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Lesson To Be Learned 


If there were ever a lesson to be learned about jumping to incorrect conclusions based on occupational stereotypes or age, Col. Rabun H. Dittmar, CPA, could probably teach it.  Those who think all retired military men are ramrod straight, no-nonsense kind of guys, and all accountants are boring bean counters cut in the milquetoast mold obviously have never met the 76-year-old unofficial local "king of karaoke."

Known at nearly a dozen area night spots as the inimitable "Rockin' Ray," Dittmar is a retired colonel who marches to the beat of a different drum and a certified public accountant whose favorite numbers make him gyrate like Elvis.  And how many senior citizens do you know who attract groupies?

"They explode when I sing," the Port Orange resident says of his legions of female fans, some as young as his 18-year-old granddaughter, Merrianne, who cheer him night after night when he takes his turn in the karaoke spotlight.

"What happened to me is like what happened to Frank Sinatra with the bobby soxers," according to the silver-haired Virginia-born, Gainesville-reared crooner, whose speaking voice is full of the honeyed sounds of the South. His singing voice, meanwhile, is "second tenor, the same voice as when I was 21. It didn't wear out," notes Dittmar, who is not the type to "aw shucks" anyone with false modesty.

Merrianne, who sometimes frequents the same night spots as her grandfather, confirms that her contemporaries get a real charge out of seeing him perform.

"He gives us hope that we don't have to grow up boring," says the high school senior. But the truth is, Rockin' Ray strikes a chord with just about all age groups, according to J.R. Rossi, a veteran karaoke host who gave Dittmar his nickname.

When he walks on stage, after hugging every female in the place, passing out candy and then dedicating his number to everyone he's hugged, "they light up," says Rossi. And who can help but go wild when Rockin' Ray "jumps three feet in the air" during his renditions of tunes such as "Achy Breaky Heart" and "Mambo No. 5," the recent Latin-flavored pop novelty hit.

"He's a magnet," concedes Rossi admiringly. "That's why we hang out with him," he adds with a laugh. 

Keeping up with him, though, is not for the fainthearted. From 8 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning he performs at two and sometimes three clubs every night of the week except Wednesday, which he devotes to catching up on work from his part-time accounting practice.

But it's all good, clean fun, emphasizes Dittmar, who proudly reports that he doesn't "drink, smoke or cuss," and is the official "head greeter" at the First Baptist Church of South Daytona. Karaoke is "really wholesome, more so than the churches think," he stresses. And singing is simply something he feels compelled to do, after having put his voice on hold for many years.

His earliest taste of performing came when he was a young enlistee during World War II and was tapped sometimes to help entertain the troops.  He probably could have had a career in show business, he says. But instead, he built a life with the woman he still calls "my sweetheart," his late wife, Iris, who wouldn't have liked for him to earn his living in smoky clubs.  So Dittmar earned a degree in accounting from the University of Florida, joined the Army Reserves, from which he retired as a full colonel finance officer, built a successful accounting practice and sang only in church.

All that changed, however, in June 1998 when he was introduced to the concept of karaoke at an event at the Port Orange American Legion. After someone twisted his arm, he got up and sang the Elvis Presley ballad "Love Me Tender" as recorded music provided accompaniment and lyrics flashed on a screen. And  he was hooked.

Of course, "When I first started, I wasn't that wonderful," he admits. But after he began frequenting just about all the local places where karaoke is played, "I got a lot of confidence."

Iris, even after suffering a stroke in January 1999, went along with him everywhere he went. And although she wasn't too crazy about sharing him with flirting fans, she cheered him on until she died this past November. They had been married more than 50 years.

After Iris died, karaoke filled an even bigger gap in his life. And it kept him going. She would approve, he says. 

Their son, Ray, who lives with his father and Merrianne in Dittmar's spacious, attractively decorated home, agrees. The first time Rockin' Ray performed after Iris passed away, he sang "Love Me Tender," which was her favorite, and "there was not a dry eye in the house," he says.  When he's in a mellow mood, sometimes he also will sing the Frank Sinatra hit "My Way," which pretty much sums up his philosophy.

But Dittmar knows that his karaoke reputation is based on the kind of music that brings the house down. The kind of songs that earned him his nickname. The kind that prompt karaoke hosts like Rossi to warn audiences that "anybody with a pacemaker is advised to leave the room."

"Elvis may be dead," Rossi quips, "but the king still lives." 

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