July 22, 2008
"Fun & Games - Everyone's a star when Sandy Sowell sets up stage"

By Julie Robinson
Staff writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sandy Sowell's theme song has to be "Let Us Entertain You." In the 35 years she's lived in Putnam County, she's sung with one popular band and managed another, played the lead roles in "Evita," "Mame" and "Gypsy," run a singing-telegram company, introduced karaoke to the state and engaged hundreds of thousands of people to play her game shows.

It's likely that you've caught her act at a fair, festival, company picnic, school reunion or convention. She's the dynamic woman with the headpiece or microphone in front of a glittering backdrop, quizzing contestants as onlookers cheer them on.

She's a pro at drawing people out of their shells and into the limelight. No matter how many times she's told when she's hired that this group of people will never participate, she always has plenty of volunteers for Game Show Mania or Laser Karaoke Show, her two most popular programs.

Photo by Chris Dorst

Tuesday, July 22 - Game Show Mania is one of several entertainment packages Sandy Sowell offers clients.

"Why do they do it? I think they just want to have fun," she said. "After some initial reservations, we get the ball rolling and they have fun. It's a beautiful thing."

Her games and karaoke aren't only for adults. She codes her game-show questions according to age groups and extensively researches the questions for teenage-based graduation and after-prom parties. She hits Billboard and iTunes downloads to see what music is popular and looks up the lyrics to be sure she's not using anything too off-color.

"I have to know what the hip songs are, and I'm not hip," she said. "I also want to be sure a song's not X-rated. I have to know that if somebody's grandmother is in the audience, she's going to be OK with it."

The only time she's failed to interest guests in a lively game was a New Year's Eve party at which people were dressed to the nines and more interested in champagne and dancing than in playing games. "I just wasn't what they were expecting."

Sowell entered the entertainment world at the last-minute introduction of her then-husband, Mountain Stage Band leader Ron Sowell. They were in Texas and he was looking for business as a bar singer when a bar owner wanted a duet. He said Sandy could sing - it was news to her. They went back to their room, and she learned 20 songs for them to perform the next night.

The Sowells moved to West Virginia to join a rural community in Putnam County, several members of which formed the Putnam County Pickers in 1974. Sowell was the female vocalist for the group, whose blend of rock, jazz and bluegrass gained a loyal following. She left in 1980, when a doctor told her she shouldn't sing after a thyroid cancer diagnosis.

She beat the cancer. The Pickers folded, and Ron Sowell, by then her ex-husband, asked her to manage a new band, Stark Raven. In that job, she learned the business side of the entertainment profession.

Simultaneously, she started a singing-telegram business, Best Wishez, writing and singing thousands of singing telegrams. For $50, clients received an original verse and sometimes an original chorus. Her characters included a Dolly Parton look-alike and a stripping Santa. The interaction with thousands of clients nudged her toward the karaoke business.

"That's what taught me how to do audience participation," she said. "I learned how to go into a room, take it over, then put one person in the spotlight."

Stints in three Charleston Light Opera Guild productions further honed her performance skills, as she disregarded her doctor's advice not to sing. She described her voice as serviceable, but not spectacular, and said she'd never really given it special attention.

As the curtain fell on "Gypsy," her final Guild production in 1990, Sowell began lookingİ around for the next adventure. She'd heard about karaoke while she was in Florida and just knew it would be a big hit, so she invested in the equipment and introduced Sandy Sowell's Laser Karaoke Show to West Virginia.

"I knew it was here to stay," she said. "It's putting a person in the spotlight. A regular person becomes a star."

For six months, hers was the only karaoke game in town. "We had the market cornered," she said. "People freaked out. They totally loved it."

As competitors popped up on the bar scene, Sowell limited her appearances to private events. She hasn't played a club in 14 years. She looked for other ways to entertain clients and hit upon the concept of a game show.

A dazzling backdrop, flashing lights, loud music and podiums with lighted scoreboards set the stage for participants to play Game Show Mania, a television-style game in which contestants answer questions for points and prizes. She hones the game's questions, pulling out the clunkers if they flop just once or twice.

She finds that the game appeals more to adult players than it does to teenagers, possibly because the game doesn't involve a buzzer.

"With the teenagers, it's all about hitting the buzzer," she said.

Two antique appraisers provide the expertise needed for Antique Sideshow, a game in which guests bring items from home to be appraised. Sowell chooses estimates from audience members who win when their guesses are close to the experts' appraisals.

She also offers jazzed up versions of Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution and carnival games, as well as Giant Twister, which is played on a 20-foot by 20-foot mat. She's fine-tuning a horse-racing game she plans to introduce soon.

A $1,300 charge for any one show prices Sowell out of the market for many small parties. It takes her and her assistant about three hours to set up a show, about two for the show, then another two to break it down.

The forward-thinking Sowell is always looking for new ways to entertain and engage. She's thinking about a Pictionary-style game she'd call Quick Draw.

With Sowell, it really is all fun and games.

"As adults, we're not playing games much together," she said. "For me to get a roomful of people playing games together just makes me really happy."

For more information on Sandy Sowell Entertainment, visit the website: www.sandysowell.com or call (304) 562-7464.

To reach Julie Robinson, call 348-1230 or e-mail julier@wvgazette.com.

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