ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Illinois — More than two hours before "American Idol" aired on Tuesday, the party room at the Fox and Hound Smokehouse restaurant was already filling up, as superfans angled to get a table close to one of the five big-screen TVs that would soon be beaming in images of hometown hero Lee Dewyze.
One long table was crowded with joyful moms hawking Dewyze T-shirts and red foam fingers that read "Dewyze Choice - Believe!" which, like the shirts, had a smiling picture of Lee in place of the "L."
"When you see [Lee] live, whether it's at a karaoke bar or in the corner of a bar downtown, he's just got this thing about him, he just lights up the whole room," said Brian Friedopfer, 27, about the unique allure of his friend Dewyze, who would start fighting for a spot in the top three just moments later. "We've literally gone to places where we don't know anybody, and the second he touches a microphone, everybody is just silent and watching him."
Though Dewyze is the dude in the bunch who has made it big, Friedopfer had his own moment in the sun when he went out to visit his pal during Elvis week: Host Ryan Seacrest picked Friedopfer out of the crowd and slow-danced with him in the middle of Tim Urban's performance.
"Whether he wins or not, I don't think it matters. I think the kid's got it made for the rest of his life," said Brian, who is confident his pal is going to win it all. "If he got voted off tomorrow, God forbid, I think he'd get signed the next day."
As showtime approached, "Idol" recordings of Lee singing "The Boxer" and "Treat Her Like a Lady" blasted over the sound system, and families rushed to wolf down their nachos and buffalo wings. Nearly 200 friends, fans and family packed the room, taking turns at the complimentary pasta buffet and shouting their support any time Lee was mentioned or shown on the screens.
So many supporters showed up to the strip-mall sports bar that has become ground zero for performance night gatherings that the manager — who once hired Lee to play the main room — had to open a second room in the back for the spill-over crowd.
That back room is where a handful of Dewyze's best friends, including Friedopfer, were huddled, readying their phones for frantic dialing that would start right after the show and continue into the night as they moved on to Potato Creek Johnny's, a neighborhood karaoke bar where they often wore out the Kings of Leon and Lynyrd Skynyrd selections with Dewyze. Both rooms were vocal when the judges had less than kind words about Dewyze's performance, raining down lusty boos when Randy Jackson said his "Kiss From a Rose" was unoriginal and even louder hisses when Simon Cowell compared it to karaoke.
"I don't agree with any of those judges," said Mike Corsi, another one of Lee's longtime friends, who met the singer in detention nine years ago, when the pair were in high school. "He is by far the best out there. It's gonna come down to him and Crystal, but I honestly do believe that he's gonna win it." In fact, Corsi said he told Dewyze back in January that he had a feeling his detention mate would go all the way.
Earlier in the day, at Mt. Prospect Paint, where Dewyze worked for six years before his run on "Idol" — right up until he left for Hollywood — manager Bill Lagattolla was doing a brisk business in Lee-shirts.
Just hours before Tuesday night's performance show there was a nonstop parade of locals coming in to buy their Lee spiritwear. They hoped to wear it all during Friday's top-three homecoming parade and rally at a local horse track that one of Lee's good friends and former teacher, Amy Silverman, was frantically planning. Chanelle Dahn, 20, stopped in to pick up one of the neon-green "Vote 4 Lee" shirts that were piled by the hundreds in the front of the store. "I went to school with Lee, and he used to come to our house and play guitar with my brother," she said. "It's so funny to see someone you went to school with on TV!"
Proceeds from the sales of the shirts and hats, which Lagattolla said have been in the hundreds, if not thousands, will go to fund the music department at Dewyze's former school, Mt. Prospect High. Even as Lagattolla tried to help customers looking for the right shade of paint for a basement renovation, the phone continued to ring off the hook with calls about Dewyze, which Bill said sometimes number 300 to 400 a day.
"I love it. I'm so proud of him and so happy to see everybody coming out here and supporting him," said Sarah Dewyze-Salas, 26, Lee's older sister, who attended Tuesday night's party with their cousin, Kelly Badgley, 27. Wearing their Lee-shirts, they beamed as the huge crowd began filing out after the show. "I thought he did awesome. I think he did great, and I think he'll keep on going," Dewyze-Salas said, adding that her brother's duet with rival Crystal Bowersox on the "Once" ballad "Falling Slowly" was her favorite performance of the season.
"He always said that music was his life and that this was his dream, so I knew something would come of that," said Dewyze-Salas of her pride in how far her brother has come on "Idol."
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