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For more than two decades, Strawberry Festival performer Dennis Lee stirs up smiles

Dennis Lee will deliver a blend of old-fashioned family humor, American songbook showmanship, audience antics, patriotic salutes and robotic miming moves when he takes the stage at the Florida Strawberry Festival's Sweetbay Entertainment tent for the next 10 days.

If it sounds like too much to put into a single show, you're not familiar with the gregarious personality that has made Lee a favorite at the Strawberry Festival, the Florida State Fair and other outdoor amusement venues in the United States and Canada.

Lee performs songs from a catalog of 200 tunes that ranges from Frank Sinatra to Lee Greenwood to Elvis. He waltzes through the crowds with his wireless microphone, getting people to sing and calling grandmothers "hot thang."

"You hone your craft and you stumble on impromptu things by the seat of your pants," said Lee, who calls Clearwater home when he's not performing at festivals or corporate events.

"You create a structure of jokes and routines that work every time, but outside of the structure is going one-on-one with somebody in the audience. People's lives are amplified in my show. It never gets stale because there's always someone out there who brings something to the table."

This is Lee's 27th year at the Strawberry Festival and his 24th with a live band — thanks to a little white lie.

Back in 1985, Lee saw then-Strawberry Festival general manager Kenneth Cassels and said he would love to bring his band to the festival instead of just working as a street performer.

Cassels called a few weeks later to take Lee up on his offer.

"What was really funny is that I didn't have a band or a stage show," said Lee, who quickly put together a group with the help of a promoter in his native Memphis.

Lee always seizes such opportunities. A former college basketball player, he almost got thrown off the team for "goofing off."

He eventually dropped out in 1976 and landed in glassblowing school in Green Forest, Ark., with the help of Wilson Sparks, the director of the Mid-South Fair in Memphis.

"I spent seven days on the blow torch, and I almost killed myself and everybody around me," Lee said. "You know, that was before they had identified attention deficit disorder."

To draw people into the tent to see his glass-blowing skills, Lee did a street performance outside the tent that often mimicked Shields and Yarnell, the famed 1970s mime act that once had its own variety show.

In 1980, Lee followed Sparks when he became director of the Florida State Fair. He took a job in maintenance hoping to get a break as a street performer.

He borrowed makeup from another entertainer and took to miming as a clown in between shifts. An entertainment scout from the Ottawa County Fair in Holland, Mich., said he would pay Lee $300 a day if he would bring the act to his event.

"My mouth couldn't open fast enough to say, 'Yessir,' " Lee said. "They say don't act excited if you like something, but I couldn't do that. I was slobbering all over myself."

Even at 53, Lee says his upbringing in an orphanage continues to motivate him. Back then, counselors called on him to cheer up kids new to the home. He had a knack for getting the children to see life through a humorous lens.

For more than 20 years, he has called on that knack to do two events for the Willis Peters Exceptional Student Center in Dover: a benefit to raise funds for the school and a prom for the students, siblings and parents. Lee has lost count of how many years he has helped Willis Peters, but it's more than 20.

"He's got a heart of gold," said site administrator Peggy Ferro. "He knows all the students by name. He really is their Elvis Presley. They love Dennis Lee."

And Lee loves them. The opportunity to touch lives at events, fairs and festivals sustains his efforts, and Lee says he has no intentions of slowing down.

"The outdoor amusement business is a celebration of what's good about the community," Lee said. "I've gone to 75 different cities and invariably, I see a slice of what is so good about our country.

"It's about mom and dad, grandma and grandpa and everybody in between. It warms your heart to know you can be involved with it."

It's a pretty good living for a guy who's simply getting paid for what used to get him a spanking.

That's all I'm saying.

For more than two decades, Strawberry Festival performer Dennis Lee stirs up smiles 03/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 3:30am]
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