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Ellicottville Takes the American Idol Stage

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By Jann Wiswall

Where were you at 8 p.m. eastern time on Thursday, April 7?

If you were like 13 million other Americans, you were in front of a television watching the finale of American Idol.  While we can’t confirm this, we believe there was a disproportionate number of Ellicottville people watching that show, because one of its own, Brian Dunkleman, was making an appearance.

And in the audience, watching the show live from VIP seats in the Dolby Theater, was Brian’s sister, Mary Dunkleman Klahn.

Klahn, the village of Ellicottville’s clerk and one of the huge Dunkleman clan, had booked her flight to Los Angeles two months earlier when Brian had an inkling that he might be on the show. But she had to keep it a secret, because the show wanted him to be a surprise.

In case you haven’t followed his career, Dunkleman, an actor and stand-up comic, co-hosted the very first season of American Idol with Ryan Seacrest 15 years ago. Brian moved on after that first year, while Seacrest stayed for the show’s entire run and saw huge success. Though Dunkleman has kept working all these years, there’ve been regrets. In a recent Variety guest column, Dunkleman explained his departure, writing:

“I wanted to have an acting career, and I knew that leaving when I did would give me the best shot of accomplishing that…. But the undeniable truth is, I just didn’t have the wisdom at the time to handle what was happening. Do I regret not remaining on the show now that it’s coming to an end? Yes. Especially when I open my bank statements. But without the benefit of hindsight, I would have done the exact same thing.”

The opportunity to come back for the finale was originally Dunkleman’s idea, and he had his agent pitch the script Dunkleman had written. The director loved it.

But Dunkleman was understandably nervous about seeing everyone again after 14 years, especially Seacrest, which is why he wanted his big sister Mary by his side.

Brian is the youngest of ten siblings, and Mary is 11 years older. Ever since they were young, she says, she has “always been Brian’s person.”

“I wasn’t going to miss this,” she said. “I wanted to be there for him, just like I was for the first American Idol season finale.”

The show, and the appearance, was beyond expectations for Dunkleman, who was embraced by Seacrest, greeted warmly by the original Idol producers, directors and celebrity judges and had some killer lines on stage. He also got some great press and accolades.

But it wouldn’t have gone as well, Dunkleman said, if Klahn hadn’t been there. “Being with my sister kept me calm and centered. She was by my side the entire time, from when the car picked us up at 7 a.m. till it dropped us off after the wrap party at midnight.  She’s the reason I was able to pull off what I’d envisioned for so long. I will be forever grateful for her love and support.”

For Klahn, being there for her brother was equally important, but all the Hollywood energy made for an unforgettable experience, she said. “It was a fabulous event.”

For one thing, they had an official “handler,” named Kim, who stayed with them all day long, made sure they got to rehearsals and lunch and press conferences and so forth. “Kim was incredible.”

All day long, Dunkleman was getting messages from old friends and colleagues (including Ellicottville Central School buddies) wishing him the best. Season one winner Kelly Clarkson, who was too pregnant to attend the event, sent her congratulations, too.

While Dunkleman was busy rehearsing, Klahn sat in the nearly empty theater watching all the activity going on around her. “There’s so much you learn when you’re there in person, watching and listening,” she said.

And she knows some stuff that the rest of us wouldn’t pick up from watching on TV. Like J. Lo’s performance was taped and shown on the theater’s giant screens. And Harry Connick Jr. is even more handsome in person. And Paula Abdul is sweet – and wore a jaw-dropping diamond necklace to the after-party.

And then there was the small-world moment at the wrap party at the Mondrian Hotel’s Skybar when a reporter/blogger asked Brian and Mary if they knew Russ Dunkleman of Dunk’s Woodcutters. Her father-in-law owns a place at HoliMont and has worked with their cousin. Does this surprise anyone?

All in all, Klahn said it was a great experience that will be hard to top, but in the end, she was happy to be back in Ellicottville at home “on the hill with my person!”

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