Fellow graduates from co-workers at Circles Bar & Grill in Apollo Beach and friends from St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico will all be tuned in to tonight's American Idol television show to see hometown boy Dan Wood fulfill his dream of performing on the popular television show.
But none are more excited about tonight's season premiere than Wood's own mother, Cindy.
"This is unbelievable," said Cindy Wood, who accompanied her 22-year-old son to Hollywood for the taping of tonight's show. "I've been on this ride with him for a long time. He’s come a long way."
Ironically, Circles Bar & Grill's "singing server" never showed much interest in singing as a youngster, said his mom.
"He never really sang as a child," she said. "I used to do all the singing. Then, I'm thinking he was about 16, he was talking on the phone to a girl and she put him on hold. He started singing while he was waiting for her to come back on the phone. She heard him and asked him what radio station he was listening to."
Cindy Wood said that moment changed her son's life. "That was the first time he got positive feedback on his singing," she said.
From there, the 2008 Newsome High School graduate went on to sing in the high school's Elite Show Choir and landed the role of Frederick in the school's production of "Pirates of Penzance" as a sophomore.
"When he performed in the 'Pirates of Penzance,' that was literally the first time my husband and I ever heard him sing," she recalled.
With the encouragement of St. Stephen Catholic Church music minister Chris Westfall, Wood also joined the Life Teen Choir at the church, the only male member of the group, and sang "Come Holy Spirit" on the ministry's first CD.
He backed off from singing as a junior and senior to participate on Newsome's wrestling team, going to state competition his senior year.
But athletics didn't prevent him from auditioning for American Idol while still in high school and three more times after he graduated. During his fourth audition on Jan. 24 in Baton Rouge, he sang Alex Clare's "Too Close to Love You," getting four "yes" votes from judges Randy Jackson, Mariah Carey, Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj and a golden ticket to Hollywood.
"When he first started performing, he had a little stage fright. But each time he auditioned, he just got better and better. Every time he auditioned, he learned new things," said Cindy Wood.
Wood also demonstrated a talent for writing music, collaborating with his older brother, James, on a CD titled "The Road to Salvation."
He wrote 'In Heaven with Thee,' in just 10 minutes," said Cindy Wood.
Whether he's ultimately chosen the next American Idol or not, Cindy Wood said it's been an experience he'll never forget.
"He's shown so much determination," she said. "He'll never have the regret of not trying to follow his dream."
It's been an adventure for the other members of the Wood family as well, including his younger sister, Katherine.
"It's really been a hoot," said Cindy Wood. "We had such a great time out in California. I just loved being around so many young people following their dreams. It did my soul good."
She said she didn't even mind when, in his "Road to Hollywood" interview, her son described her singing voice as, "Well, she's no Barbra Streisand."
"I laughed when he said that," said Cindy Wood.
In a more touching moment during the interview, Wood called his grandmother, Wanda Chimiak, his inspiration, theorizing that she's most likely the source of his natural talent.
Chimiak was an opera singer, on her way to performing at the Metropolitan Opera, when she met her husband and gave up her singing career to raise eight children.
"My mom was so thrilled when he mentioned her," said Cindy Wood, noting that her parents just celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.
When he isn't attending classes at the University of South Florida, where he's a senior majoring in psychology, Wood works as a server at Circles, serenading customers on their birthdays.
The 20 male semifinalists will perform on American Idol Hollywood Round Part 1 Wednesday, Feb. 6, and Thursday, Feb. 7, starting at 8 p.m. on Fox TV. The Woods aren't sure whether Dan Wood's performance will be on Wednesday or Thursday.
"But I'm leaning toward tonight," said Cindy Wood.
Next Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 13-14, the 20 female semifinalists will perform.
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