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Airman Wins $5,000, Recording Session in Talent Search

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 1996 – At first, Senior Airman Larry Fialas wife Mendy didnt believe hed won the $5,000 grand prize playing accordion in the USO and AT&T Countdown to Stardom overseas musical talent competition.

"I thought he was kidding me," said the happy wife. "Well, I guess he wasn't. The money is in the bank now. He wants to get another accordion when we get back to Europe."

That was Fialas second surprise in the competition. After winning the $500 first prize in local competition at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, last September, the modest computer specialist said he never thought he'd win anything.

"I can't believe I won!" exclaimed Fiala during an awards luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington, where AT&T presented him the $5,000 check. "I was hoping to get a free Tshirt out of it."

With the money came a trip to New York City for a recording session at Sony Music studios.

"I never imagined that one day I would be recording in New York," he said. "It's something I've always wanted to do, but never thought would happen."

Now, his greatest wish "is to play on the Letterman Show."

"I was surprised at the number of people attending the performance at Ramstein," said Fiala, the second oldest of nine siblings. I guess the competition is good for the morale of service members and their families stationed overseas.

More than 300 groups and solo performers competed in the USO/AT&T Countdown to Stardom 95 at 29 overseas U.S. military bases in 14 countries. They played to packed houses at each installation with an estimated total audience of more than 10,000.

When he called his parents, Dennis and Loretta Fiala, in Milford, Neb., to tell them he'd won the grand prize, "My mom said, 'You're kidding! I have to get a chair so I can sit down.'"

The accordionplaying sergeant said his interest in the Air Force was piqued as a youngster living in a trailer on a rented Nebraska farm. "We lived in the flight pattern of the Nebraska Air National Guard, and I used to wave at the aircraft flying over," he said.

He joined the Air Force after graduating from high school in Milford in 1988. Hes considering an Air Force career.

"My dad plays by ear and I took words of advice from him," said Fiala, who played trumpet and French horn in his high school band and recently taught himself to pay the guitar. "My mom plays piano the whole family plays instruments.

"Me and my dad played for fun, family gatherings and at Czechoslovakian festivals," said Fiala. "There are not a lot of accordionplayers around, and not many young people are interested in playing the accordion."

Local judges send videotapes of the winners to a judging panel of entertainment industry professionals and military personnel. This year's panelists were Carolyn Becraft, deputy assistant secretary of defense for personnel support, families and education; the country duo of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Gene Dunn; jazz guitarist and "Tonight Show" music director Kevin Embanks; country music artist Larry Gatlin; publicist Kathy Gangwisch; Ramon Hervey II, president of R&B LIVE; Judy Seale, executive vice president of Refugee Management; and Amy Strauss, vice president of strategic marketing for Sony Music.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageLarry Hanback, left, and World USO president Chapman Cox present the USO/AT&T Countdown to Stardom ‘95 grand prize winner Senior Airman Larry Fiala a huge replica of the $5,000 check he received during an awards luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageWith closed eyes, Senior Airman Larry Fiala grooves to his music during a recording session at Sony Music Studios in New York City as part of his grand prize in the USO/AT&T Countdown to Stardom ‘95. The competition was held at 29 overseas military installations in 14 countries.  
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