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Simon, Paula, Randy come to town

Three men in black guard the escalator at the Penn's Landing Hyatt Regency. Occasionally, shrieks descend. Have aliens taken over the second-floor ballroom?

Three men in black guard the escalator at the Penn's Landing Hyatt Regency. Occasionally, shrieks descend. Have aliens taken over the second-floor ballroom?

Nope. Just Meanie, Crazy Paula and The Dawg. And they're sending a few gifted singers to Hollywood.

Today was back to school for the American Idol judges, the first day of what Simon Cowell called a "tedious process" that will lead a lucky few dozen songbirds to California before the crowning of Idol Champion No. 7, more than 250 days from now.

Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson reconvened, after a summer apart, in the Hyatt Ballroom to listen to 100 or 150 contestants (nobody gives them the final number in advance) culled from last weekend's 20,000-wannabe cattle call at the Wachovia Center.

The early verdict was mixed.

"There's been no one with that 'wow' factor yet," said Paula, and if she of the gentle heart was saying it, you know the ballroom had been thoroughly wow-deficient.

"The last girl we put through was quite good," said Simon, and the others - Idol host Ryan Seacrest was there, too - agreed.

So if you were that one, wearing jeans and a light-blue sweatshirt that said "Pink" on one arm, bravo!

Even bystanders in the lobby could sense your poise as you strode, followed by Idol cameras, to the front door, pausing dramatically on the curb to await your fate.

And who cares if reality set in after the cameras stopped, and you ducked out to the garage, to get a ride home with Mommy and Daddy?

There were disjointed scenes in the lobby, where, symbolically, the down escalator hummed normally, but the steps up remained stuck, necessitating a literal climb to stardom.

One young couple - she turned out like a pretty package with cloth contestant number stapled to her front, he carrying an adorable baby girl - scurried to find a diaper-changing table.

Loose lips sink ships, and singing careers on Idol, where producers and their formal documents underline the importance of surprise, so no contestant or supporter was talking. Except Milo Turk from Atlantic City, who was there as a friend of one of the chosen, and had been denied the chance to sing a song he wrote, "No Sex Allowed," for the glorious ballroom trinity.

But you know how proud parents are. They can't keep quiet. The mother of one grim-faced New York reject said that "it was a blessing" that her son had even gotten a callback.

And the loving mother and father of a young man who had yet to perform said their son was already the American Idol at his school, in a little town far, far away. "Please don't say what state," Mom asked, as she gave it, and even his name, away.

Who are we to squelch a dream?

Dad and the kid had flown in last weekend, gone home, and returned this weekend with all five family members. "The cost of living's much lower back home," the husband lamented, marveling at a $14 banana split he had seen offered on Market Street.

The family has lifetime memories even if the kid goes nowhere. But don't count on the great backstory to give him a boost.

"We are supposed to be listening to people sing," Simon reminded a handful of reporters given a few minutes with the judges. "People come in in stupid costumes, and I think some of them just want to be on TV," he muttered.

"No!" said Randy, dramatically aghast.

One reporter asked what had taken them seven years to get to Philadelphia, such a well-known music city.

"Based on what we've seen so far," said Simon, "I'm not sure it is."

"Yeah," chimed Randy. "I don't know if it's really that kind of music town, still."

The crew seemed to be genuinely enjoying one another's company.

There were jokes about Seacrest hosting the Emmys, and Simon lobbed a few at Paula.

Even on a holiday-weekend Saturday, in a generic hotel ballroom, she displayed a childlike charm that only cynics, like those who would mock a tongue-tied Miss Teen USA contestant, would mistake for instability.

"Paula literally said to the first person who walked in, 'The competition's going to be tough this year,' " Simon gibed. When someone, referring to screwball contestants, asked about criticism that American Idol exploits people who are deranged, he said, "No. Paula is on the show because she is a good judge."

Producers may select ringers who can't sing, partially to irritate the judges, but they all said they took the auditions seriously.

"I think the auditions are the show," said Simon, "but it's a really long process. . . . I don't enjoy it."

By the end of tomorrow, when the judging wraps up here, there will be a hundred or so singers, from down the street and hundreds of miles away, who sought to be stars in Philadelphia, who will be saying exactly the same thing.

But somebody also may be just beginning a fantasy.

Next week, the merry trio is off to Charleston, S.C., and then Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, San Diego and Omaha, where countless thousands of others have lined up.

"In all the cities you go through," Simon said, "you really only need to find one."