NEW BREMEN — A New Bremen fourth-grader will be featured on national television, Sunday.
Lilly Wilker, 10, daughter of Amy and Tom Wilker, of New Bremen, will appear on NBC’s “Little Big Shots,” where she will display an unusual talent to host Steve Harvey. The program will air on NBC channels WDTN in Dayton, which is channel 2 for Spectrum cable and NKTelco cable subscribers, as well as viewers who don’t have cable; and WLIO in Lima, which is channel 12 for NKTelco subscribers, channel 19 for Spectrum subscribers and channel 35 for noncable viewers. The program begins at 8 p.m.
Those who tune in will see Lilly, the animal caller. She mimics the neighs, barks, caws, moos and other sounds made by animals. And she’s so good at it, that she has won the trophy as the best animal caller at the Auglaize County Fair for the last four years. She comes by her talent naturally. Her grandmother, the late Ruth Wilker, won the same contest imitating a chicken some 30 years ago.
It was through Lilly’s fair conquests that casting directors for “Little Big Shots” found out about her.
“The casting director looked at the Ohio State Fair website and clicked a link to the Auglaize County Fair,” said Amy. Lilly was listed on the website. The director called the Wapakoneta Chamber of Commerce, who directed her to the Auglaize County OSU Extension Office and the 4-H adviser. The 4-H adviser called Amy and said that NBC-TV was looking for Lilly.
“I can copy an animal sound,” said Lilly, simply, of why so many people were interested. It’s a skill she first recognized when she was 3.
“We were on vacation at Gulf World in Panama City Beach, Florida, where you interact with marine life. I started talking to the dolphins. Eck-eck-eck-eck,” she said, sounding exactly like a big, bottlenosed aquatic mammal.
She was there with her grandparents, who bought a ticket to have her photo taken with the animals. When her grandfather held the toddler up to “shake hands” with the dolphin’s fin, the dolphin began to squeak and Lilly squeaked back.
The next year, at Sea World, armed with a bucket of fish to feed to them, Lilly made her sounds and the dolphins left their trainer and swam over to where she was standing at the side of their pool.
“So I would talk and they would talk back,” she said.
She won her first and second fair trophies by doing dolphin calls. But when she considered a third year of fair competition, Tom said, “If you’re going to do this again, you have to do something else.”
There were plenty of animals on their farm for her to listen to. The Wilkers, including Lilly’s four sisters, Alli Jo, 15, Grace, 13, and the twins, Lexi and Lilly, 8, have horses, chickens, rabbits and a dog. They usually also raise sheep to show at the fair.
Lilly focused on sounding like her horse — and beat out the 40 to 50 contestants to take home another top prize.
Now, there isn’t a farm animal she can’t “call” and she has turned to birds, wild animals and zoo residents to widen her repertoire. Her sisters have also gotten into the act. Lilly admits that Alli Jo can do a much better elephant she can.
“I pull it out once a year for the fair,” Alli Jo said. “We’re not as hard core as she is. Lilly does animals all the time.”
“Now my favorite is the rooster. I do it so much they call me ‘Rooster,’” Lilly said. It has become her nickname. She uses the er-er-er-errrr call to wake up the family every morning.
“I wake up on my own. I look at the sky. If it’s light enough, I cock-a-doodle-do,” she laughed.
“It’s cute when it’s not 3 o’clock in the morning,” Alli Jo offered, drily.
When Lilly hears an animal, she listens closely and then she makes the sound herself. From bullfrogs to giraffes, she has mastered dozens. Some voices take a lot of practice. Her current challenge is perfecting the call of an hyena.
Sometimes, her calling has unintended consequences. During a Florida vacation one year, Lilly was on the balcony of their house there when her grandfather said, “I keep on hearing birds.”
“Lilly’s out there, cooing, and the whole balcony is full of pigeons and the sea gulls are coming,” Amy said. She quickly pulled her daughter inside and slid shut the balcony door.
“Lilly’s a regular Dr. Doolittle,” Alli Jo said.
The whole family enjoyed the joke at Thanksgiving when Lilly imitated the bird on the platter.
“They thought the turkey was coming back from the dead,” the 10-year-old laughed.
She hopes that one of the consequences of appearing on “Little Big Shots” is that she gets to meet its producer, Ellen DeGeneres, someday. She doesn’t know if DeGeneres had a say in selecting her for the show.
Once the casting director had found her, Lilly had to submit a video of her animal calling skill. Preston Meyer and L.J. Jellison, of NKTelco, helped her to create the video, on which she voiced 10 animals. The Wilkers didn’t hear anything for several weeks, but eventually, they were invited to fly to Los Angeles to tape the show.
The taping was done in the summer of 2016, but they were prohibited from saying anything about Lilly’s involvement until this week.
They were in Los Angeles for five days. During that time, Lilly rehearsed with a Harvey stand-in, so she would know where to go on the set. She worked with the costume department to select from their wardrobe and her own what she would wear. During free time, she made friends with other children who would appear on the program and went with her parents to the amusement park at Santa Monica Pier and the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame, where they bought a framed replica star with her name on it. It sits proudly on the mantle in New Bremen next to her fair trophies and a framed paper with Harvey’s autograph.
When the actual taping took place, and Lilly walked through the curtain from backstage, she was momentarily stunned by all the lights and the size of the studio audience.
“Oh my goodness,” she thought. “Is this real?” But the nervousness didn’t last long. Harvey quickly put her at her ease.
“He’s a natural for this,” Amy said.
“He’s not fake. There’s nothing fake about him — except his mustache,” said Lilly, continuing a joke she had shared with the program host.
She’s ready to bask in newfound fame. She has a Facebook page: LillyWilker; a fan page: WillyRoosterWilker; an Instagram page: lilly_wilker; and a Twitter account: L_Rooster_Wilker.
“I don’t know when this book is going to close,” said Amy of the whole experience, “but as long as it’s open, we’re going to enjoy it.”
When she’s not finding a new animal to imitate, Lilly is like most other 10-year-olds. She enjoys playing with her sisters, setting up towns with her Playmobil, interacting with her pets, using her iPod, playing basketball and volleyball and watching TV.
After her first encounter with dolphin trainers, when she was 4, she decided that when she grows up, she wants to be a marine biologist or a veterinarian. She hasn’t changed her mind.
Those are, after all, perfect professions for someone who can talk to animals in their own language.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.