnyk.com

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