LOUISBURG, N.C. — John Ruggieri didn't make it to the finals of last year's International Whistling Convention. So this year, he's going to spice his act up a bit.
"There's going to be some jokes," the lawyer and professional poker player from Bronx, N.Y., said after signing up. "Maybe even a magic trick. And a trivia game. A whistling trivia game."
It's all fair game as the little college town of Louisburg, N.C., welcomes whistlers for the 39th annual parade of puckerers. This year, more than five dozen contestants are coming from 20 states and nine countries as far away as Japan and Australia.
"It was there before we had language," convention founder Allen DeHart, 85, said of the musical art form, the skill of which he does not possess.
The convention grew out of a folk festival at Louisburg College, organized by retired history and psychology professor Allen DeHart. China and Japan each hosted, but this year the convention has officially declared Louisburg its permanent home.
Contestants began arriving Wednesday at the convention headquarters – temporarily in the basement of a county judicial building downtown. Each received a packet with an itinerary, map and a tube of ChapSitck.
Competitors from elementary school age to their 90s will vie in categories ranging from classical to popular to "allied arts" – which can includes bird calls, musical accompaniment and, yes, even magic tricks. People are scored on such things as resonance, intonation, articulation and "stage presence."
French native Luc Vitry flew in from Boston for his first-ever convention. He began whistling as young boy to while away the lonely hours at military boarding school.
"I was missing music, really missing having music with me on a daily basis," said the engineer, who plans to perform several operatic pieces, including an aria from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." `'And I just found out that making music yourself is the best way to have it always with you."
Ruggieri grew up whistling the flute parts of Jethro Tull tunes. He said he's been practicing like a demon for this year's competition, but he knows he's at the mercy of the elements – especially the South's heavy pollen.
"It's a very delicate instrument," he said of the human mouth. "There are times when you can be the best whistler in the world, and then there are times when you say, `I was absolutely terrible. Breathy and airy.' And I just try to stay moist."
Terry Dryoff, a retired community college professor from Silver Spring, Md., was making his second attempt at the time, He placed "somewhere in the middle" in the classical and popular categories last year, but hopes to make his mark in the allied arts.
"I'm whistling, singing, playing harmonica and dancing," he said with a laugh. "Hopefully, that will get somebody's attention."
The convention ends Saturday with an awards ceremony and banquet.
Patricia Howell, who took over from DeHart this year as project director, acknowledges there are other whistling contests out there, including big ones in Japan, China and India. But, she adds, "They still send their people to Louisburg."