Danny Maika, 29, plays his ukelele at the Bella Terra amphitheatre on Monday. Maika is a finalist for the OC Music Awards Best Live Acoustic category. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / February 23, 2011)

If Danny Maika can charm a panel of judges the way he charms a gondola, Greg Mohr expects him to clean up at this year's OC Music Awards.

Maika, the fan favorite this year for the Best Live Acoustic category, worked for a decade at Mohr's Newport Beach-based company Gondola Adventures. One night, Maika and Mohr joined in a flotilla, in which several gondoliers row out together into Newport Harbor, taking turns singing for their passengers.

It may not have been an official contest, but Maika clearly took the spotlight that night.

"Danny sang 'The Way You Look Tonight' by Sinatra, and the woman in my boat swooned," Mohr said. "She said, 'Oh, I love that song.' And every time we would do a flotilla, one or more women in the group would say, 'Oh, I love that song.' So I had to learn it, too."

Maika, a Huntington Beach resident, eventually dropped out of the gondola scene as he pursued his music career full-time. Still, his former boss was thrilled when he heard that Maika had won the Fan Vote, in which listeners vote on the awards' website for their favorite acts.

"Hearing that he's won, it's like hearing that a family member has done well," Mohr said. "And that's thrilling for us."

When Maika takes the stage Thursday night at the Fullerton Museum, he's more likely to encounter discerning judges than swooning women. But even if he doesn't take the final prize, he finds it exhilarating to come this far the first time he entered the awards.

"You never know in this business," said Maika, an Edison High School graduate. "You never want to build up your hopes too much, but you always want to stay positive. And if it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world. I'm still going to get to do this full-time."

Maika submitted his work this year for the Showcase Series, which honors live performers and has contestants perform before a panel of judges. Artists may apply for the Best Live Band or Best Live Acoustic categories, with the awards staff choosing four finalists and fans naming the fifth.

From gondolas to wedding parties, Maika is no stranger to performing live. Since leaving his last day job, he's regularly performed four or five shows a week and sometimes more than one a day.

It's those personal connections that may have won him the Fan Vote — some of his former clients even went on Facebook and urged their friends to vote for him, he said.

Although Maika sometimes performs with a trio, he does most of his gigs alone, accompanying himself with guitar, ukulele, harmonica and a looping machine that records and plays back sounds for a rhythm track. He peppers his shows with cover versions, touching on the Beatles, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole and others, but mixes in a few originals as well.

Ric Soto, his former singing instructor at Orange Coast College, said Maika, whose full name is Danny Maika Hamamoto, showed promise early on.

"You could tell when he walked into the room, he knew what he was doing," Soto said. "He knew how to deliver a song."

If You Go

What: OC Music Awards' Best Live Acoustic Finals

Where: Fullerton Museum, 301 N. Pomona Ave., Fullerton

When: 7 p.m. Thursday (doors open at 6 p.m.)

Cost: Free

Information: Call the museum at (714) 738-6545; for more information on Maika, visit http://www.dannymaika.com