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Retired firefighter has new role running Wantagh theater

Bob Higgins and his son are taking EastLine Theatre in a new direction

Bob Higgins and his son, Danny, in the

Bob Higgins and his son, Danny, in the dressing room of the EastLine Theatre, which they have revived with offbeat productions. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

When Freeport native Bob Higgins was in his 20s, he’d considered becoming a playwright, and even co-wrote a comedy called “The Hero,” about a bank robbery witness.

Instead, Higgins became a real-life hero. In need of a job and following in the “boot” steps of his father and three brothers, Higgins joined the Fire Department of New York. Rising from firefighter to lieutenant, he later became a training officer at the FDNY Fire Academy and then a commanding officer of its Probationary Firefighters School. After 23 years, he retired in 2009.

“Firefighting is a young man’s job,” says Higgins, 57. For the next eight years, he did some traveling with his wife, spent time with his kids, but there was always a gnawing sense he needed to do more.

He found his next role thanks to a cue from his son, Danny, 23. In September, the two Higgins men took over 7-year-old EastLine Productions, an intimate theater in Wantagh for which Danny had served as actor and director and is now its executive artistic director. Since taking over the re-christened EastLine Theatre, they turned it into a nonprofit organization, enabling them to do fundraising campaigns and reinvest profits back into the theater.

“I knew I wasn’t the type to play golf for the rest of my life. I knew I would probably get involved with something, and it turned out to be community theater on Long Island.”

These days, Higgins can be found at the black box theater — so called for its black walls — building sets, doing repairs, mopping floors, even fixing bathroom leaks.

“No job is too small for anyone in this theater. We’re really an ensemble that does everything,” Higgins says.

One of his most ambitious projects has been building a much-needed dressing room. Before that, actors would change under an outdoor tarp. This renovation, along with upgrades to the lighting and sound systems, were financed through a “GoFundMe” campaign, for which the theater has raised $8,700 of its $10,000 goal.

Originally, Higgins planned to just get the theater up and running under its new management. Instead, he’s been a constant presence.

“Nothing is more exciting than finding out you’ve fallen in love with something new that you never thought you’d be part of, that you hadn’t planned,” Higgins says.

As president of EastLine’s board of directors, Higgins also chairs meetings, finds funding sources and provides the requisite leadership.

“I let the talented people do what they do best,” he says. “That’s really my main job. It’s what I learned in the fire service.”

A theater fan forever

Higgins, of Greenwich Village, has seen every show his son has acted in or directed.

“He’s been involved in theater his whole life,” Bob Higgins says. “I used to sit in this theater and look around and wonder what it would be like to be a part of something like this.”

Danny, who lives in Island Park and started at EastLine in 2011 as an assistant director, noted that he and his father bonded over their mutual love of the arts. “Eventually, I made him fall in love with the place, too,” says Danny.

Bob’s first impression was, admittedly, not a rave. He thought the setting was too cramped for serious theater.

“The main stage area, at 16 by 20 [feet], is really not much larger than a large living room,” Bob says. “However, once the lights went down and I let the actors take me into their world, I was astonished that such fine work could be accomplished in such a small space.”

The theater was getting too big to handle and Danny wanted to take it to the next level, Jim Black, one of EastLine’s four previous owners, says of the decision to sell.

“The timing was right. The change was right. And it was really the right thing to do for Danny,” says Black, 57, of Hicksville. “Danny is one of the most brilliant young directors I’ve ever met. And he has a tremendous, tremendous vision.”

Danny’s sales pitch to his dad was “ ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if the family business was the theater business?’ And he actually thought it was a great idea.”

Still, Bob had reservations. “The theater was around $10,000 in debt and in need of immediate upgrade and repair,” Bob explains.

Turning a financially failing business into a viable nonprofit was daunting, but enlisting his wife, Susan Berkowitz, who has worked successfully with startups and does bookkeeping for EastLine, and new board members Steven Prendergast and William Cherno helped ease the transition.

Since the Higginses took over, there’s been renewed energy and excitement, adds EastLine’s stage and house manager Matt Rosenberg, who has worked there since 2014.

“Danny has always strived for excellence in his performances and getting the best of his actors, and creating great art and theater,” says Rosenberg, 33, of Island Park. “With Bob coming in, it’s now focusing energy on the atmosphere and the look of the sets and the feel of the theater, and just taking care of our actors, and taking care of everyone and making everyone feel welcome.”

From fire service to community theater

Working with the fire department turned out to be good training for the theater, notes Bob.

“You have to learn to manage people. You have to learn to organize. You have to learn to anticipate problems and deal with personalities and goals and budgets. And you have to learn how to be a motivator.”

As an avid theatergoer, Bob never realized there were so many parallels between the medium and firefighting. Though their goals are starkly different, they both attract people with an unspoken bond to each other and an unwavering commitment to their work, he says.

“All are part of the team and each person is so willing to give of him and herself to the goal,” he says. “The dedication and the willingness to surrender your own ego to the betterment of a larger picture is something I found in both professions.”

And, then there’s the matter of grace under pressure.

“Firefighting is life and death,” he notes. “Theater is not life or death, although when it’s happening, you don’t realize that.”

In October, he had a heart-in-his-throat experience during a production of “On Golden Pond,” for which he’d Jerry-rigged a door that could easily come off its hinges.

During a performance, his son asked him at the last moment to serve as stage crew and he had about 60 seconds to fix the door so that it would fall off right on cue.

“I was almost in a panic. If I don’t get this door on and the lights come up, I’m going to look like an idiot,” he recalls thinking.

Suddenly, the door slipped out of his grip, but Danny, anticipating the potential disaster, got there in time to hold it up.

“And then brings me backstage and says, ‘Welcome to the theater!’”

Father-son bond

In addition to the excitement of live theater, the biggest thrill for both Higgins men has been the chance to work together.

“I feel that everything is like a slow-bonding moment,” says Danny.

The arts and theater, in particular, allow people to be freer with their emotions, as opposed to firefighting, where things are so controlled, says Danny. “It’s nice to see my dad that way. I don’t think that many people get the opportunity to see that.

In their down time, Bob often regales his son with stories from the firehouse and other aspects of his life. A favorite story, Danny says, happened on his dad’s second day as a fireman, when he was called to a house fire right after a snowstorm. Bob’s job was to run the fire hose to the fire hydrant, but he slipped and fell on the ice in front of a large group of people watching the drama unfold.

“He actually started to slide and he couldn’t stop. He went past the fire hydrant,” Danny says, chuckling at the image.

Observing his father up close, Danny is perpetually impressed by his exemplary work ethic. “That just drives him in everything he does. Everything has to be perfect. Everything has to be done. . . . I want to be like that in every aspect I can.”

As executive artistic director, Danny plots the productions for the season, which this year will include “Prospero (Live),” a musical version of “The Tempest” set in New Orleans, which Danny co-wrote.

Despite his son’s exalted title, not everything is automatically green lighted, cautions his dad.

“If he says he wants to flood the theater and create a naval battle, we’d say, ‘No,’ ” Bob quips.

EastLine has recently added new programs, including children’s theater, plus a series of special events, like themed karaoke nights, “Drag Queen Bingo” and their version of “Match Game” (on March 11).

There are also plans to repair the floor, add new chairs and to “rake platforms,” or gradually incline the floor for better visibility, and make other upgrades over time.

As a nonprofit, EastLine’s philosophy adheres closely to the Higgins’ philosophy: Community is key.

“I’m not trying to make money off of this. I’m trying to enrich the community,” says Danny.

The company’s goal, adds Bob, is to put on thought-provoking, challenging works that serve the community well. “Theater, to me, is another public service.”

What’s on the bill

If you’d like to see what EastLine Theatre is presenting, here’s the schedule. (The theater is at 2123 Wantagh Ave., Wantagh.)

WHAT David Lindsay-Abaire’s comedy “Kimberly Akimbo”

WHEN 2:30 p.m. March 4 and

8 p.m. March 2-3 and 9-10

WHAT The L.I. premiere of J.T. Rogers’ drama “Oslo”

WHEN 8 p.m. April 7, 13, 14 and 21 and 2:30 p.m. April 8, 15 and 22

INFO $20, $15 students and 60 and older (reservations recommended); 516-749-5047,

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