LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The last time Sam Woolf performed on the patio of MacAllisters Grill & Tavern, he was just a talented local teenager singing for tips and applause.
But that was three weeks ago, and a lot has changed. When he played at MacAllisters on Friday afternoon, a television camera crew followed every move. He was interviewed about his life and his music. Teenage girls rushed to MacAllisters to see him as soon as they got out of school.
Woolf, a 17-year-old student at Braden River High School, is a contestant on "American Idol," although his episodes haven't aired yet. Some people from the show came to town to shoot some scenes of him performing at MacAllisters in Lakewood Ranch, where he has been performing regularly all summer.
Woolf isn't saying much about
what's happening on the show, and neither is anyone else. He referred questions to a woman from the show who was at MacAllisters with him. She identified herself only as Kathleen. All Kathleen would say was, "We're not supposed to talk about it at this point in the process." She referred questions to another representative from the show, who, through email, also declined to answer questions, except to confirm that the shows featuring Woolf will start airing in January. That's when the new season premiers on Fox.
Woolf, who plays guitar and sings his own songs and covers, had been playing regularly on the MacAllisters patio for about six weeks. Three weeks ago he said he was going on vacation. The next time the owners of MacAllisters heard anything about him was Wednesday, when "American Idol" called and asked if they could shoot some scenes with Woolf at the restaurant.
Karen Ronney, who owns MacAllisters with her husband, Malcolm, figures he must be progressing through the preliminary rounds of "Idol," since the show sent a crew here. But that's just a guess.
"He's not talking very much about it," she said. "He's very humble."
Woolf and the "Idol" crew started setting up around 2 p.m. Friday. A few dozen people were on hand. Some were there to see the "American Idol" contestant. Others stopped at MacAllisters for food or a beer and had no idea why TV cameras were there.
Woolf took a break, did some interviews in front of a nearby fountain and then went back to the microphone. He played Ed Sheeran's "The A Team," accompanying himself on guitar, followed by "Hey Jude."
"This is one of the first songs I ever sang in front of people," he said before the Beatles' classic. "I'm going to do it a cappella. I hope you like it."
He received enthusiastic applause from young people and grownups alike, some of whom dropped dollars into his open guitar case. He closed by telling people his name's "Sam Woolf. W-O-O-L-F. Like Virginia Woolf, if you know who that is."
By that time, the crowd had grown to maybe 60. Standing right in front of Woolf's makeshift stage were a five teenaged girls who were devoted Woolf fans.
"He's just so talented and so attractive," said Christine Lawless. "I guess I know who I'm going to root for on 'American Idol' this year."
Lawless and her friends had only seen online videos of Woolf before Friday, but they seemed sure he was destined for stardom.
"I have more Twitter followers than he does," said Daniele Spring. "When he's big, like -- who's big in music? -- when he's like One Direction big, I can say I saw him when I had more Twitter followers than he did."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow him in Twitter @martinclear.