EVERYBODY IS A STAR, so Sly Stone once sang. And after this weekend, I'm inclined to believe him. I had a vision of Mall Culture up at one in Columbia, as an eclectic crowd of would-be Whitneys lined up to make its own records, and teen-age girls strutted and fretted in an Ultimate Teen Model Search. It was the triumph of the anyone-can-do-it ethic. And why not? With tiny-talented teens like Tiffany cracking the Top Ten, why shouldn't we shower-singers, drive-time divas and Walkman warblers get a shot at polyvinyl posterity?
My big break came when I learned that the Super Star Recording people were doing a three-day event at the Columbia Mall. Super Star offers the musical equivalent of those four-snapshots-for-$1 booths. You choose from a roster of more than 250 songs, from "How Great Thou Art" to "Talk Dirty To Me," and for about $10 a song (depending on the nature of the event) you step into a recording booth and your voice is superimposed on a surprisingly true-to-the-original backing track, complete with background oohs and coos. The most popular selections these days seem to be "La Bamba" and "The Greatest Love of All" and "That's What Friends Are For."
"I think it's a fantasy for everyone, to pretend you are a star," says Tina Reiman, president of Eastern Recording, which operates four Super Star studios in this area. "And most people have no idea how they sound. No one sings worse than me, but I still love it."
"Something happens to people when they go in that booth -- they lose their inhibitions," says Super Star marketing director Dee Myers, who has recorded "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Walk Like An Egyptian."
I was about to see just what she meant.
When I arrived, Ellen Wilkerson was singing a credible "Stand By Your Man." Her man, David Wilkerson, happened to be standing in the booth right next to her, providing moral support. "Aw, it's easy," David said, encouraging me to try it. "It's just like driving along and singing with the car radio." But David -- significantly, I thought -- declined to make his own kind of music.
Next up was Doug Hamilton, who did a breathtaking, Elvis-inspired "American Trilogy," and emerged from the booth to applause from both levels of the mall. But it sounded too good to be true, and sure enough, Hamilton, who works as a bartender in a bowling alley, was a ringer. He once had his own band -- the Crew Motley Show -- and did Elvis impersonations. Hamilton did three songs that day. "He's a closet exhibitionist," confided his wife Phyllis, who hid in a shoe store during his performance.
Perhaps inspired by Tom Cruise's performance in the movie "Top Gun," four rowdy local guys -- Dirk Fowler, 23, Aaron Allaire, 21, John Qetsha, 17, and Joe Orr, 21 -- announced that they were "The Columbia Knights" and packed themselves into the booth for a bravado, boisterous "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." They emerged triumphant, to the ear-splitting screams of Coca-Cola-clad mall children.
A teen Latino did "La Bamba" -- twice -- and his antic dancing inside the booth drove the crowd wild. Q-107 DJ Chris Jagger did an unintelligible "Talk Dirty To Me," prefaced with "Plug your ears!" And there were also several ear-piercing Whitney Houston wannabes.
But the one that got me was the elderly mall employee who did a heartfelt "Amazing Grace," shaking like a leaf.
I figured if she could do it, I could do it, even though I've never been able to read so much as a menu in public without my hands shaking and my voice breaking.
But I took a deep breath, and announced that I'd do the country standard "Crazy." The theme seemed somehow appropriate, and I've sung it many times while washing the dishes.
"We'll give you a practice run, and then we'll go for real," said engineer Vic Mignona, smiling reassuringly.
Sure. He wasn't going in there to sing while thousands jeered.
I stepped into the booth and riffled through the songbook, hearing the unnerving sound of my own slightly echoed breathing, seeing the curious faces pressed up against the glass.
I remembered Tina Reiman's advice: "Stage fright is part of being a star, kid -- it's something you'll just have to live with."
Then I cupped my hands over the headphones (a pro move I remembered from "The Partridge Family"), and, hearing a soft "helping voice" leading me through the words, sang along.
But that was just practice. Now it was time for The Real Thing. As the crowd peered in, I closed my eyes and tried not to think of "The Day of the Locust." But I needed to read the lyric sheet, so I had to open them again. Then the sweet, familiar music started, the pedal steel moaning, the piano tinkling, and there was me, at the Grand Old Opry! After a shaky line or two, I warmed up, even tossed in some twangy twists recalled from Patsy Cline's peerless version. But my involuntary quaking gave my voice a timbre and tremor that sounded closer to the composer, Willie Nelson.
It was over all too soon, and when I emerged (no applause for me), my friend Mark consoled me by admitting I wasn't as bad as he thought I was going to be.
I took my tape home, and with trepidation, pushed "play." Surprise -- the cat didn't run out of the room, and after a few plays, I developed an affection for it. I can even play it for my friends, who smirk, but don't laugh out loud till they get home.
I'm already looking forward to my next visit to Super Star -- maybe this time I'll tackle "They All Laughed."
SUPER STAR RECORDING will be at the Hecht Company (Juniors department) at Wheaton Plaza, Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Super Star has permanent locations at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (Rehoboth Avenue); Ocean City, Maryland (on the boardwalk, open till Thanksgiving); Wildwood, New Jersey (boardwalk); and Wild World amusement park in Landover. Super Star also contracts for private parties and events, makes public appearances at area shopping malls and nightclubs, and will also do a private demo at $50 an hour at its 3550 Albemarle St. NW studio. Call 537-1884 for details.