His songs may be familiar, but what makes 45-year-old song-and-dance man Billy Donato so popular are the shticky tricks up his tuxedo sleeve. "You don't know what he's going to do next," says Terry Marakis, manager of Mardi Gras, the Elyria club where Donato, a.k.a. "The Entertainer," appears regularly. "He really gets the audience involved."
And everyone is fair game during one of Donato's Vegas-style one-man shows -- which he performs to prerecorded music on a custom-made sound system. He'll pull fidgety men from their seats, dress them like the Village People, and have them go through the hand motions while he sings a rousing "Y.M.C.A." Or he may lead a lady to the stage, dance with her to "Just a Gigolo," and suddenly flip her over.
"Everybody who attends is already part of my show," he says. "I think of the stage as my living room and the audience as a gathering of family and friends."
Life as The Entertainer keeps Donato away from his native Cleveland for much of the year. He spends a lot of time in the desert (he wows them in Sin City casinos like Caesar's and the Tropicana) and on the water (with the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line).
Donato got started in the biz back in 1978, after a gig with the Philadelphia Phillies didn't pan out. He tried his hand at entertaining and found solace in the sweet sounds usually associated with wedding receptions. But a few years ago, The Entertainer hit a snag: He was diagnosed with cancer.
After 15 operations, Donato walked out clean. But there was talk. Talk that The Entertainer would have to pull the plug on his sound system. "When someone tells me I can't do something that I'm very passionate about doing, I get very hot," he says. "I accepted the challenge."
Donato returned to the stage only a year after his first surgery, armed with musty songs, his karaoke-like machine, and the innate belief that the show must, indeed, go on. And so it does.