Many a career has started on the McHenry County Fair’s Talent Contest stage.
Now in its 53rd year, the contest – featuring everything from rope tricks to yo-yo artists to singers and dancers through the years – will be at 7 p.m. Aug. 4 in the Hansen Pavilion at the fairgrounds at Route 47 and Country Club Road in Woodstock.
For more than 35 years, Kathy Thomas has been the force behind the free event, coaxing contestants to take the stage and promoting it – all on a volunteer basis. Some years, the contestants come to her in droves. Other years, like this one, it takes a bit more work.
But Thomas keeps at it because, “I just enjoy being able to provide an opportunity for kids to showcase their talents.”
For many of those kids, the Talent Contest was a catalyst to future success.
Part of The Bucket Boys – basically drumming with buckets – 1999 Prairie Ridge High School graduate Vince Romanelli went from winning the contest to making a living in Nashville performing in similar drumming groups. He appeared in July on ABC’s “The Gong Show.”
Another contestant remembers well winning at age 15 in 1985. Andy Martello – www.andymartello.com – has become a Las Vegas entertainer, author and announcer for a touring version of “The Price is Right” – “I’m the ‘Come on down’ guy,” he said.
“I was just a kid who knew how to juggle,” Martello remembered of his Talent Contest experience. “I didn’t really think I had an act. In many ways, you could say I got my start at the McHenry County Fair.”
Martello returns to his roots this year, not only to emcee the contest, but also to perform as “a comedian who happens to juggle” throughout the fair, which runs through Aug. 6.
Returning to the exact stage where he started years ago is nostalgic for Martello, who grew up in Marengo. He hosted the Talent Contest about 10 years ago as well.
“I know it’s not the same families, the same competitors, but from where I was standing it looked like the exact same audience,” he said. “Just remembering what all these kids are going through the whole time, watching them get nervous… I never expected to be the old kid that kids come up to and ask advice from.”
Along with performing in Las Vegas, including two headlining shows, Martello has written four books. His latest – “Andy Martello’s Stupid Stories About Famous People” – was published in 2016. Calling himself the “most famous non-famous person in the world,” he details “the ridiculous things he has said or done when interacting with the world’s biggest celebrities.”
Among those celebrities are Michael Jordan, Ted Kennedy, Tony Curtis, Buddy Guy and Audrey Hepburn, among others. He ran into Hepburn as she made her way to an elevator. She had watched him perform.
“She shook every possible last hand, and she suffered every fool gladly that night,” he said. “I’m desperate trying to think of something clever to say… I just said, ‘Ms. Hepburn, you are one classy broad.’ She smiles, gets on the elevator and says, ‘Darling, you have no idea.’ ”
As for those contestants taking the stage, Martello has this advice: “You have to be diligent, patient and keep putting out a quality product. You can be forgettable sitting in a cubicle. If you’re forgettable in entertainment, you’re not going to work much.”
The juniors will perform at 7 p.m., followed by the seniors at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 4. Following is a list of this year’s performers and their talents:
Nathan Barnes of Woodstock – Yo-yo
Cheyenne Bierman of Woodstock – Violin
Kaylee Bierman of Woodstock – Dance
Hannah Kaufmann of Woodstock – Vocal
Mattie Lewis of Crystal Lake – Vocal
Ashtyn Martin of Union – Guitar
Samantha Parzatka of Harvard – Violin
Maddy Patlan of Cary – Vocal
Kayla Austin of Harvard – Public speaking
Levi Austin of Harvard – Guitar
Urvaksh Avanthsa/Alex Sepeczi of Cary – Vocal/piano
Corey Barlow of Woodstock – Vocal
Elise Koszierowski of Richmond – Vocal
Joseph Kovack of Crystal Lake – Vocal/guitar
Veronica Malmgren of Hebron – Dance
Megan McDillon of Cary – Vocal
Lacie Mickle of Woodstock – Vocal
Kesia Patlan of Cary – Vocal
Layna Sutton of McHenry – Vocal