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The Hard Rock Life

The Red Balloon's karaoke jockeys prevail against all odds.


When the stripper walks onto the stage, "Olly" Oliver knows what to do.

Other guys gawk. Some hoot. And when that 5-foot-10-inch blonde unzips her denim one-piece, for some of them time probably stops altogether. Not for Olly. For Olly, the passage of time must remain rhythmic, a continuous four beats per measure. Olly does what he always does: his job. He cues the lyrics to the next song before her dress hits the floor.

It's a Friday night, and Olly (who asks that his real first name not be printed) is the head karaoke jockey at the Red Balloon in Lenexa. He is the man in charge of the bad-song, worse-singer atmosphere. As master of ceremonies, he also sings, dances, jokes and drinks if it means keeping the crowd happy.

Time is moving fast now: Men race for the stage, women tumble backward, the guy with the backward ball cap pushes between flannel-swathed shoulders, plowing toward the naked woman like a bull on red.

They stop at the stage. Maybe another night. Maybe if it were one of the other KJs between them and that woman. Speakers blast Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" as Olly stands firm between the dancer and a four-stack of mixers and equalizers and CD loaders filled with 900 discs. He weighs about 250 pounds, and he's seen it all before.

The rule is unspoken: No one gropes the stripper.

Local karaoke-music dealers say that the popularity of sing-along TV game shows like American Idol have brought new fans to the already booming subculture. National Karaoke Week (sponsored by the American Karaoke Guild) begins April 21. Capitalizing on the fervor, a Topeka radio station will sponsor a traveling, ten-bar karaoke competition, whose finalists will compete June 26 in front of country singers Phil Vasser and Joe Nichols at Country Stampede in Manhattan, Kansas.

None of the Red Balloon KJs will be at the competition. They don't even know it exists. After fourteen years in the business, they don't need bright lights, sequined competitors or statewide recognition.

The stage is open seven days a week. On weekends, Olly accommodates more than 100 acts a night. The bar burns through at least six microphones a month; excited singers rip them to shreds.

"There's a whole batch of new people lately, kind of more yuppyish," Olly says. "For the longest time it was just guys like me, a bunch of headbangers. Before that, rednecks. I don't know what you'd call it now."

The stripper grinds above a man in a folding chair. His wife has paid for this present, and with a little audience prompting, the man stands and drops his drawers. The stripper grabs a paddle. Olly flips a dial on the sound system. Bass beats pump, and men pound tables as lounge-style hip-hop fades into a set of Jay-Z.

It was different last Wednesday, when marble-sized hail beat a cadence on the bar's roof and the TV blared war updates and NCAA tournament basketball games. Olly was absent, leaving would-be singers uninspired.

Joe Thompson, a Marlboro Red-smoking country singer who's never turned down a shift, got the call to fill in. He stood beside 18-inch Peavey speakers, and, well, just stood there.

A girl with crisp bangs and a black miniskirt got away with flaying three country ballads in less than an hour because nobody else wanted to sing. Thompson did not shout or glad-hand the crowd. Regular weeknight KJ Mikey Mancuso, a Fubu-wearing white guy, sang a Collective Soul song to fill dead air.

Thompson and Mancuso are the KJs-in-training. Rookies. Olly has quit and been rehired at the Red Balloon three times. When he last returned, Olly worked on call, filling in when someone needed a night off. He was in the shadow of a guy named Kenny -- known as Dr. Karaoke -- who packed the place on Sunday nights. Olly moved up to part-time quickly, then worked weekdays for a year and a half. When Dr. Karaoke left, Olly finally got the weekend nod.

Now his name is on stenciled enamel stickers next to the beer specials on the outside window. The marquee reads: "The Olly and Jimbob Show."

It's just the Olly Show now. KJs are in demand -- industry insiders say there are dozens of karaoke setups across northeastern Kansas and northwestern Missouri -- and Jimbob bought his own equipment, went mobile and left the Red Balloon six months ago. He settled at Randy's Bar, about a mile up the street.

In the absence of Jimbob, Mancuso and Thompson went from red-shirting performers to second-string professionals. So far, Mancuso is the heir apparent. He's drawn crowd support; on St. Patrick's Day, for instance, he convinced a woman to flash her breasts. Thompson may leave soon. He wanted to start his own karaoke business, but it wasn't happening, so he joined the Army.

"It's a tedious job. To keep the show rolling, KJs need to develop their own personality," says Red Balloon owner Roxy McGuire. A KJ must be able to guide an audience from rock to country to "That's Amore." McGuire says both men need to learn more before entering the big dance.

But Olly's been missing work recently. Sometimes he just takes a night off, knowing Thompson is eager for hours. Sometimes he plays drums with his rock band, Graven Image.

"Olly won't be here much longer," Mancuso predicted optimistically one night when the head KJ missed work. "I'll take over for him, I hope."

But on Friday night, after the stripping woman collects her clothes and the catcalls stop, Olly flips the auto-loader to a Rob Zombie disk. A stripper is a hard act to follow, but Olly unbinds his waist-length ponytail, downs a shot of Wild Turkey and mounts the stage.

This is why he makes about $80 a night plus tips. It's his job to regain control.

The girls in the college T-shirts go wild. The guys in the polos and jeans nod approvingly. During a four-bar guitar break in "Dragula," Olly headbangs rhythmically back and forth more than eighteen times.

When Olly sees the guy in the back with the John Deere cap, he knows: Get that guy onstage, and you got a show. Turns out John Deere Guy wants to perform. He sings Creed with his eyes closed, peeling off his shirt less than a minute into the act.

"Are you properly drunk yet?" Olly yells to the crowd. "Let's do a social shot, everybody!"

Cheers and shouts and glass-on-glass collisions erupt from the audience as people with beer mugs and shot glasses lean their heads back.

Mounted in the rafters is a security-style video camera with a fish-eye lens. Now onstage is a girl in denim shorts and a pink top; she sees her image broadcast on the big screen behind the crowd. She stares at the blue-screen monitor that's supposed to display her lyrics. It is blank. There is no music. Still, she sways back and forth.

"It's all about me!" she yells. The crowd quiets a bit. Olly looks at her. He queues "Sweet Caroline" but waits just a second longer to play it than he should -- he's being purposely obnoxious. The big screen captures the girl's mounting anxiety as if she's a child before a fun-house mirror.

"Well," he says. "She's the star."

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