Former Rockville Centre neighbors reunite in cabaret world
Jeff Flaster and Celia Berk probably understand the meaning of the phrase "love thy neighbor" better than anyone.
Fifty years ago, the two of them grew up side by side in similar houses on Richmond Road in Rockville Centre. Berk was about five years older than Flaster, an eon for school-age children, so they rarely had much interaction with one another until a fateful night in 1974 when the Flaster home caught on fire. The Berks opened their home to the Flasters afterward, offering them warm beds, food and even clothing over the ensuing days. It’s a kindness Flaster never forgot.
So about three years ago when Flaster, 58, was in the embryonic stage of starting his career as a cabaret performer, it felt like old home week when he came across an ad in the trade magazine Cabaret Scenes for a show at Birdland Jazz Club in Manhattan starring Berk, who 10 years ago became a cabaret performer.
"I thought, is that my neighbor Celia Berk? And it was, and I said to my wife, we have to go," Flaster said.
'Jeff Flaster: Take the Moment'
WHEN | WHERE 4 p.m. April 3, Don't Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St., Manhattan
INFO $10 cover charge, $20 food and drink minimum; 212-757-0788, donttellmamanyc.com
'Celia Berk: On My Way to You'
WHEN | WHERE 4 p.m. April 10, and 7 p.m. April 21 and 27, Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 W. 42nd St., Manhattan
INFO $25 cover charge, $25 food and drink minimum; 212-757-0788, westbankcafe.com/laurie-beechman-theatre
Even though they hadn't seen each other in at least 40 years, Berk and her mother, Phyllis Berk, who was also in the audience, knew Flaster immediately.
"He has this incredibly sweet, very distinctive smile, and my mother took one look and said 'I’d know that smile anywhere," said Celia Berk.
"Immediately we wanted to compare notes about what happened with our families, and it was only really over time that I discovered he wanted to put a show together and do it. I’m just excited and happy for him," Berk said.
Since then the two have established a solid friendship, one made even more harmonious by their musical bond. Berk, who is in her 60s, and her mom were at Flaster's cabaret debut earlier this month at Don't Tell Mama in Manhattan, where he'll return on April 3. And Flaster is bound to pop up at one of Berk's shows at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in Manhattan on April 10, 21 and 27.
"What is the likelihood of cabaret performers living side by side as children on Long Island and then reconnecting in the cabaret world?" Berk said.
ON THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE
Flaster's cabaret show, called "Take the Moment," is his life story told through his own original songs as well as hits by Benny Goodman, Petula Clark, Boston and even Long Islanders Billy Joel and Jimmy Webb. He shares stories of his boyhood in Rockville Centre; studying engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; meeting his wife, Helen; working as a software engineer in Boston and later as an actuary in Jersey City, where he lives now; and finally giving up his job four years ago to pursue music full time.
And there's also his passion for music and his talent for songwriting, which started when he was 5 and he'd pen songs during long drives to visit his grandparents.
Missing, however, is the story of the fire that began in the middle of the night when an exhaust fan blew up. He can still recall nearly every detail starting with the crash of the kitchen light fixture that awakened his mother.
“She went downstairs expecting to yell at my brother and me for breaking milk bottles," Flaster said.
His mom immediately woke up her husband, Jeff and his younger brother, who was entranced by what was happening. "He thought it was great fun. There was this black smoke billowing up the stairs, and he was running back and forth through it and giggling,” Flaster said.
Flaster took the situation far more seriously, applying fire-safety lessons he learned as a Cub Scout.
"I gathered my parents and my brother into our bedroom, which was facing the street. We closed the door and put a pillow in the floor at the crack of the door to keep too much smoke from coming in, and then we waited for the fire department," he said.
As they were huddled together upstairs, the refrigerator was melting downstairs.
Soon after, the Rockville Centre Volunteer Fire Department arrived and rescued the Flasters by raising a ladder up to the bedroom window. Not surprisingly, they attracted a crowd of concerned neighbors, starting with the Berks.
"We heard all of these fire trucks coming down the street, and we looked out the window and saw smoke and flames," Berk said. "And everyone rushed outside from all their houses. My parents said 'Please, you must stay with us tonight.' "
"What are you going to do? That’s what neighbors are for," said Phyllis Berk.
"My brother's room had multiple beds in it and it was also the guest room," Celia remembered. "He moved into my room and suddenly we had a family of four in my brother’s room in the middle of the night. It was just the most astonishing thing."
It was most likely several nights that the Flasters slept in that room, though no one can recall exactly how long a stay it was. When the Flasters did leave, they took shelter in a trailer parked in their driveway during the months it took for their house to be restored.
"It was a different time," said Celia Berk about being neighbors. "Doors weren’t locked then. You were in and out of each others’ homes."
LIFE IS A CABARET
Just as the Berks took Jeff and his family into their home that night, Celia Berk has been equally welcoming to him as he's entered the cabaret community. While Flaster is a newcomer, Berk is a trained singer who has been doing cabaret regularly for the past 10 years at numerous venues including Don't Tell Mama, Birdland Jazz Club and Lincoln Center.
Unlike Flaster, who showcases many of his own songs, Berk performs standards from the Great American Songbook.
"I tend to gravitate to hidden gems by great songwriters," she said. "I don’t do the obvious ones, in part because some of them just have such amazing recordings, that it’s hard not to hear some of those great singers and their versions."
Berk, who studied drama at Hofstra University, originally planned on a show-business career, but after making the rounds in Manhattan and landing a role in a television commercial, she wound up going the corporate route and became a human resources executive in the advertising business.
"It turned out I liked going to work every day," she said.
She had continued taking voice lessons while working, but the yearning to perform for an audience persisted. "Then about 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to come out of the shadows and do something with it, and the door that was opened to me at that point was cabaret," she said.
Like Flaster, she debuted at Don't Tell Mama, though she performed with a singing partner. "I don’t know that I would have done a show all by myself, and I was blindly terrified and in shock that I was actually doing it. We did back-to-back shows and we sold out," she said.
After that show, she gave up her day job, though she still does consulting work as well as philanthropic work. "I came off the stage and knew I had to keep doing something. I wasn’t sure exactly what it would be, so I have total empathy for what Jeff is about to do," she said.
Since then she's recorded three albums and has been doing table reads for a play that she hopes will be produced within the next year.
Meanwhile, she and Flaster continue to support each other's careers and enjoy their renewed friendship. For Flaster, he's even more appreciative of the kindness that Celia and her family extended to his when they needed it.
"Neighbor really meant something different back then," he said. "My wife and I lived in a condo right now, and I don’t even know the names of the people who live next door to us."