By Ken Stone
Twenty-two seconds into the San Diego troupe’s routine — set to disco diva Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit “I will survive” — Simon Cowell hit the red buzzer.
In quick succession came big red X’s from fellow NBC celebrity judges Howie Mandel, Heidi Klum and Sofia Vergara. Said Mandel: “We’re on a roll of no talent.”
Overshadowed Tuesday by the golden-buzzer triumph of San Diego’s Voices of Our City Choir, the roller-skating quintet barely rated notice. But their backstory has its own twists and turns.
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Paul Dunham, 70, says it was a “total shock” when his group received the first red buzzer.
“We have been doing that same act for years and most audiences loved it,” the El Cajon resident said Thursday via email. “Getting booed [by the Pasadena Civic Auditorium audience] was a new experience. I guess there may be a different expectation for AGT acts.”
Times of San Diego wanted to know: Were they serious? Did Old School Skaters not realize they were being used as comic relief?
“I was dead serious about performing for AGT,” said Dunham, who told a viewing audience estimated at 9.81 million that rollerskating wasn’t dead.
He conceded that Old School Skaters wasn’t up to AGT standards.
“I may be crazy, but I’m not delusional,” Dunham said. “I didn’t think we had a chance to go through to the second level, but I didn’t imagine getting the red buzzer four times.”
He said he was surprised to learn in February that the skaters made it to the March 7 celebrity judges audition, “but I didn’t question it because we do that same routine all over the county and most people love it.”
Despite the wide belief that AGT acts bubble up from a series of auditions, Dunham said he was contacted last October by producers because they liked one of the act’s YouTube videos.
“They said they liked our costumes, the same ones that we wore for the performance,” he said. “We auditioned at the San Diego Convention Center but were given a VIP pass and didn’t wait in line.”
He didn’t realize that perhaps he was recruited to be part of the red-buzzer section of the show — which included a performance artist with a sock puppet vomiting on his shirt.
“We were serious,” he repeated. “But if we were recruited to be an XXXX act, it would make sense and clear up some things.”
By coincidence, or perhaps fate, Old School Skaters was on “The Gong Show” in 2018, Dunham said of the revival.
“[We] literally got the gong from Will Arnett,” he said. “That was a fun experience because we got to be goofy, but not goofy enough, I guess.”
He introduced the group, which appeared for all of 1 minute, 45 seconds about 73 minutes into the two-hour show.
Ages range from mid-30s to his 70 and included Lisa Cuerden, Nicole Stewart, Ernest Paul Lee (aka Paul Junior or PJ) and La’Brian Lawrence.
Lawrence might have been the breakout star, but he joined the routine late — after it had been rejected. (Host Terry Crews, offstage, said: “The secret weapon did not get a chance to do its secret weapon thing.”
Lawrence demonstrated a splits and suggested he didn’t get a chance.
“You should have come out earlier,” replied show creator and executive producer Cowell.
Dunham says Lawrence — “truly a world-class skater” — came out last because he was mainly a solo performer and didn’t know that particular routine.
“Second, he is an amazing skater and we thought it would be cool if he came out near the end as a surprise for a big finish,” Dunham said. “He actually came out earlier than planned after the third red buzzer. We never imagined that we would not be able to finish the routine.”
Dunham says he founded the Old School Skaters in 2000, seeking to give quad skaters a chance to showcase their talent and bring awareness to the public.
The art is alive and thriving, he said, and more than the stereotypical roller disco. Until the pandemic scrambled plans, his group promoted free Mission Beach lessons (“Have a wheel good time”).
Cuerden is a special education paraprofessional teacher. Lee is a site supervisor for a U.S. government aviation contract field team. Stewart is busy taking care of her mother. And Lawrence works for an auto parts distributor.
“Members have come and gone over the years,” Dunham said. “Most of our current group of skaters have been performing together since around 2015. Nicole is a new addition. AGT was only her second performance with us. But she is an enthusiastic and energetic skater.”
The group practices mainly on Cuerden’s patio, which Dunham called a very small area.
“When we get on a big stage like at AGT, it feels amazingly free and open,” he said.
Also mainly free — their labors.
“They did not give us one penny. Nada, zilch, zip,” he said in a follow-up email. “They did not pay for travel expenses. They did not compensate us for our time (we were on-site for approximately 12 hours). They did not pay for parking on the day of the shoot.”
AGT producers did pay for one night at a hotel, he said.
“They provided for parking for the one night,” he said. “They supplied one deli sandwich meal, that came in a box, during the time on set (but they did allow us to leave to buy food).”
By contrast, he said, “The Gong Show” paid for two nights at a hotel, compensated their travel, gave them free parking cards, paid for breakfast at the hotel, had a well-stocked food buffet all day long, and gave each a $250 stipend.
An FAQ for contestants on the AGT auditions site promised: “Per diem [of $25 per night] is ONLY provided to acts and parents and legal guardians that we are traveling in and providing hotel accommodations … that we book you in a hotel.”
A spokesman for production company Fremantle didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Dunham said: “Nice little racket Simon’s got going there if you ask me. Most of our performances are for free, but with all the millions of money that AGT makes, it seems that they could do a little better, in my opinion.”
But he was gracious in cheering his fellow San Diego act.
“I think it is awesome that Voices of Our City got the golden buzzer,” Dunham said. “I watched them on TV and teared up.”
His advice to would-be AGT contestants?
Keep trying, he says.
“We auditioned two times before, over the years, and never made it through until this time,” Dunham said. “I would also tell them that if they get the red buzzer, it is nothing personal.”
He added: “It is only the judge’s opinion and they probably don’t have enough knowledge about your genre to fully appreciate your style. You should be confident enough in yourself to brush it off and keep doing what you love.”
Despite the indignity of being tossed on national TV, Dunham says he loved the experience.
“Getting to meet new people and hanging out with the other contestants and watching their talents was inspiring,” he said. “Although I knew we were only a bunch of amateurs, I was not intimidated. I felt privileged and grateful to be a part of it.”
Postscript from Paul Dunham
Hours after this story was posted, Dunham wrote:
You know, your question about the XXXX component has got me to thinking. I am starting to believe that we may have been recruited to fail. Here’s the reasons why.
I was first contacted in October of 2019 by an AGT person who asked if I would audition doing a routine that they saw of me on YouTube. It was a solo routine of me skating to “Turn Down for What.” I had just broken my arm and it was in a cast. I couldn’t do half of the tricks that I had rehearsed because of the pain, so it was a really weak performance. I put it up on YouTube to demonstrate that, no matter, what the show must go on.
Anyway, I told them no thanks and that was that. Then in February they contacted me again and asked if I wanted to do another routine from a video that they saw on YouTube, the routine that we performed on the show. I said yes. So they set up an audition. We only had a couple of weeks notice.
In the meantime, everyone was excited. The video of the routine did not have La’Brian in it. We wanted to succeed, of course, so someone suggested that we include La’Brian. On the day of the audition, we had La’Brian come out near the end for a killer solo and a big finish.
When we got word that we made it thru to the celebrity judges audition, we were ecstatic. Before this point no one believed we would make it. Now, since I knew we would be in front of the celebrity judges, I felt that we had to step it up so I asked AGT if we could change some things up to improve it a little bit.
They said yes, but we had to send a video for approval. We got busy in the next few weeks and tried to improve the act. We had La’Brian coming out earlier (Just as Simon suggested). We rearranged it to make it move quicker and be less repetitive. We sent them the video of the new routine.
I didn’t hear back so I had to follow up and ask about it. They said that they discussed it and felt the original version that we did in the audition was preferable.
So I am starting to believe that we may have been recruited to fail. There doesn’t seem to be any other plausible explanation.
Updated at 11:55 p.m. May 29, 2020
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