Fourteen minutes left

Nov 7, 2001 at 12:00 am

Through sweepstakes and star searches, Ed McMahon has become a kind of postmodern beacon of hope. “Hopes and dreams is what I’m all about,” McMahon boomed from the Second City Stage, before more than 200 hopefuls who came out to audition last Thursday for McMahon’s latest variety show, “Next Big Star,” which airs Sunday nights on the PAX Network.

The line outside Second City stretched well around the block, while McMahon’s numerous assistants passed out surveys to sort the eager contestants. Everyone in line was looking to share a path to fame with Drew Carey, Britney Spears and Dennis Miller, all of whom owe their start in the biz to McMahon’s keen eye for talent. Inside, however, the atmosphere was a little nervier — somewhere between the vibe of a high school talent show and a children’s beauty contest. When a room is filled with a host of nervous mothers clutching the hands of their Cupie Doll daughters, chattering comedians looking for unsuspecting victims and catty R&B divas touching up their makeup, “surreal” is an understatement.

After a few opening remarks, McMahon and bodyguards retired to the back of the room, leaving the audition in the hands of his staff, and the parade of would-be stars doing their best 60-second routines commenced.

Detroit was the third stop on a national star hunt, on which McMahon and company will dig up a variety of contestants for next season’s show. “What I’m looking for in all these cities is something that I call the fire,” McMahon said in his charismatic growl. “The fire happens when a performer is completely connected both to what they’re doing and their audience. I know in Detroit we are probably going to find a lot of music. When they started calling this town Motown, they might as well have called it Mutown for all the music here. I should know — I am a Detroiter. I was born right here on Cass Avenue, when it was a little different place than it is today.”

As yodeling 6-year-old cowgirls, Janis Joplin sound-alikes and a cappella gospel singers gave their best 60 seconds, McMahon went with story after story of successful dreamers.

“I’ve been in this business a long time, and I know all you need is to believe in yourself. We rejected Bill Cosby five times off ‘The Tonight Show’ before he made it on, and when he finally did, you could tell he had that fire. I remember he did that crazy thing with Noah talking to God, and he was looking up and you could see he was burning with that moment. I told my people, ‘Sign that guy right now. He’s going to be a big star.’ It was the same way with Barry Manilow. One day I saw him playing piano on a Bette Midler tour, and you could tell he was going to be somebody.”

The next big star out of Detroit? In some ways the question doesn’t seem as important after a while under McMahon’s “reach-for-the-stars” spell. Even if none of the unknown rappers and jokers and tap dancers who came out Thursday get the call with McMahon’s voice on the other end of the line, his cheesy “believe-in-yourself” rhetoric stayed in that room long after he had one of his assistants drive him back to his posh hotel.

After all, hopes and dreams are what he’s all about.

Hot & Bothered was written by Nate Cavalieri and edited by George Tysh. E-mail [email protected]