David Berk, 80, performer with a long, varied career

David Berk started out as a folk singer and guitarist.

BY ADAM BERK  |  David Berk, a lifelong West Villager and entertainer, died on Aug. 28 at age 80.

Berk was born in the Bronx to Chaim and Frances Berk, and moved to Sheridan Square at the age of 2 1/2. As a youngster, he frequently could be found playing football or stoopball in Washington Square Park or handball at the courts on W. Third St. and Sixth Ave. He went to the Little Red School House, graduating in the same class as Victor Navasky, the former editor of The Nation. After completing his studies at the High School of Music and Art, he briefly studied business at the University of Miami before returning to New York City to complete his bachelor’s and master’s in voice at the Manhattan School of Music.

Berk’s musical career was vast and varied. Though well versed in opera and classical music, he began his profession as a folk singer and guitarist. He teamed up with future wife, Phyllis Berk, née Kallner, as a duo, performing at various clubs and hotels in the Village and Catskills in the 1950s and early ’60s. He also earned his education degree and began teaching music at a Bronx public school, where he produced shows with elementary students, such as “The Sound of Music.” By this time, he was also playing club dates and parties as a bassist. Berk had heard a larger calling, and devoted his future energies to the study of acting and musical theater.

He studied at HB Studio with Uta Hagen and Charles Nelson Reilly, took dance classes with Frank Wagner and TV training with Bill Mahoney. He would begin a stage career spanning three decades. He appeared at Judson Church in “San Francisco’s Burning,” and summer and regional theaters in Lake Placid (CRMD), Philadelphia (Walnut Street Theatre), Ft. Lauderdale (Caldwell Playhouse) and the Theatre of Living Arts. His Off Broadway shows included “June Moon” (Manhattan Punch Line), “Time of the Cuckoo” (Equity Library Theatre), “Anyone Can Whistle” (York Players) and “Applause” (An Evening Dinner Theatre). He would also tour with Robert Goulet in “Kiss Me Kate,” Julius La Rosa in “Guys and Dolls” and Julie Wilson in “Pal Joey.”

David Berk also appeared on Broadway in “So Long 174th Street” with Robert Morse, and in “Carnival” as Grobert. He would later join the National Company tour of  “Zorba,” with John Raitt and Chita Rivera.

As a singer-pianist, Berk was best known for his “composer” reviews. He had performed and/or directed at such cabaret venues as Danny’s Skylight Room, ’88’s, St. Peter’s and Jan Wallman’s. Some of the songwriters he covered in these shows include Ralph Rainger, Walter Donaldson, Revel/Gordon and Johnny Burke. He was nominated for two MAC awards and won the prestigious Bistro Award for his direction of “The Walter Donaldson Songbook.” Later, he would write the musical memoir of his youth, “Back When the Village Was the Village,” which also received critical acclaim.

Berk sang in several languages, and was especially fond of Italian love songs. It is rumored that he appeared at a Queens supper club as “Enzo Rossi” to complete the transformation. In addition to regularly appearing at Village clubs like the Duplex and The Yellow Brick Road, he found time to play at Cafe Cartier in Tel Aviv, Israel, and entertained on Cunard cruises in Alaska and the Caribbean. He would complete his restaurant entertaining well into his 70s at Astoria’s Tutto Bene, where Ray Romano was a regular customer. After retiring, Berk continued to play at open mic nights at Cleopatra’s Needle, Trudie Mann’s and The Path Cafe with fellow singer Debra Skoff. He also performed at nursing homes, including the Jewish Home Lifecare on W. 106th St.

Berk was an avid boxing fan, his letters to the editor on the sport often appearing in New York newspapers. He collected books on the subject, many signed by their writers or subjects. He was a New York Giants baseball fan, but had a sentimental soft spot for Lou Gehrig. He played bridge in Greenwich Village clubs and preferred “pink ball” when playing singles or doubles handball at “The Cage,” with partners with names like “Lefty” or “Stretch.” He was a regular at Li-Lac Chocolates, and knew where to find the city’s best egg creams.

He is survived by his brother, Arthur, his son, Adam, and a granddaughter, Katherine. He will be greatly missed by many. Greenwich Village Funeral Home, 199 Bleecker St., was in charge of arrangements. A memorial took place on Sept. 16.

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5 Responses to David Berk, 80, performer with a long, varied career

  1. So sorry to hear of your loss. Your father sounds like he was an amazing artist and someone who knew how to live his dream. Apple doesn't fall far….

    • Thanks Nina. He would have been happy with any direction I'd have taken… probably most surprised by medicine . Ironically, I'm playing more than ever now with my current band. We have 3 shows booked for 2013, with a few more possible in the first half of the year. I watched some clips of your show/ rehearsals. Very impressive.Keep up the great work.
      A

  2. David was one of the loves of my life. He was a great support after my divorce. We kept in touch until last year. He always sent me a valentine cards and Christmas cards. Always called me "Annie". He will be missed. A.B.

    • Ann,
      So nice to hear from you. It is a year since he passed , and it is still not quite believable. I had no idea he had kept in touch with you all these years. I came across some pictures of all of us on a ferry from Greenport (?)while cleaning up my Dad's place. It was late summer, 1981. As I was helping to put together his quasi-memorial gathering, it seemed a bit weird to try and invite all of his ex-girlfriends,,but I am sorry I could not make the event all-inclusive. David did relate to me, even in his final days of delerium, that you were the best looking of all of his lovers. I did not disagree. And yes, he referred to you as "Annie".

      All the best,

      Adam

  3. Michael Murphy

    I think of David often – he was a true gentleman, and a generous artist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the American Popular Song book, as was so evident in his delightful, smart and stylish cabaret reviews. I was so lucky to have been cast & and even luckier to be directed by him in two of those shows, "Thanks For The Memory – The Songs of Ralph Rainger" which ran at Eighty Eight's and "A Man And His Dream – The Lyrics of Johnny Burke" which played at Danny's. Rightfully, Roy Sander wrote in Backstage, "Berk appears to be a master at creating smart, entertaining, and beautifully constructed evenings…" That he was! I do remember venturing to a place in Queens with Jan Walman & Caroline Durham to see David – er, I mean the great "Enzo Rossi" at the piano- clad in an obligatory leisure suit. What else would Enzo wear? Outside was an Enzo Rossi" sandwich board-w/ David's 8x10s plastered every which way; he was known as "Enzo" to the staff. Enzo played & sang everything from Italian opera to Broadway to Folk to Songbook as only David could do. He was a Prince of a man, and an understated master at his craft. O, David played a mean ukelele, too. God bless, David – till we meet again..

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