CAPE MAY - Marcus Phillips is used to working the big rooms.
The veteran singer steps up on the stage at Congress Hall's Boiler Room and looks out coolly over the crowd packed around the bar. And when the mood and the music are just right, he starts to croon:
"Just a small-town girl, livin' in a lonely world. ... "
He belts out the rest of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin,'" and gets a nice hand. Later, the singer, who traveled from California to Cape May, says he really is an old hand in this saloon - at age 8.
This was his third time joining the crowd of kids who sing karaoke from 6 to 8 p.m. every Thursday through Labor Day weekend in the historic hotel's basement bar. This is Congress Hall's second year of hosting karaoke for the younger set - or, what the idea's reputed inventor, local karaoke impresario Terry O'Brien, likes to call Kiddy O'ke. O'Brien runs adult karaoke nights at four bars along the local shoreline, and Kiddy O'ke at two.
His other kids' venue is at Bloody Mary's in Cape May's Atlas Inn - which, like the Boiler Room, does the kids' version early (5:30 p.m. Sundays at Bloody Mary's), then opens for adult karaoke later that night.
And the young singers are a big hit in both spots, says O'Brien, who sees kiddie karaoke as a growth industry.
"I've had parents tell me you could do this every night of the week, all year, and we would come," he says.
Jacki Bianchino, of Dennis Township, 20 or so minutes from Cape May, is a regular in the Boiler Room with Camryn Soens and Jessica Goodroe, both 5 years old. Camryn is the daughter of Bianchino's boyfriend and Jessica is her best friend's little girl, Bianchino explains. Both love singing for the crowd - even if, at their age, they can't read their lyrics yet.
So Bianchino - no karaoke rookie herself - goes on stage with them to feed them the words. Then she sometimes sends the girls home and stays to do her own singing.
As an objective observer, she says most of the young singers are no worse - at least - than the older ones later.
"The kiddie karaoke (singers) usually have it more together than the adults," she says, "but there may be some drinking involved in that."
Relaxing at a Boiler Room table on a recent Thursday with his wife, his sister and her husband, Kevin Tighe, a Cape May regular from Chicago, was obviously impressed by the genius of kiddie karaoke.
"It's a win-win-win," he said, grinning between bites of guacamole and sips from a cold beer as his own kids waited patiently to perform. "The kids win, the bar wins - and the parents win."
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