Former Rockville Center neighbors reunite with the cabaret world

Jeff Flaster and Celia Berk probably understand the meaning of “love your neighbor” better than anyone.

Fifty years ago, the two grew up side by side in similar homes on Richmond Road in Rockville Centre. Berk was about five years older than Flaster, an aeon for school-aged children, so they rarely had much interaction with each other until one fateful night in 1974 when the Flaster house caught fire. The Berks then opened their home to the Flasters, offering them warm beds, food, and even clothing over the next few days. It’s a kindness that Flaster has never forgotten.

So about three years ago, when Flaster, 58, was in the embryonic stage of starting his career as a cabaret performer, he felt like an old week at home when he came across an ad in trade magazine Cabaret Scenes for a show at the Birdland Jazz Club in Manhattan with Berk, who became a cabaret artist 10 years ago.

“I was thinking, is this my neighbor Celia Berk? And it was, and I said to my wife, we have to go,” Flaster said.

“Jeff Flaster: Seize the Moment”

WHEN | OR 4:00 p.m. April 3, Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St., Manhattan

NEWS $10 cover charge, $20 minimum for food and beverages; 212-757-0788, donttellmamanyc.com

‘Celia Berk: On the Way to You’

WHEN | OR 4 p.m. April 10 and 7 p.m. April 21 and 27, Laurie Beechman Theater, 407 W. 42nd St., Manhattan

NEWS $25 cover charge, $25 food and beverage minimum; 212-757-0788, westbankcafe.com/laurie-beechman-theatre

Even though they hadn’t seen each other in at least 40 years, Berk and his mother, Phyllis Berk, who was also in the audience, immediately knew Flaster.

“He’s got this incredibly sweet, very distinctive smile, and my mom just looked over and said, ‘I’d recognize that smile anywhere,'” Celia Berk said.

“Immediately we wanted to compare notes on what had happened with our families, and it wasn’t until time that I found out he wanted to put on a show and do it. I’m just excited and happy for him,” Berk said.

Since then, the two have forged a strong friendship, made even more harmonious by their musical bond. Berk, who is in his 60s, and his mother were at the start of Flaster’s cabaret earlier this month at Don’t Tell Mama in Manhattan, where he will return on April 3. And Flaster is tied to one of Berk’s shows at the Laurie Beechman Theater in Manhattan on April 10, 21 and 27.

“How likely are cabaret performers to live side by side growing up on Long Island and then reconnect in the cabaret world? says Berk.

“Take the Moment,” the show Jeff Flaster presents at Don’t Tell Mama, includes many of his own songs.
Credit: Brittainy Newman

IN THE STREET WHERE YOU LIVE

Flaster’s cabaret show, titled “Take the Moment”, is his life story told through his own original songs as well as hits from Benny Goodman, Petula Clark, Boston and even Long Islanders Billy Joel and Jimmy Webb. . He shares stories from his childhood in Rockville Center; studying engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; meet his wife, Helen; working as a software engineer in Boston and later as an actuary in Jersey City, where he currently lives; and finally gave up his job four years ago to pursue music full-time.

And there is also his passion for music and his talent for songwriting, which started when he was 5 years old and writing songs on long trips to visit his grandparents.

Missing, however, is the story of the fire that started in the middle of the night when an exhaust fan exploded. He still remembers almost every detail, starting with the crash of the kitchen light that woke his mother up.

“She came downstairs expecting to yell at me and my brother for breaking milk bottles,” Flaster said.

His mother immediately woke up her husband, Jeff and his younger brother, who were fascinated by what was happening. “He thought it was a lot of fun. There was this black smoke coming up the stairs, and he was running back and forth and laughing,” Flaster said.

Flaster took the situation much more seriously, applying the fire safety lessons he had learned as a Cub.

“I gathered my parents and my brother in our room, which faced the street. We closed the door and put a pillow in the floor at the level of the crack in the door to prevent too much smoke from entering, then we waited for the fire department,” he said.

As they were crammed upstairs, the fridge melted downstairs.

Shortly after, Rockville Center volunteer firefighters arrived and rescued the Flasters by raising a ladder to the bedroom window. Unsurprisingly, they attracted a host of concerned neighbors, starting with the Berks.

“We heard all these fire engines coming down the street, and we looked out the window and saw smoke and flames,” Berk said. “And everyone rushed out of all their homes. My parents said, ‘Please, you have to stay with us tonight.’ ”

“What are you going to do? That’s what neighbors are for,” said Phyllis Berk.

“My brother’s room had several beds and it was also the guest room,” Celia recalls. “He moved into my room and all of a sudden we had a family of four in my brother’s room in the middle of the night. It was just the most amazing thing.”

It was most likely several nights that the Flasters slept in this room, although no one can remember exactly how long they stayed. When the Flasters left, they took refuge in a trailer parked in their driveway for the months it took for their home to be restored.

“It was a different time,” Celia Berk said of her neighbors. “Doors weren’t locked back then. You were going in and out of each other’s houses.”

Celia Berk presents her cabaret show, which features standards, at...

Celia Berk presents her cabaret show, which features standards, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre.
Credit: Helane Blumfield

LIFE IS A CABARET

Just as the Berks took Jeff and his family home that night, Celia Berk was just as welcoming to him as he entered the cabaret community. While Flaster is a relative newcomer, Berk is a trained singer who has been performing regularly for 10 years at numerous venues including Don’t Tell Mama, Birdland Jazz Club and Lincoln Center.

Unlike Flaster, which features many of his own songs, Berk performs standards from The Great American Songbook.

“I tend to be drawn to the hidden gems of great songwriters,” she said. “I don’t do the obvious ones, partly because some of them have such amazing recordings that it’s hard not to hear some of these great singers and their versions.”

Berk, who studied acting at Hofstra University, originally planned a career in show business, but after touring Manhattan and landing a role in a TV commercial, she ended up going the route of acting. company and became a human resources manager in advertising. business.

“It turned out that I liked going to work every day,” she said.

She had continued to take voice lessons while working, but the desire to perform in front of an audience persisted. “Then about 10 years ago I decided I wanted to come out of the shadows and do something about it, and the door that was opened to me at that time was cabaret,” he said. she declared.

Like Flaster, she debuted on Don’t Tell Mama, although she performed with a singing partner. “I don’t know if I would have done a show on my own, and I was blindly terrified and shocked to do it. We did back-to-back shows and we sold out,” she said.

After this show, she gave up her day job, although she still does consultancy work as well as philanthropic work. “I walked offstage and knew I had to keep doing something. I didn’t know exactly what it would be, so I have total empathy for what Jeff is about to do,” he said. she declared.

Since then she has recorded three albums and done table readings for a play she hopes will be produced next year.

Meanwhile, she and Flaster continue to support each other and enjoy their renewed friendship. For Flaster, he appreciates even more the kindness Celia and her family showed him when they needed it.

“Neighbor really meant something different back then,” he said. “My wife and I were living in a condo right now, and I don’t even know the names of the people who live next door to us.”

Jeff Flaster, left, and Celia Berk chat after Flaster's cabaret...

Jeff Flaster, left, and Celia Berk chat after Flaster’s partly autobiographical cabaret performance at Don’t Tell Mama in Manhattan.
Credit: Brittainy Newman

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