They lined up in chutes, befitting a cattle call, and, as might have been expected in a city known for its stockyards, most were led calmly if not quietly to the slaughter.
Among about 12,000 aspiring singers who braved bad morning weather and the possibility of abject embarrassment - at the potential gain of being the next "American Idol" - were Maria D'Andrea and her brother Pat of Elk Grove Village. They came to the United Center in Chicago prepared for hardship but with a desire to pursue dreams of glory on the most popular show on television. They knew the odds were not in their favor.
"When it came, we said, 'Let's just give it a shot,'" Maria D'Andrea said.
"We have a band together," Pat D'Andrea said, referring to their group, Archie Star. "We've been singing since we were, like, 10."
Pat's now 23, Maria 19.
Pat planned to sing a Fall Out Boy song, Maria one by Lady GaGa, and they had an original duet prepared if they both scored hits with the judging producers. They also kept their strategy simple.
"Try not to get nervous," Maria said.
"And lots of coffee," added Pat.
Alexis Garwood of Naperville had experience on her side. She came dressed in ruby-red platform heels, rainbow-striped knee socks and a taffeta miniskirt.
"Last year I auditioned (in Louisville, Ky.), and I looked a little too normal, so I decided to dress up a little," she said.
She planned to sing Adele's "Chasing Pavements."
Having popped in at some time or another over the weekend to pick up a wristband, the 12,000 aspirants started lining up in 10 "chutes" in the parking lot just south of the United Center Sunday night. Following long drives and a sleepless night, all the contestants were ushered inside a little after 7 a.m., the vast majority to be quickly dispatched at about a dozen judging tables inside without ever catching a glimpse of Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul, who weren't even involved in what's considered the "producers' round" of auditions.
Alex Dortch of Chicago said he was third in line at 11 p.m.
"Man, I'm going for it," he said. "It's my dedication. It's my life."
Lisa Biel of Bridgeview, who got there not long before activities got rolling at 5 a.m. Monday, was more matter-of-fact.
"I'm just going to go in there and sing my little heart out and hope it works," she said.
She planned to sing Martina McBride's "Concrete Angel."
There were a variety of tactics to catch the judges' attention, if not their ears.
Zach Adamczyk of St. John, Ind., came in costume as the Heath Ledger Joker, the better to complement Billy Joel's "And So It Goes."
Sarah Breeden of Cornersville, Tenn., took a more discreet tack.
"I'm just going to sing and look normal," she said. "I think that might work here."
She was going with Bill Withers' "Lean on Me."
As with most reality TV, reality had little to do with the entertainment being filmed for television. A Chicago Fire Department bagpipe band marched up and down between the chutes several times until the producers got the shot right. The same went for a crane shot of the crowd.
"Cheer when the camera comes by," said supervising producer Patrick Lynn through a megaphone. "Big cheers! Big cheers! Big cheers!"
It was shot, reshot and reshot again.
"All right, guys, one last time, one last time," Lynn shouted, adding, "Whoever has a SpongeBob umbrella, please put it down. SpongeBob is not on Fox."
A line of rain moved through about 4 a.m., putting a damper on the early arrivals. The clouds broke just as the first singers were being led in, a little after 7 a.m. They were expected to last 12 hours or more in processing the 12,000 aspirants.
It was no accident the early timing benefited Fox WFLD Channel 32's morning news show. Although media access was allowed outside the arena, few other local TV stations covered it to grant free publicity to the Fox media juggernaut, which has been the top show on TV for years. Channel 32's David Viggiano acted more like a cheerleader than a reporter, relentlessly revving up the crowd at every opportunity.
Lynn said Monday's was the largest crowd yet on the seven-city tour of auditions for the show's ninth season. He said he didn't know who made the decision that the lots around the stadium would charge $15 or $20 for parking.
"'American Idol' has nothing to do with the parking," he said.
Chicago's D.C. Conner, running a Red Top lot down the street, said, "I can't recollect" ever working at 5 a.m. before, adding, "It's still the same, like with the Bulls or Blackhawks," only with the sun at the opposite end of the horizon.
The big auditions are coming a little earlier for this edition of "Idol."
"We wanted to get a jump on the big cattle calls," Lynn said.
He was hoping to have the "golden ticket" to Hollywood rounds shot by early September. He added there was no quota set for those to pass the audition.
"We never have a set number," he said. "We basically put through as many people as we think are worthy of being on camera."
That wasn't many, to judge from those coming out the two designated exits: one for those who passed, the other for those who got gonged. A couple commiserated at the Madison Street bus stop, a woman ranted about how those chosen didn't "represent" Chicago, but for the most part even those sent away disappointed seemed accepting, and many sang to friends they'd just met or over cell phones, as if to insist they did have talent.
Sierra Wilson of Chesterland, Ohio, was one of the first out of the "rejected" exit.
"They separated you into groups of four and sent you to one of 11 tables," she explained. "They let everyone sing and picked a couple or sent them all home."
Having traveled seven hours from Ohio to sing Sugarland's "Want To" for a few seconds, she said she wasn't dissuaded from pursuing a singing career.
Others got better news, although they had to complete an extensive background questionnaire before being allowed to emerge into the sunlight.
"It was really fun," said Brandon Youngblood Kee of Monroe, Wis., who triumphed with the Plain White T's "Hey There Delilah." "I thought I was going to be nervous, but right when they called me up, I was really excited. I didn't want to set my hopes high, because if I didn't make it, it would be so disappointing. If I made it, it was great - if not, I'd keep working hard."
After all, it made it all the sweeter for those who passed the audition to know that, although many are cattle-called, few are chosen.