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Two of my brothers-in-law are superstars in karaoke world. Carl and Leon are both tall, handsome, wannabe Vegas singers. Leon, whose curly hair earned him the nickname David Hasselhoff, favors cheesy '80s rock ballads: Journey, Air Supply, Rick Astley, and the like. Carl is more of a Sinatra man, though he isn't above the occasional soft-rock favorite. Recently, the two crooners brought their families to town for a Kelly reunion. We wanted to have karaoke night, but we didn't want the expense and hassle of going out for it. So husband Patrick and I decided to rent a karaoke machine. The evening was riotous. Carl's "Annie's Song" and "Abracadabra" were hilarious, as was Leon's "Don't Stop Believing." Their willingness to temporarily suspend their dignity inspired others to take up the microphone. Husband Patrick's "Bust a Move" rap had the party writhing on the floor in laughter. The singing went on until 2:00 a.m., when Patrick unplugged the machine as Carl rasped through "Feelings." The following morning, as the family rubbed sleep out of their eyes and nursed hangovers, Carl revved up the machine again, spinning some easy-listening tunes for brunch entertainment. The children, who had been chomping at the bit for some mic time, got their turn after breakfast, yelling out some Sound of Music tunes and kiddie songs, such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb." The following day, I spoke with Angel Cortez, owner of The Party San Diego's Karaoke Experience (619-477-1121), who rented us the machine.

"We started renting karaoke machines for our family parties about eight years ago," answered Cortez. "My wife got us hooked on it. I think she rented a machine six times in five months. Then she bought the company."

Cortez related that he later lost his wife to breast cancer, but continues her business. "We took on the legacy, keeping the company in business for her sake because she loved it so much."

Karaoke was popular in the Philippines, explained Cortez, and then it came to the United States. "People rent the machines for entertainment at their parties. Often, they will rent an Astro Jump for the children and a karaoke machine for the adults. It's an entertainment source. We also provide machines for bars and restaurants for their karaoke nights."

"The largest unit I rent out is 500 watts of power, with two large speakers and a 400-CD changer with about 8000 songs. It accommodates a hall with seating capacity of about 350. That rents for $175 .

"The next smaller unit, the one you rented, is 120 watts of power, with capacity for about 200 people, with 400 CDs and about 8000 songs. That is utilized mainly indoors, though it can be both indoors and outdoors. That unit is ideal for restaurants because it has plenty of power but not too much. That one rents for $150 .

"The smallest unit I rent has a little over 100 CDs with about 2500 songs on it. That machine is more geared for teenagers with more of the modern songs that are coming out. That one rents for $135 ."

The unit we rented did have some modern songs on it, though the majority were from my era of '60s, '70s, and '80s. "The machine you rented was built about seven years ago," offered Cortez, "but I updated it by pulling out about 50 CDs that were not utilized that much and replaced them with some newer music."

Cortez said the CDs are not cheap. "It's very expensive to provide entertainment for karaoke. For a CD with six songs, you'll pay about $9 . For 15 to 20 songs it'll cost about $20 , and for 24 songs about $28 . In the 400-CD changer that I rent, I have over $8000 worth of CDs. So it doesn't really pay to buy your own inexpensive unit. For a little four-inch screen unit with 60 watts of power, it will cost you anywhere from $79 to $150 just for the machine."

At our party, singers were marveling at the authenticity of the backup instrumentals. Carl, who normally sings over synthesizer-style accompaniments, was thrilled at the Vegas-style, big-band orchestrations backing his Sinatra tunes. "There is definitely a quality issue with the instrumentals on the CDs," Cortez explains. "Just like buying a purse at Wal-Mart versus buying a purse at Neiman Marcus, so it is with the music for karaoke. Some companies are better than others. Sing Young Music World has a very large selection of karaoke equipment and music.

"The rental is up to 24 hours," he continued. "The second day is usually half price. We had a family that rented the machine for New Year's Eve, and they had so much fun, they called up and rented it for a second day." Cortez recommends reserving a machine one or two weeks in advance, longer for weekends. "This Saturday's reservation has been booked for a month now," he offered. "It's for a KOA campground karaoke party for the campers. Weekends book up early, though sometimes you can make a last-minute reservation on a machine if it is for a weekday."

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