CHAMPAIGN – Unlike "American Idol," the Champaign-Urbana Days Fashion and Talent Show is never about winning, says organizer Linda Turnbull.
"The show is about expressing yourself and getting better. When kids first come, they're nervous. Every year they get better."
Some of the youngsters who have performed in the show – the 30th annual one takes place this Saturday – have even gone on to become professional entertainers.
One is Whitney Keaton, now a backup singer for R&B star Alicia Keys. Another is Teddy Kane, who put out a CD of his music.
"When he started out, he couldn't even sing on stage he was so nervous," Turnbull said.
Twenty or so acts will display their talents at the Fashion and Talent Show from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Washington School playground, during C-U Days at Douglass Park.
For her efforts in producing the annual show over the past three decades, Turnbull will receive a community service award from the African-American Men's Association.
She is helped by others in the effort, including a board of directors.
"We just do it to help the kids in the community," she said.
Turnbull, a licensed cosmetologist and mother of six who recently received a master's degree from Eastern Illinois University in training and development, acknowledged that it's a lot of work to keep the show going.
But, "I get enjoyment out of seeing the kids excel," she said. "They have skills that they can advance."
The tall, striking woman with short, dyed-blond hair seems to act as more of a watchdog than director over the talent, making sure the performers' language is clean and that the clothes they wear on stage are modest.
Her grandson, James Carter, who sings and models, said Turnbull is not afraid, once the production gets under way, to stop the music if an act is not as clean as it had purported to be in rehearsals.
Most of the rehearsals take place at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club. A recent one drew several club members, some of whom coolly appraised the young entertainers as they performed.
The first act up was Ignite, a gospel group from the Glory Center International church in west Champaign. The group sings two gospel songs a cappella, giving them hip-hop flavor via their vocals and movements. Their pastor, John Browning, nods as he watches.
Meanwhile, Verdell Jones enters the multipurpose room where the rehearsal is taking place. For the past 10 years, the tall and lithe 66-year-old has taught participants how to walk and turn on stage.
He's wearing sunglasses and a cap and a pair of Converse All-Stars, all covered with black and silver sequins. His shirt and shorts, in colors that match, sport hip-hop style print and text. "He sometimes spends $600 on clothes just to entertain people," Turnbull says.
A little girl wearing a red Boys and Girls Club T-shirt approaches Turnbull, asking whether she can sing. Turnbull tells her she's next. Instead, 19-year-old Erica Smith is; she sings the classic "Summertime" a cappella, smiling as she riffs on the old standard.
Turnbull proudly says that Smith once sang at Carnegie Hall in New York. She did that as a member of the Centennial High School Choir, and she seems poised and polished.
"When kids are working with other kids they see the incentive to get better," Turnbull says. "If a kid is not a good singer, I don't put them with a really a good singer."
Next up is 14-year-old Jose Bradley of Urbana, a hip-hop and R&B dancer. The first-timer in the Fashion and Talent Show says he's not nervous even though he keeps his cap down low over his eyes during most his dance.
Turnbull watches carefully.
"He's got a lot of different moves in there," she says.
Jose executes many of them, while dancing to music by Usher and Chris Brown, with his arms and shoulders, using his feet to slide across the floor.
Now it's finally 8-year-old Grace Lewis' turn. She rubs her hands together nervously before launching into a cover of "I Believe I Can Fly." After she finishes, she receives the loudest applause given any of the entertainers.
Turnbull hugs her, and Grace goes over to Jones and embraces him.
"You done good," he tells her.
Some of the Champaign Black Stars, an 11-member song-and-dance ensemble formed by Angela Evans, enter the rehearsal space. The Stars sing hip-hop inflected gospel.
"I started this as a neighborhood group to keep kids off the streets," Evans says. She said the Black Stars recently performed in St. Louis for a television ministry, and will perform in the Fashion and Talent Show as well.
As everyone begins to leave the room, Turnbull reminds them that they have three more rehearsals, with only one at the Boys and Girls Club.
Pastor Browning, who's still there, offers up some praise for Turnbull and the show.
"It's a good place for community kids to develop their talents and different gifts," he says.
"It's a really, really good gesture for our community and kids. It gives them a mind set to keep focused on something."
If You Go
What: Champaign Park District's Champaign-Urbana Days, a community festival that celebrates the bonds between family and friends.
When: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Douglass Park, 512 E. Grove St., C.
— 5:30 to 9 p.m., Vendors and community booths
— 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Family activities: duck hunt, face painting and obstacle course
— 6 to 8 p.m., First-string baseball
— 7:30 to 9 p.m., Gospel Festival with God's Men, Pilgrim M.B. Church and St. Luke CME Church
— 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Vendors and community booths
— 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Family activities: inflatables, balloon creations, cake walk, face painting, fire house, pony rides, bean-bag toss and hula-hoop challenge
— 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Men's softball games
— Noon to 3 p.m., Senior luncheon and bingo
— 1 to 4:45 p.m., Entertainment stage, with CUperStars at 1 p.m.; Teen Ministry Hip-Hop, 2 p.m.; AKA Scholarship Presentation, 2:30 p.m.; and 3 p.m., DeJaVu
— C-U Days Fashion and Talent Show, 3 to 5 p.m., B.T. Washington School Playground