On a quiet, shaded street in Hyde Park, music streams down the steps of a three-story stucco home.
Inside, a blond beauty queen belts “Son of a Preacher Man.” Reaching for a note, she lifts her eyes and lets its tension wrinkle her forehead.
Bill Wolfe, a talent consultant who’s lived in Kansas City for more than 30 years, pounds the same note on his grand piano.
“See, you can hit your B’s if you lift your eyebrows,” Wolfe says.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Dairyn Tye, an aspiring Miss Illinois, commits the tip to memory.
Every year, hundreds of beauty pageant contestants travel from across the country for lessons like this — to purchase competition tracks, to discover a talent or to perfect one. And they will pay up to $125 an hour because, in the pageant world of performance, Wolfe is one of the top dogs.
Since 1990, Wolfe has worked on music for nine Miss America winners, and has had between one and nine contestants place among the 15 semi-finalists every year. At the 2015 Miss America Pageant, he did music for the 1st, 3rd and 4th runners-up, plus four of the other top 10 semi-finalists.
He specializes in preparing contestants for the talent portion, which accounts for 35 percent of their total score — more than any other category. Meaning, apart from stunning the judges with beauty, poise and a worthy platform, a fierce competitor has to be able to stay on pitch.
Mary Ann Owens, a Missouri pageant director who’s been sending competitors to Wolfe for 15 years, said he’s an expert at developing potential.
“Bill will take a girl who can’t carry a note and turn her into a fairly competitive singer,” Owens said. “Give him some talent, and he’ll turn her into Miss America.”
Made in the Midwest
The path to one of the most specialized jobs in the music industry began for Wolfe, 61, in his hometown of Norfolk, Neb., where as a child he was drawn to music.
For five years after earning his music education degree from the University of Nebraska, Wolfe taught middle and high school music in the small town of Neligh, Neb. He also led the school’s choir. On his first day, seven girls showed up. Dissatisfied, Wolfe organized a dance and hired a DJ.
“The only way you could get into that dance was if you signed up for choir,” Wolfe said.
Of the 240 students at the high school, 180 of them signed up, and Wolfe had to move practice to the gym.
In 1984, Wolfe moved to Kansas City. While doing graduate work at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he came across a girl who needed a pageant track — 1 minute and 30 seconds of musical accompaniment. He did the arrangement. His friend made the track.
After attending a few pageants, Wolfe was hooked.
Soon, he became the director of Miss Kansas City, a local pageant held at the Music Hall. With his eyes on the then-struggling state pageant, Wolfe invited several board members to judge Miss Kansas City.
“They took one look at what I’d done and asked me to produce Miss Missouri,” Wolfe said.
Then, pressing his index finger below his lips: “I said, ‘Gee, maybe.’”
While playing piano throughout the city Wolfe met Kim Kircher, his now close friend and part-time partner in talent prep.
Kircher was working as a singing waitress at Tiffany’s Attic, a dinner theater that has since closed. Wolfe heard her sing and encouraged her to enter a pageant. She took his advice, and in 1988 won Miss Kansas City. Wolfe helped her prepare for the Miss Missouri Pageant, where she won overall talent and placed in the top 10.
The pair grew their friendship through performance, playing the local hotel circuit and venues like Bar Natasha. Now, they work together on a two-part pageant lesson plan: A contestant will meet with Wolfe, choose her song, practice. Then, Kircher steps in to do what she calls “vocal blocking.” In short, she teaches stage presence — when to walk, what to wear, how to produce emotion that moves people. Namely the judges.
“They really will overlook a lot of sins if that girl is singing from the heart,” Wolfe said.
And Wolfe knows how to reach it.
“He can really find the essence of someone,” Kircher said. “He makes everyone feel so special.”
Kirsten Haglund, who won Miss America in 2008 after working with Wolfe on her performance of “Over the Rainbow,” said he’s focused on showcasing the contestant.
“He wants their individuality to come through,” Haglund said. “It’s not about his ego or his performance. He doesn’t want to be the star.”
On the road
In the past 15 years, Kircher said, Wolfe’s reputation has grown outside the state.
“Once you have two or three talent winners,” she said, “word begins to spread.”
Wolfe is out of town two weeks of each month. Usually, he’s headed to the South — to a dress shop in Union City, Tenn., or to Lasting Impressions, a shop in Columbus, Ga., where pageant gowns go for more than $7,000.
Two weekends of every year, Lasting Impressions becomes a one-stop shop for contestants. Girls from 16 states come to buy gowns, to pose for pictures, to learn to walk, talk and hone their talent — all among the very best in the business: dress designer Sherri Hill, model and runway coach Lu Sierra, interview coach and attorney Bill Alverson and, for the past five years, Wolfe for talent.
During these weekends, Keith Pittman, the store’s owner, books Wolfe from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. in 55-minute sessions.
“Everyone wants a piece of the pie,” Pittman said. “Everyone wants that experience.”
And when contestants are paying up to $450 for a custom track, they rely on Wolfe to work quickly to choose the right one. He’ll assess the contestant’s range and ask if she prefers a genre. Then, from his library of roughly 3,500 tracks, he’ll play a few. Ultimately, it’s her pick.
A contestant’s success is worth more to Wolfe than the price attached to a track.
“He’s a real person,” Pittman said. “In our industry, people are pretentious. That’s not Bill’s approach to anything.”
What is his approach then?
“I’m totally honest,” Wolfe said.
He’ll tell a contestant the truth about her talent, or lack thereof.
“I think you find a lot of people in the pageant world who aren’t necessarily that way,” Wolfe said. “They’re out to sell the dress, whether the dress looks the best on the girl or not.”
Host at home
Back in Kansas City, Wolfe opens his home on Locust Street.
Six months ago, he started offering his 1,500-square-foot, furnished, third floor apartment to out-of-state competitors. Inside there is a grand piano and full sound system for rehearsal purposes in between sessions. He’ll arrange their rides and will even stock the fridge.
On a recent Saturday, Wolfe met with two aspiring beauty queens back-to-back. The first is Tye, from Illinois. Now, she can hit the high notes.
The other is Kristen McDowell, who traveled from St. Louis. She brought a saxophone that’s been in its case for three years. She also sings. McDowell’s mother, who sits on the couch, wants her daughter to stand out.
After easing note-by-note into Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” — Wolfe on piano, McDowell on saxophone — Wolfe defines a strategy: McDowell will play the saxophone, and that will set her apart.
Wolfe bustles about his great room — sitting, singing, keeping time with his leather loafers and introducing, with a flourish, everyone who enters his home. Even the washer repair man.
In September, Wolfe will attend the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.
But on the final night, he’ll be at home to host a watch party for his friends and neighbors. He is an entertainer, after all.