Around 8:30 p.m. last Friday night, the good folks at Billy O’s bar turned off the ball game and invited local songsters to compete for the title of “Ventura Idol” and a $500 grand prize.

It’s a far cry from FOX Network’s smash hit series, whose ratings consistently top the Academy Awards and the Grammys; in place of a coast-to-coast audition tour, potential Ventura Idol contestants were asked to show up, $5 in hand, to Billy O’s early last month to perform in front of judges, who then selected 36 finalists to advance to the first round of the four-round competition. Contestants were judged on the basis of performance style, creativity, song accuracy, energy in performance and audience interaction.

Round one — affectionately referred to as the “strut your stuff” round — then continued over two nights, with approximately 18 contestants performing on either Thursday or Friday between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Votes were cast until midnight and, after the competition ended, some contestants stayed to perform regular karaoke with the audience.

On Friday, a panel of five judges held court to the right of the stage while 10 performers carried out night two of round one. Some, like Sean Crudo and Ben Tapia, stuck to tried-and-true favorites, with Crudo going for “(You Know You Make Me Wanna) Shout” and Tapia taking an early-’90s Montel Jordan turn with a surprisingly impassioned “This is How We Do It.” Others, like Jennifer Estes, veered off the mainstream and went for less recognizable soul hits, delving into Donna Summer’s bag of tricks. Sheldon Sherman invoked the studied and tasteful moves of recent American Idol Taylor Hicks as he performed a soulful rendition of Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason to Stay Here,” and 21-year-old Danielle Livingston turned in a blazing “Natural Woman.” Rounding out the evening, contestant elder “Bitchen Bob” gave a pleasing, Mel Torme-esque revival of “My Way.”

After each performance, the judges took a few moments to give feedback on performance: Luckily, they lacked the cruel, cutting Simon Cowell edge on all but one occasion. When a pert, energetic young woman took to the stage to perform “Baby Got Back,” many implied that she’d taken a wrong turn on the way to the Spearmint Rhino — one judge expressed disbelief that she had made it through the audition and delivered another scolding, “You know what got you here, and it wasn’t your voice.”

But an Idol judge’s opinion — whether of the American or Venturan variety — is a formality that has nothing to do with any actual outcome, once auditions are through. Bar-goers were invited to write their nominations for Ventura Idol on the backs of tickets given with food and drink orders.

Essentially, the drunker or more tummy-tight you were, the more votes you got.

Votes were tallied after midnight, and it appeared that all the above-mentioned performers — yes, even the femme-Sir Mix-a-Lot — moved onto the second round, which was ominously titled the “Karaoke Wheel of Death.” In this competition, performers will be unable to choose songs based on their own strengths and will instead be at the mercy of a spinning wheel of random song selections, including difficult selections like “Tequila” and “Happy Birthday.” Only eight will survive this round.

The semi-finals demand three songs of each contestant: one must be fast or upbeat, one must be a slow song or ballad and the third must be a duet with a random contestant. Four contestants will be chosen at the end of the night.

In the finals, the remaining contestants choose three songs to perform during a regular karaoke night at Billy O’s. Non-competitors will be scattered among the contestants.

Whether American Idol would be as popular without its controversies — the occasional ex-con contestant, its reputation for being based more on personality than talent — is up for debate, but as the crowds at the packed-to-the-gills Billy O’s proved last Friday, the chance to cheer on fledgling singers and enjoy live performances are enough to draw a crowd.

Nielsen Ratings? You need only check the drink sales at Billy O’s last Friday to see that this competition has the potential to last for a few more seasons.

The Ventura Idol competition will continue with the Karaoke Wheel of Death round on August 3 and 4, 8 p.m. – 10 p.m. Regular karaoke, open to the public, will follow. Votes may be cast until midnight. For more info, visit www.billyosventura.com