Amidst swirling disco balls and flashing lights, owner of Singers Karaoke Club Holly Berlin stepped on stage, belting out Aerosmith’s “Dream On” to a fired-up crowd. With a packed, cheering house for the finals on Oct. 22 at 8 p.m., the “Superstar Syracuse” contest gathered the community for a night of passionate karaoke singing at the popular karaoke bar. And last year’s winner Frank Farnsworth followed up Berlin’s performance with “Feeling Good” by Michael Bublé. Judges Colin Keating, Steve Kratz and Marguerite Beebe sat at a table like in “American Idol” directly in front of the stage, waiting to give feedback to eager contestants.
For the finals, each participant sings one song, and the judges then narrow the competition down to a top five. To decide a winner, those top five contestants then perform one more time. On this special night at Singers, 15 contestants competed for the opportunity to win $1000 courtesy of the Onondaga Nation Smoke Shop and two hours of free recording studio time at Syracuse’s SubCat Studios.
Nestled on the corner of Milton and Charles avenues in the Syracuse suburb of Solvay, Singers hosted its 12th annual “Superstar Syracuse” contest on Oct. 22. Designed to give locals the chance to rise as performers, the competition brought the community together for a night of singing, cheering and dancing to songs like Queen’s “Somebody to Love” and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” With the motto “Let Your Rockstar Shine,” the club and contest provide local singers with a platform to showcase their talents in a supportive setting, Berlin said. As the only karaoke bar in Syracuse that is open seven nights a week, Singers aims to create a place where people meet and come together over a mutual love of music.
And this retreat is something Berlin prides herself on. “We have watched people meet here and get married — there’s kids that exist because of this place. And we call them the Singers’ babies because their parents would have never met if it weren’t for this place.”
In this place, images of musicians like Buddy Holly and album covers such as “Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits” consume nearly every inch of the walls. Before the contest started, crowds congregated around a stocked bar, mingling and laughing, while one patron sang “Aerials” by the Armenian-American metal band System Of A Down. Pictures of bar patrons fill a bulletin board in the front of the club.
This inclusivity of Singers has seeped into the fabric of the “Superstar Syracuse” contest. For six consecutive Mondays starting Sept. 10, the first 15 people in line at 7 p.m. could audition for a spot in the finals, regardless of ability, Berlin said. Some days, Singers had to turn people away, but if 16 people showed up, then Berlin would let one extra singer audition, she said. According to Berlin, the contest’s three judges focus on these areas: vocal ability, stage presence, connection with the audience, song choice (whether the song fits the singer’s voice or not) and audience reception.
From each audition night, two — occasionally three — singers advanced to the finals, she explained. But people can audition as many times as they want until they advance, and one man tried four times before making it to the final round, Berlin said.
For this year, Berlin said that songs from the movies “A Star Is Born” and “The Greatest Showman” were particularly popular. If two people have the same song, though, then Berlin conducts a random draw, she explained. The person who doesn’t get picked to go first has to perform a different song, Berlin said.
Ballads like those from Adele or John Legend tend to also be popular in the “Superstar Syracuse” contest, Berlin said, but the finals highlighted a wide range of genres from pop and rock, to hip-hop and soul — and even opera.
Runner-up Danielle Mensing loves opera and classical music and wanted to share her voice and style with the community, she said. She performed Celine Dion’s version of “Ave Maria” and “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables in the finals. “[The contest] is bringing out a lot of different people from all sides of Syracuse,” Mensing said. “That’s what music is all about — bringing people together.”
The stress of competition didn’t permanently linger over Singers, though. Contestants sang with their love for music plastered on their foreheads, often dressing up and getting theatrical with their performances. Contestant Larry Coke, sporting a black cloak with a necklace and bracelets of fake bones, sang Disturbed’s version of “The Sound of Silence.” When the song ended, Coke pulled the cloak’s hood on and bowed his head.
There was a seriousness to the night, but the influx of laughs, smiles and jokes undercut any lasting severity. With cheers like “have my babies” and “oh shit” before and during contestants’ performances, the “Superstar Syracuse” competition was like one long, karaoke-filled party.
To Berlin, that’s what karaoke is all about. “It’s like the safe drug of happiness,” she said.
Longtime Singers bartender and co-creator of “Superstar Syracuse” Eric Johnson always has a good time at the finals. “You would never believe you’re out on a Monday night,” Johnson admitted. “It’s something that you can enjoy even if you don’t know anybody in the contest. Just to come out and watch it, you feel like you’re in the audience on ‘The Voice’ or ‘American Idol.’”
But unlike on “The Voice” or “American Idol,” the Singers audience got the opportunity to sing some karaoke during a brief intermission in round one and before and after the top five round. Audience members sang from bands and artists ranging from Depeche Mode to Dr. Dre and Eminem. Syracuse resident and Singers regular of at least two years Josh Montague performed Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” to an excited crowd during the first intermission.
In the past, Montague participated in the contest and understands how it feels to be a contestant. “There’s a lot of pressure on you to make sure that you’re singing right and connecting with the audience,” Montague explained. “But overall, it’s all about having fun.”
And Johnson knows how to have fun while working behind the bar. Though he didn’t perform on the job during the contest on Oct. 22, patrons love when Johnson sings as he works, and Berlin regards him as a club-favorite, she said. What he sings depends on the particular crowd that night, but his go-to song is “Far Behind” by Candlebox, Johnson said.
When Berlin first hired Johnson and mentioned that he should sing and bartend simultaneously, he immediately jumped on board. “I kind of just ate it up. I loved it,” Johnson recounted. “It was so much fun to give people something they hadn’t really seen before — someone pouring them a drink and ringing them up at the cash register, while holding the microphone and singing lyrics at the same time.”
Monday nights, Singers has a pride night for the LGBTQ+ community, and Wednesdays tend to have more theater individuals who sing Broadway show tunes, Berlin added.
A few hours later, the judges narrowed down the 15 contestants to a top five around 11 at night. The top five contestants and what they sang were: Cindy Mateo (“Sober” by Pink), Patricia Commisso (“Leavin’ On Your Mind” by Patsy Cline), Lucia Young (“If I Were A Boy” by Beyoncé), Danielle Mensing (“I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Misérables) and Kerene Limage (“Someone Like You” by Adele).
In a random order, these five contestants each sang one song, but didn’t receive any feedback from the judges. By this time, it was late into the night, and the crowd had started to thin out. Those that remained cheered for the final five singers and often gave performers standing ovations.
At nearly midnight, Berlin and the three judges came back after adding up the judges’ scores. Standing on stage, Berlin called up the top five and then announced the final three. Taking third place was Lucia Young who also placed in third last year, and earning second place was Danielle Mensing.
The judges crowned recent Syracuse University graduate Kerene Limage as the winner of the “Superstar Syracuse” contest. In round one, she sang “Ready for Love” by India.Arie. Limage has been singing for most of her life at her church and even sang at the Carrier Dome during basketball games, she said.
She came across the contest on Facebook and decided to try out, she explained. It was her first time at Singers, but she felt welcomed by the patrons. “I came for the first time two weeks ago, and some of the people that I saw — today they waved and said hi,” Limage said. “They remember you.”
Post-win, Limage feels amazing and wants to audition again next year, she said. Fellow contestants and members of the audience kept approaching and congratulating her on her win and performances. Limage said that she plans to put the $1000 towards an upcoming music project with her friend. They haven’t named their group yet, but they’re working on a pop and gospel album, she explained.
Limage looks forward to the future and would love to come back to Singers Karaoke Club. “Even if I didn’t do this competition and I came for the first time, I would still want to come back because people are really, really nice here — not just because I was in a competition and I won,” she admitted. “It’s more just the people.”