Thousands of hopefuls began to circle the Erwin Center in the wee hours of Wednesday, braving sweltering temperatures (and likely disappointment) to vie for a spot on the 10th season of Fox's musical reality competition "American Idol."

Late Wednesday afternoon, a publicist for the show, Chloe Ellers of BWR Public Relations , estimated that the auditions drew about 7,500 people. That's about the same size crowd that turned out in 2005, the last time "Idol" held tryouts in Austin.

Supervising producer Patrick Lynn said producers decided to return to Austin "because it's a music city, and we like music cities."

Maybe it's because we respect music here — or perhaps Austin, in spite of the heat, is just that cool — but there were precious few attention-seeking contestants of the "guy in a dress" or "look — I'm dressed as a hot dog!" variety in the crowd. This led members of the press, banned from entering the venue during the actual auditions, to hover around slightly more subtle hopefuls such as Archie Fields of Taylor, a young guy wearing a plastic Elvis wig. Fields has auditioned for "Idol" before — in seasons 2 and 5 — and said he hoped the hairdo would gain him extra attention. His strategy seemed to be paying off.

"It's helpful for people to kind of have fun with it," Lynn said. "We're not necessarily looking for somebody in a chicken outfit, but if that person comes along, we'll probably take an extra look at him. It's really about performance and personality — you show your personality off here, we're going to notice it."

Lynn added that "Idol" was "ramping up coverage of the characters more," referring to those shots viewers see on the audition shows in which thousands of hopefuls shout phrases such as "I'm the next American Idol!"

On Wednesday, one of those shots focused on a trio of young women who drove from Arkansas, their backs adorned with large, yellow cardboard stars. "We're the next stars of 'American Idol!'" Lynn implored the crowd to scream as a video camera in front of the trio swooped over their heads.

Other hopefuls trekked shorter distances for their shots in front of the "Idol" producers (the actual judges don't see contestants until they've made it through these initial rounds).

Kristi Bacon, an exotic dancer from Longview, joined the line at 2 a.m. Wednesday. The folks at her place of employment, she said, had encouraged her to audition and raised money for her trip. "My mom said I was singin' before I could talk," she said with a laugh. Bacon planned to perform Nirvana and Cher tunes for the producers.

The truth is she and others auditioning would be lucky to get through a single tune. "Idol" producers are ruthless when it comes to talent, and it's not uncommon to hear tales from those rejected of being cut off after only a few seconds.

Luckier are contestants such as Ryan Chase Holliday from Houston. He was short on details of his audition experience (the show's producers ask those who make it through to be tight-lipped — they're not even allowed to sing for the press) but long on happiness.

"I made it through. Got the golden ticket. I made it on to the next round!" he said.

In a midday news conference, "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest offered no scoops on possible format changes for the show (judges Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres have left the show, and Fox has refused to comment on any replacements) except to say that the one change we know of — the audition age was lowered to 15 this year — was a good one.

"Some of the most poised and the most talented contestants, believe it or not, have been the younger ones," Seacrest said. "They're starting sooner, and they've been exposed to the Internet. They can post their own videos, so they're more comfortable than ever before, as a generation."

droe@statesman.com; 912-5923