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Keeping Irish eyes smiling

The chattering of the crowd rises beyond the curtain at Ruth Eckerd Hall, and Mike Hanlon, waiting backstage, knows his time of reckoning approaches. "When I hear the audience gathering for a concert, I think, "This is what I've been working for,' " said Hanlon, his soft Irish accent thickening slightly as he warms to the memory. "When you walk out on stage, it just seems so big and so dark, but if you think of what's out there in the darkness, you'll get nervous."

Although he has grown accustomed to facing the concert crowd, he is not an entertainer. "I only sing in the shower," he said.

Hanlon's works in the months before the concert. He is a promoter, bringing Irish singers and dancers to Ruth Eckerd in Clearwater and other local halls. His next show is the Clancy Brothers on Nov. 11 at Ruth Eckerd.

Dressed in a tuxedo on a stage that is a long way from the farm fields of his youth near Kilkenny, Ireland, Hanlon's star shines for only a few moments as he introduces the acts.

Most of the time, he is just a voice _ on the telephone selling tickets or making arrangements for the entertainers or in his other guise as a disc jockey Saturday mornings.

In a tribute to the melting pot, Hanlon plays music of his homeland on a Greek-run radio station housed in the front of a bowling alley on U.S. 19. When his show on WLVU--AM (1470) is over, he gives the microphone to a group of Polish DJs.

"I've always liked music, so I like doing the radio show and the concerts," Hanlon said.

At 49, Hanlon is into his second and third careers. He came to New York City at age 18 "expecting to stay just a year, but it's been a lifetime," he said.

He worked for years in graphic arts and production at the New Yorker magazine, where some of the world's best writers roamed the halls, Hanlon said.

But life in the sometimes brutal Bronx sent Hanlon looking for sunshine in Palm Harbor and a better place for his wife, Teresa, and their three children, John, 24, Christine, 20, and Maureen, 11.

"Florida is becoming like New York in a certain way, with many people coming from somewhere else, just like the city," Hanlon said.

He found friendship with other Irish and Irish-American people in a social group and in the many Irish bars that have tapped into tourists' and residents' interest in good times and Irish beer. He heard WLVU was looking for someone to spin Irish tunes, so he applied. From there, Hanlon, with no experience, decided to book his first show in 1988.

As he handed over records and tapes to WLVU station co-owner and engineer Sam Agelatos on a recent Saturday, Hanlon said he sometimes is surprised at the interest non-Irish people have in the music he plays and promotes.

"From the phone calls I get, there are many types of people who listen," he said. But it is still the transplanted Irish who are the most appreciative.

"Some who come here are just overwhelmed to find an Irish program on the radio," Hanlon said.

Agelatos agreed, saying that is his station's philosophy.

WLVU bills itself as "the station that speaks your language," with shows mostly for Greek listeners, but with a smattering of Irish, Polish, Italian, German and French programs.

"Our idea was when we started 12 years ago was there was no ethnic radio station," Agelatos said.

It is an odd scene watching Agelatos answer phone calls to the station, his thick Greek accent rising over the strains of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

"I say as little as possible," Hanlon said. "I think people want to hear the music."

Hanlon uses the show to help promote his concerts, mentioning during a recent program the upcoming Clancy Brothers show and how to get tickets.

Promoting can be nerve-wrenching, he said.

"When you do a concert, you are committing yourself before you even sell a ticket," Hanlon said. "But I've got a base of several hundred people I can count on, and we've drawn up to 1,300 people to the shows."

And all those people make noise waiting for the show to start, a sound Hanlon has come to love as much as the applause the entertainers get when they finish.

"You never know until the last minute how it will come out," Hanlon said. "It is a challenge to do a concert and do it successfully and have people say they like it."