Eddie Gentile would’ve made Ol’ Blue Eyes green with envy. Dressed in an understated tuxedo, Gentile strode on stage one warm Saturday night a couple of Octobers ago with confidence, his powerful baritone soaring through the lyrics of New York, New York, perfectly mimicking Sinatra’s impeccable timing.
But Gentile is no professional crooner. He was instead one of a dozen contestants, all of them over age 50, at last year’s annual Senior Idol competition, a singing contest now in its sixth year and sponsored by Bay Ridge’s AARP chapter #5055 and State Sen. Marty Golden’s office.
Senior Idol isn’t a feel-good talent show, but rather a serious competition based on the hit show American Idol, albeit with much nicer judges, more talented singers and slightly lower production values. Rather than a ferociously over-lit arena, the contest venue is the auditorium of Xaverian High School in Bay Ridge, a musty room that’s probably unchanged since the contestants themselves attended high school. Last year, 35 bankers, lawyers, teachers and retirees auditioned in September. About a third made the cut to make it to this final show.
Nearly 350 friends, relatives and music-lovers attended, and 85-year-old Joe Franklin—aka “the king of nostalgia”—introduced the singers. Host of his own television talk show for 42 years, he melded the role of emcee with Borscht Belt comedian for the night. “I was around when the Dead Sea was still sick,” he told the audience.
The contestants wore everything from dress khakis to sequined dresses and sang songs from their youth. Bobby Darin tunes predominated, with a smattering of Sinatra, Streisand and the Shirelles. Motown sounds and a Bee Gees ballad were also in the mix.
While Gentile was far and away the favorite, most of the other singers were serious contenders in their own right. Some, like Gentile, had performance experience (he performs with the local M.A.S. Swing Band and the Strivelli Players, a Brooklyn theater group). Others had honed their considerable talents via the karaoke route. Surprisingly, one of the evening’s best singers, Richard Low, had never sung in public before. If the judges had a second-place slot, this banker’s rendition of Fly Me to the Moon would have run up against former USO entertainer Beverly Bennick’s Crazy for the prize.
After the performances, audience members cast their ballots, and the judges deliberated backstage. Franklin introduced Austin Zambito-Valente, the 13-year-old Brooklyn Teen Idol contest winner and a doppelgänger for Justin Bieber. Zambito-Valente sang the 1960s hit I (Who Have Nothing) with a booming, emotional voice that summoned Tom Jones.
After the judges reconvened, the audience whooped and applauded to the announcement that Gentile had won. The victorious retired middle school principal returned to the stage to claim his $500 prize and a bouquet of slightly wilted flowers as photographers snapped his photo. Offstage, he smiled and admitted, “It’s the first time I ever won anything.
Brooklyn Senior Idol is held annually. Entrants must be members of the Brooklyn AARP chapter # 5055, but anyone can attend. For more information, call Sen. Marty Golden’s office at (718) 238-6044.