By Mary Alice Meli

Fans reach for Donnie Iris, some using sign language for 'I love you.'

One look around the room at Graffiti in Pittsburgh recently showed the scope of Donnie Iris' appeal. A crowd of about 600, ranging from early 20s to mid-50s in age, was impatiently sitting or standing through The Violators, the opening act for Donnie Iris and the Cruisers.

"I've been doin it for so long, and the songs are still being heard on the radio from "The Rapper" on album stations like WDVE to the oldies station WWWS," Iris explained.

And that's a big part of it. The rest is in his performance.

Kit Wentzel of Mt. Lebanon remembers a Jaggerz show at Slippery Rock University, where he was a student in the late '60s. "I always thought they had the greatest live show. They used to do take-offs on different groups. (such as) The Temptations, Four Tops, and they did their own songs, too." Wentzel was there to see Iris for the first time since then. "I heard his new stuff on DVE and I like it."

Iris said he no longer does impressions of other groups but his stage manner is distinctive. He sings directly to his audience, establishes eye contact with many throughout the songs and points to individuals to underscore lyrics.

"These people came to see me after I haven't had a product since 1984-85. That means a lot to me. I'm just as happy to be there as they are."

A large group of about a dozen young men stood down front, two of them actually sitting on the stage, and all of them literally sharing the spotlight with Iris, singing the lyrics with him, reaching up to touch his hand. He didn't mind and sang parts of many songs directly to them.

"I didn't know them but I knew these were fans. They wanted to be part of the scene so I made sure they were," Iris said.

One couple, Kerry Schaefer of McCandless and Bonnie Kelly of Wexford, both 28, said they were students at North Allegheny High School when "Ah! Leah!" and "Love Is Like a Rock" were hits. Schaefer treasures the LPs he has of the early albums.

A Shaler resident, John Baker, 30, said he first saw Iris at a free concert at Point State Park at last year's regatta celebration. However, 10 years ago, college buddies from Beaver County played their Donnie Iris albums "all the time, and I got into it."

Near 10 p.m., shortly before the end of The Violators set, Iris came up from the downstairs dressing room to check out the crowd. Most didn't notice his small wiry figure dressed in a light blue bowling shirt from Capson's Photo Refinishing Co., jeans, high top black tennis shoes, and trademark square, blackrimmed eyeglasses. The crowd was too busy chanting, "Donn-ee, Donn-ee."

Three young women spotted him, however, and begged his autograph. They told him they'd driven all the way from Atlanta just to see him. Iris was stunned and didn't know whether to believe them, but he didn't know their history.

Jamie Reed, 23, her sister Kelly O'Hara, 2, and best friend Lori Robinson, 22, grew up in Wellsville, Ohio. When they were in sixth and seventh grades, Robinson's sister turned them on to WDVE, where they heard the Cruisers' biggest hits, and they've been fans ever since. "We saw him at a charity jam at Syria Mosque in 1988," O'Hara said. "He was excellent."

Iris said his show has been the same over the last 10 years, and the crowds still respond enthusiastically to the songs and the way the band does them. However, a tour or a return to some of the same places within a year may require new material, he said.

When Iris and the band finally ran onto the stage, the crowd yelled, "We love you, Donnie,

They were ready, and when Iris sang, "Baby, whatcha gonna do? It's a tough world," the crowd sang back, "ain't it a rough world;" they whistled, screamed or stabbed the air with their fists.

When he got to "That's The Way Love Ought To Be," couples moved closer or put their arms around each other.

Shortly before midnight and the final number, "Love Is Like A Rock," the heat and perspiration forced Iris to abandon the trademark eye-glasses. The crowd at that point was up on its feet and rocking. When the Cruisers did "Ah! Leah!" for the encore, many stood on chairs or sang the lyrics to each other. The final number, altering everyone's heart rhythm, was the historic "The Rapper."

But even after Iris left the room and the lights went up, the crowd was in no big hurry to leave. Some had another beer, others formed lines at the T-shirt concession while others ambled to the stairs.

It had been a good party.

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