Forest Park is the place to catch “Idol Search 2006” a local version of the insanely popular TV show. Four local establishments have signed on to host the singing and dancing competition: Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, La Piazza, Francesca’s Fiore and Molly Malone’s. The contest will run from April 20 to May 25 and will give contestants a shot at $8,000 in prizes. Besides this fortune, the lucky winner will get a chance at fame, by performing with Danza Viva at the Daley Plaza on June 15.

Danza Viva Center for World Dance and Music is a studio in Oak Park and “Idol Search 2006” is the brainchild of executive director Rebecca Huntman. The contest she envisions will have a different tone than the TV show. There will be no scathing commentators, as the competition will take place in a “supportive and constructive” environment.

“We’ll still have the drama of competition but without the meanness,” Huntman said. There are two age categories for contestants: youth (8-15) and teen/adult (ages 16 and up). Vocal and dance contestants are limited to a 90 second audition and a $10 fee will be charged. Those who pass the preliminary auditions will qualify for competition rounds that will be held at sixteen local venues.

Which brings us to Brown Cow, where a kid’s vocal competition will be held on May 4 at 7 p.m. Ice cream entrepreneur Connie Brown admits being addicted to the TV talent show. In fact, when Huntman came to the parlor to see her, Brown was at home watching “American Idol.”

Why does she like the show so much? “American Idol gives people with raw untapped talent a chance to make it big,” Brown said. She also has a special place in her heart for performers who might lack this talent but are brave enough to perform.

“I like the ones who know they’re going to be bad but still want to sing on TV,” she joked.

She also believes the show serves as a bellwether for trends in pop music.

“America gets to choose, so it’s interesting to see how Americans vote,” Brown said. “Lately, country songs have really been big.”

Brown Cow has always offered customers more than cones. There is live music on Tuesdays, children’s music on Saturdays and story time on Monday. The parlor also hosts concerts conducted by local music teachers. “The acoustics of the Brown Cow are amazing, according to musicians,” said Brown.

At the opposite end of opinions about the TV show and the other end of Madison Street, is Molly Riley, manager of Molly Malone’s. “Actually, I’ve never seen that thing on TV,” Riley confessed, “But I heard how mean they are. I wouldn’t have anything to do with criticizing people who have the courage to get up on stage.”

However, once Huntman explained to her the contest wasn’t going to involve humiliation, Riley was “all for it.”

After all, Molly Malone’s has a solid tradition of showcasing local talent. The pub offers Open Mic Night, a traditional Irish session and provides a venue for comedy groups. In fact, Riley just finished hosting a concert for an up and coming band of 7th graders called “The Chores.” As for the idol search contest, an Adult Vocals competition will be held at the pub on April 22 at 1 p.m.

A more moderate view of the TV hit is held by Bong Solomon, general manager of Francesca’s Fiore. “I watch it on TV at work sometimes and I follow it casually,” Solomon said, “It’s a big subject of conversation.” Solomon wishes he had the talent to sing or dance. “I get jealous watching it.” However, he is more excited about the real-life competition than reality TV.

“Danza Viva is a reputable dance studio,” said Solomon, “We’re expecting a classy production.” Francesca’s has always been a good venue for music and its flexible seating can easily accommodate 50 or more spectators. “I hope it will be a nice day, so we can open up the overhead doors,” said Solomon. By May 13, when Francesca’s hosts a Kids Dance contest, the weather should be more pleasant.

Now, for a person with no opinion about “American Idol” we find Tracy Cammach, manager of La Piazza. “I don’t watch the show,” Cammach said, “Because I have no time to watch TV.”

Cammach is usually hard at work at the restaurant during prime time. Nevertheless, she is excited about hosting an Adult Vocals competition on May 21.

The sing-off will take place in the restaurant’s subterranean jazz club, Sotto. The cavern-like club features a professional stage, with lighting and sound system. It can accommodate up to 60 souls in its intimate atmosphere. Currently the club offers live jazz Wednesday through Saturday, beginning at 7:30 p.m.

As if we needed more Forest Park connections, local resident Howard McCullom, of Howard & the White Boys will be on the panel of “celebrity judges.”

Of course, the TV show wouldn’t have 40 million voters if it didn’t explore the contestant’s personality as well as their performance. DJ Mick will fill the crucial role of moderator.

“We want the audience to feel like they know the contestants,” Huntman said, “We also want to bring the community together through dance and song.” To this end, audiences will be contributing to the vote. In fact, local residents can cast their votes at

“I just hope people will have the courage to tap into their creativity,” Huntman said. The response from would-be idols has been strong so far. Even before the fliers went out, 25 contestants had filled out registration forms. Brown Cow has already gone through a stack of them.

Auditions will be held at Danza Viva, at 46 Lake Street in Oak Park, beginning on March 31. This studio is a unique operation. It employs twenty teachers instructing students in dance styles from around the world. “We have a lot of adult classes,” Huntman said, “which is unusual for a studio. They’ve found it’s a lot more fun to get in shape by dance, rather than working out on the treadmill.”

The studio also has a professional company in residence, One World Dance Theater. Huntman’s background is in Latin ballroom and the studio offers classes like “Latin Cardio Bootcamp.”

Physical shape is one thing. Huntman hopes the Local Idol contestants will also benefit emotionally from the experience. “We’ll be helping people feel their own gift,” Huntman said. “We want to celebrate everyone’s talent.”

For those who would like to compete, registration forms can be obtained from the studio, by calling 386-8681, or e-mailing Huntman promises there will be no one named Simon on the panel.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.