COLUMBIA — Buttoning up his rhinestone-studded shirt, Danny Roberts gets ready to step on stage, flashing a smile and a wink that ooze volumes of confidence.
He's all duded up as Johnny Cash in a black shirt, cowboy hat, jeans and boots for a performance at the American Legion Post 202 in northeast Columbia. In a few minutes, he'll entertain the Legionnaires and their families with classics from Cash, as well as a few of his other favorites.
Roberts, 65, spent years as an entertainer for Carnival Cruise Lines before deciding to shift his talents to raising money for organizations around mid-Missouri. Columbia's American Legion post, which supports veterans in dozens of ways, is one of them.
At 6:15 p.m. on Oct. 5, he will bring "A Saturday Night at the Grand Ole Opry" to the Columbia Senior Activity Center, with all proceeds benefiting the organization. It is one of several he has produced for the senior center in the past two years.
That performance will change things up for the cast. Roberts will step into a role as Roger Miller, and his fellow singers will channel Hank Williams, Kenny Rogers and other country music legends.
"I'm excited to be going back," he said. "The show is going to be really good, and we're bringing in some new performers to help out."
High energy on stage
At the American Legion post on a Friday night in September, Roberts kicks off an energetic show with Cash's popular "Ring of Fire." At his elbow is his own June Carter Cash.
The crowd cheers and claps as they breathe into the microphones and start a duet.
Love is a burning thing,
And it makes a fiery ring.
Bound by wild desire,
I fell into a ring of fire.
As the sound level rises, Roberts' deep voice overtakes the room, prompting the audience to erupt into another spurt of applause. In fact, the entire evening is a series of songs, cheers and applause.
"You know what, June?" Roberts jokes during a musical interlude.
"I swallowed a car muffler last night while I was sleeping. I woke up exhausted."
The crowd laughs and breaks into the most thunderous encouragement yet.
A serious entertainer
Even though Roberts and the rest of the cast are volunteers, he pushes them to put on a high-quality show every time. He expects everyone — especially himself — to take the show seriously.
He said he has spent hours studying the singing style and mannerisms of Cash. Roberts even met the country singer once, when he entertained troops at an Air Force base on Okinawa Island where Roberts was stationed from December 1968 through June 1970 during the Vietnam War.
"When I actually start performing, some kind of aura or something gets around me, and his persona just kinda changes me," Roberts said.
Even when not on stage, he tries to connect with the audience. During one portion of the show, he slides around tables in the back of the room until he stops and taps a woman on the shoulder. Startled, she turns around and and he asks her to dance.
To the tune of Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry," Roberts and his dance partner slowly rock back and forth, whispering quietly until the song fades away. The crowd cheers wildly again.
Cruise line background
Roberts was an entertainment director for Carnival Cruise Lines before starting a business in Columbia two years ago called Cruise King Entertainment.
His specialty for the international cruise line was transforming ordinary passengers into celebrity look- and sound-alikes. He taped 82 shows called "Carnival Legends" after turning passengers into Madonna, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and other stars, nearly every night.
"Ten people walked on that stage that were gonna be stars by the end," Roberts said.
But at this stage in his life, he said he wants to spend time giving back to the local community. He does this by putting on shows for folks who appreciate his talent and need his generosity.
Helping the senior center
The Oct. 5 fundraiser at the Columbia Senior Activity Center will be his fifth in two years. So far, he's raised more than $2,200.
Roberts said he wants to do everything he can do keep the senior center's resources and services available to residents of Columbia.
On a recent day at the center, a few women were piecing together a puzzle at a table near the front entrance, while others browsed through used books available to buy for little or no cost.
Several men gathered in the back to play billiards, and dozens of seniors were seated in the dining room, chatting and eating sloppy Joes.
"There are a lot of elderly people that depend on the senior center to have a place to socialize and do activities," said Jim Carney, a center board member and frequent visitor.
"Without that, I don't know if they would be staying at home and looking at four walls," he said.
Carney said he comes to the center every Wednesday for the weekly pool tournament, in addition to helping out with a variety of activities.
Darlene Richardson, the center's office manager, said she has noticed a sizable decline in donations since she began working there in 2003. She attributed that, in part, to the struggling economy.
"We have to have fundraisers because we get no city, county, state or federal money whatsoever," Richardson said.
Roberts said he would also like to get more involved raising money for schools in the Columbia area and continue to help the organizations he already supports.
Later this month, his cast and crew will travel to Branson to raise money for charitable organizations in southwest Missouri.
"I feel relaxed and happy before a show," he said. "It gives me a nice warm feeling in my heart to know I am helping the community."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.