Calling All Idols

Karaoke singers are a lot like gladiators. It takes guts to stand before a noisy crowd and risk losing your dignity in the pursuit of glory. That's what alcohol is for (the singers, not the lion fighters), and as the warblers drink, those of us on the sidelines thrill with the performers, or wince in anguish. Then, ahem, it's our turn, and it's time to stumble through another rendition of the "Love Boat" theme song.

For some people karaoke is a way of life, and fortunately, we've got more than a few Downtown folk with a song in their hearts. Thus, inspired by "American Idol," here are two local places where you can witness your favorite blood sport - or grab the microphone and step into the arena yourself. Might we recommend the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive?"

Stage: Oiwake, 122 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, (213) 628-2678

Scene: Packed with a young, multi-ethnic crowd who are dressed to impress, Oiwake in Little Tokyo feels more like a nightclub than a karaoke bar. The walls and ceilings are lined with dark wood beams and the spacious room is dimly lit with rice paper lanterns, lending it the decor of an upscale Japanese restaurant. But the music is distinctly American. On Friday and Saturday nights, most seating is reserved for large parties, so get there by 9 p.m. and grab one of the roomy booths by the bar. As the crowd settles in, the KJ sets the mood with hip hop and dance music. But once the karaoke gets started, Oiwake really rocks. It costs $1 to sing and there's karaoke every night from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Local Idols: Oiwake regulars speak reverently about Karen Gee, a petite woman with long black hair who brings the house down with her rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Respect." Gee passed the first round of "American Idol" try-outs last year but jittery nerves prevented her from advancing to the next level. For a real treat, watch for massive, 6'4" bouncer Dave Uragalelei. Built like a linebacker but with the voice of an angel, Uragalelei sings Babyface ballads that blow away the crowd.

Stage: The Flower Street Cafe & Sports Bar, 615 S. Flower St., (213) 623-4777

Scene: This neighborhood sports bar boasts an unusually talented wait staff. Pretty blonde cocktail waitress Sarah Tiefenthaler hosts the karaoke party at Flower Street on Thursday and Friday nights. She usually kicks things off with Petula Clark's "Downtown," and then everyone else takes a turn. Serious karaoke devotees arrive with request tickets already filled out. Bar regulars belt out oldies on a dare. Even the bartender is likely to perform as the night goes on. With 12,000 selections in the karaoke songbook, there's something to suit everyone's musical taste. It's free to sing at Flower Street, but tipping is appreciated. Don't plan on making it a late night, though. The karaoke festivities start and end early, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Local Idol: Lucky bar patrons get to sing a duet with Tiefenthaler, who auditioned for the second season of "American Idol." It's only a matter of time before talent like hers is recognized, and you'll be able to say you knew her when.

page 15, 7/26/04

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