Lissa Blake
Lissa Blake

    It seems like every summer, the hard-working organizers of the area county fairs and Iowa State Fair come up with something else extraordinary to grab the public’s attention. 

Whether it be chocolate-covered bacon, a wildly popular country star or an 80s tribute band, someone -- or many someones as the case may be -- always comes up with the perfect formula to bring people back year after year. 

One of my favorite features of the county fair, and thus the state fair, is the Bill Riley Talent Search. And every year when the press release comes across my desk, I’m reminded of my own three minutes in the spotlight many years ago, when I was still a youngster, bursting with confidence. 

It was the summer of 1978, between my sixth and seventh grade year. 

The mother of one of my friends nudged my mom to send me to YMCA camp in Dubuque. At the time, my parents were careening toward a messy divorce, so I’m sure coming up with a way to occupy at least one of us kids for a solid week was probably a godsend. 

I had never been to camp before, but was excited because five or six of my friends from school were also signed up, so I would know about a third of the people in my cabin. A couple of them had been there the previous summer, and they were full of stories about what fun we would have. 

I found camp to be a blast – all except for the insane “polar bear swim” they required each morning. That was definitely more like torture than fun, but we all sucked it up and did it – none of us wanting to be the weakest link among our comrades. 

In addition, camp offered a variety of endeavors, such as archery, horseback riding, arts and crafts (think God’s eyes and sand candles). And of course, there was always the singing. So much singing. There are still times when I will awake in the morning with one of those goofy, repetitive songs in my head, “I woke up Sunday morning, I looked across the wall, the skeeters and the bedbugs were havin’ a game of ball …” 

To top it off, it just happened to be the year the Village People released the song YMCA. We would stand in line waiting to get into the pool as the counselors cranked the tunes. The song’s accompanying hand gestures were all the rage – and we felt like the VP had written that song just for us. 

Camp was fun. Really fun. 

And in addition to the polar bear madness, it was filled with other crazy challenges like which group of prepubescent girls could keep its cabin the tidiest for inspection each day. Were they kidding? Our cabin usually looked like someone’s laundry room had exploded. 

The inspecting counselor finally took pity on us one day and gave us the cleanest cabin award – possibly because we resorted to bribery – spelling out some affable greeting with some Now & Later candy we pooled together. 

Another challenge came on one of the last days of camp, when we were told there would be a “Little Miss Y” contest, and the residents of each of the six cabins were tasked with nominating a person from their group.

In true Bob Barker style, the “pageant” would involve swimsuit and evening gown competitions (I know, this part would never fly today), a talent portion and an interview. 

As we pondered who should compete, evaluating the beauty of each of our nightgowns, swimsuits, etc., the hitch in the collective enthusiasm remained one thing: the talent. 

“Who here is good at something?” we asked each other. 

At home that summer, my brother and I had been working on breaking the world record for the most consecutive jumps on our pogo stick. But I realized that wasn’t something people wanted to watch – and furthermore, it wouldn’t be a super safe activity on the deck of a swimming pool. 

The other thing I’d been working on, unbeknownst to my fellow campers, was becoming a Broadway star. 

You see, what they didn’t know was my dad and I had taken an Amtrak train into Chicago to see the Broadway production of Annie, starring Andrea McArdle, and I had been wearing out the LP soundtrack he bought me during the trip ever since. I played that sturdy little disc over and over, belting out the tunes, practicing in the basement for hours until I knew every word to every song. 

“I can sort of sing,” I piped up.

“What would you sing?” asked someone.

“Well, I know all the words to all the songs from Annie,” I replied. 

Their eyes lit up. It was a done deal. I was in. 

As for the other parts of the competition, the swimsuit portion was a no-brainer. I’d been living in my pink and blue striped tank-style suit all week. Why reinvent the wheel? 

But finding an evening gown among a group of 11-year-olds’ camp wardrobe stash would be more of a challenge. 

As each girl offered me a glimpse of her polyester, fire-retardant nighty, none of them caught my eye. 

But when Lynn Molinhopp (no clue if that is what her name actually was, but that’s how I remember it) pulled out her bulky, rainbow-striped, terrycloth robe, I got really excited. 

It wasn’t fancy, but it had a certain moxy … a je nais se quoi I thought might impress the judges. 

Fast forward to the competition that evening, I remember being nervous enough to hurl. 

The pool was packed with onlookers as I carefully walked the “runway,” which included a trip around the deck, including a step up onto the low dive, where you had to carefully sachet out to the end and “twirl.” (Some of the girls were nervous about this part – I was not. All I could think of was the talent competition and the fact I didn’t want to hit a wrong note and disgrace Andrea McArdle, shattering my chances on Broadway.) 

Back in the pool house, I listened closely to the other girls’ performances. 

One girl read a poem. Another sang the stupid squirrel song we’d all been singing all week. The next told some jokes. 

When it was my turn, I walked out there in my “evening gown” and sang my little heart out, totally a capella. 

“Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow, you’re only a day away.” 

When the song was over, I let out a huge sigh, feeling like I had nailed it – or at least hadn’t hit any horribly wrong notes. The crowd clapped furiously. 

And, believe it or not, when the judges tallied their scores, the little blonde girl in the oversized bathrobe won the day. 

I couldn’t believe it. I had never competed in anything like that in my life – and as life turned out, never would again. 

And as I donned my red Disco Fever glitter T-shirt and toilet paper sash to go to the dance that night, I was already on Cloud 9. It was a night I’ll never forget. 

And when Joey, one of the teenage groundskeepers all the girls and had been swooning over all week, asked me to slow dance, I thought I would explode. 

And although my performance might have made Bill Riley cringe, it was good enough for a small panel of judges at the Y camp that day. 

My hat is off to all of you young performers brave enough to get up in front of a grandstand full of people and showcase your talent – whatever that may be. I salute you. You make it look easy, which must be the hardest part about it.