Thursday 15 May 2014

Suburban Exclusive: My live dispatch from American Idol in Los Angeles

Who will win the 13th season of American Idol? Seventeen year old Jena Irene from Farmington Hills, Michigan or  rocker Caleb Johnson, 23, from Asheville,  North Carolina?   Alex Preston, 20, from Mont Vernon, New Hampshire has been sent home.

How will the diagnosis of a bruised vocal cord affect Caleb?

Live on the set at American Idol in Los Angeles.
While in Los Angeles this week I had the good fortune of seeing a live recording of the show and meeting the top three finalists. Thursday  on Fox and CTV Two, we learned that Alex had been voted off on the eve of next week's finale.

Readers of my column will recall what a big fan I was of Canadian Idol, broadcast for six seasons on CTV.  In 2008, CTV announced that the popular singing competition had been “suspended.” It has never returned to the airwaves. American Idol, on the other hand, will return for a 14th edition next year.

American Idol is currently the number two program on CTV Two, with total viewers, behind only Dancing with the Stars.

Ryan Seacrest,  whose syndicated radio show is broadcast weekdays on Virgin Radio in Montreal,  is the show’s dashing host.  Taping takes place at CBS Television City in a studio which is much smaller than you would think. Most of the crowd is standing, including the pit by the stage occupied exclusively by a youth component who get to enjoy the perks of having “selfies” taken with judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr. and Seacrest.

There is a throng of media who follow the series live each week. They do so from a special air conditioned media tent. I was fortunate to see the action from a seat, accompanied by Freemantle Media executive director of communications Kristina Kirk.  I was on hand for the landmark 500th episode, so when the cameras stopped a big cake was rolled out. Seacrest and show mentor Randy Jackson, a former judge, were recognized for being in every one of  those episodes. Even Idol creator Simon Fuller was on hand for the ceremony.
I was this close to the cake.

Yes, J. Lo is as breathtakingly beautiful in person as she looks on TV. During commercial breaks Connick Jr. and Urban really work the crowd, posing for endless selfies and signing autographs. J. Lo too. There is also a lot of makeup retouching. Meanwhile a huge backstage crew makes significant changes to the set for each performer.

I like reality TV for the way they transform your average everyday person into a household name. This year’s Idol crop was a good one and America chose well with its top three.

On the May 14 edition, the singers had to go three rounds

Round one had Randy Jackson calling the shots. For Caleb he chose Never Tears Us Apart by INXS and given his voice problems he did a pretty good job. Alex  was next and knocked Pompeii by Bastille out of the park. He showed his versatility here, playing guitar and banging some pretty neat drums. Jena scored Titanium by David Guetta, an energizing song. Standing atop a giant podium she was full of energy.

Meeting Caleb.

Round two was the judges’ choice. Caleb started off with Demons by Imagine Dragons. Again not an easy task for a man with voice issues.  He is showing the ability to have a very successful career as a pro for these kind of illnesses always occur for performers on the concert tour and the show must go on. Alex followed with Stay by Rihanna and Jena did a good job with Demi Lovato’s Heart Attack (she will get a chance to sing with Demi in the finale next week).

Meeting Jena.
For the final round, songs were selected by the contestants’ hometown residents. Caleb got Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin and this performance might just have been enough to put him into the finale. Hard to believe he had voice issues with this one and in true rocker style he completely destroyed his microphone stand at the end of the bit. Alex was next with One Direction’s Story of My Life, a song I really love. Jena wrapped things up with a great rendition of  Radiohead’s Creep, showcasing her talents as well on the piano.

After the show I went to the media tent where a select group of American  journalists camped out in specific spots and waited for the Idols to become available. I was given a spot to wait at and sure enough along came Caleb, Jena and Alex one by one. Caleb was on doctor’s orders not to talk too much as he was recovering from a bruised vocal cord. He nonetheless shared a few words.  “This  experience has been absolutely amazing,” he said. “It is so incredible and humbling to do what I love. Losing my  voice was a real challenge. I had to work hard to get ready for this show.”
Meeting Alex.
Alex told me how this entire experience has been so crazy. “It still feels like a dream,” he said. “ I still feel like the kid who came in for the audition. I am really excited about starting the real music grind, start writing new songs. I did not realize how much my life changed until I went back for my hometown visit.”

Adorable Jena is also overwhelmed with the experience. “I did not think I would get this far,” she admitted. “Initially I  just tried out just to try out. It has been a life transformation experience I could not imagine it any better. I am so grateful that people like my style and I am excited for our tour. I cannot wait to produce my own album and see how that sounds.”

It will be interesting to see whom America chooses.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Michael Farber and his battle back from cancer: honouree at upcoming gala

The following is an expanded version of my Wednesday, May 14 column in The Suburban print edition.

Michael Farber and I go back a long time. The award winning senior writer for Sports Illustrated and weekday morning contributor to the CJAD Andrew Carter Show, a great feature he does with Rick Moffat,  was my journalism professor at Concordia University back in the early 1980s when lengthy assignments had to be churned out on a typewriter. We were also colleagues at the time in the local professional press boxes.
Farber in the press box (photo by Rick Moffat)
I remember the major assignment I handed in. Michael allowed us to pick our topic. At the time I was writing for paper called The Sunday Express and covered the professional boxing scene so I chose to write about the Hilton brothers. At the time this family of boxers were clear of scandal. It was a 25 page piece, double spaced, and Michael tore it to shreds. Oh how I would have loved a computer at the time as I  had to redo it twice.

In 2011, Farber’s life turned upside down when he learned that he had stage three mouth and throat cancer. "It was six weeks of treatment: chemo on Mondays and radiation Mondays through Fridays, ¨ he said. “I couldn't eat normally. I had a feeding tube inserted. But when it was all over I was given a clean bill of health.”

Farber has accepted to be the honouree at the 20th annual McGill Head and Neck Cancer Fundraising Gala on May 25 at The Windsor Ballroom. Organizer Dr. Saul Frenkiel, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery at McGill University,  notes that the Stanley Cup will on site, as will a number of celebrity athletes. CJAD morning man Andrew Carter,  legendary  Red Fisher and former Hab Larry Robinson will speak while TSN’s Dave Hodge will serve as emcee.  A live auction of shirts from Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux,  Anthony Calvillo and Guy Lafleur  will take place and  they will be offering four all inclusive tickets to attend the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Event in New York.

“We talked about me being the honouree at their annual event for a while,” Farber said. “I told them that if I could help, I would. They helped me in ways I can never really repay.

“They” are Doctors Martin Black and Michael Hier of the Jewish General Hospital. “Probably the best thing I heard was  Dr. Black saying, ‘yeah, we have seen this before. I think we can get it.’ That was encouraging. When I was growing up and you heard someone had cancer, it was ballgame over.  That has changed for the better now.”  
Dr. Frenkiel
Said Dr. Frenkiel: “Michael Farber is the reporter with ‘inner soul’  who has contributed immensely to Montreal's sports and hockey heritage.

Farber's son Jeremie  will be bag piping to usher in the Stanley Cup and the guests. Michael has a daughter, Gabrielle, who is a sports writer based out of Moscow.

Farber grew up in the city of Bayonne, New Jersey, home to an active Jewish community. He had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am, a reform congregation. While he was not involved in a lot of Jewish activities, he did  play  basketball at the local Jewish community centre.

It would not be until January 2013 that Farber made his first trip ever to Israel. The task at hand was to be part of a crew on TSN doing a documentary called  Neutral Zone: The Story of Hockey in Northern Israel. It examined a  Canada-Israel Hockey School, which opened  in Metula, on the northern tip of Israel next to the border with Lebanon. More specifically, it looked into whether teaching hockey to Arab and Jewish children could help promote tolerance off the ice.

“It was very impressed with the people of Metula and the passion some Israelis have for hockey,” Farber said. “There were those who made the drive up from Tel Aviv. That is quite a trip. I knew of the late Roger Neilson’s hockey schools in Israel and of Jean Perron coaching their national team.”  

You can see the entire  documentary here.  

Said Dr. Frenkiel: “Michael Farber is the reporter with ‘inner soul’  who has contributed immensely to Montreal's sports and hockey heritage.

For more information  about the gala and how to get tickets call  Carole Goldberg at 514-340-8222, Local 5024, email or log on to raised will benefit Head and Neck Cancer research at McGill and its affiliated hospitals.