Everything seems to come full circle for Fred Deni — whether it be landing on Broadway in New York and on Broadway in Santa Monica, or mounting a new production of a Broadway classic he’s worked on four times previously, or being admired and loved for his countless hours of charity work.
Deni, producer of the revival of the musical, Babes in Arms, September 15 to October 9 at Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica, is something of a legend here — for his restaurants and catering service, his altruism, his theater work, and the energy he brings to everything he does.
With Babes in Arms, he’s marrying his two great passions: theater and philanthropy. More than half the ticket price of $45 is going to various nonprofits, including the Santa Monica Police Activities League and Santa Monica Conservancy.
“I get such incredible satisfaction from helping others,” he says. “It’s a rush. I’ve never gotten it from anything else.”
But the world of the theater has its own highs for Deni. A child actor who made his stage debut at the age of seven in The King and I in a prestigious theater in New Jersey, and went on to appear in the Broadway production in the mid-1950s, Deni has continued to keep the theater in his life ever since.
In May and June, he appeared in Beyond Therapy at the Ruskin Group Theatre, which is co-producing Babes in Arms.
Babes is particularly close to Deni’s heart. He’s acted in a production in the Catskills, was choreographer of a production at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Florida, directed the play at a California community college, and worked on a production in New York City.
Originally produced on Broadway in 1937, the hit musical ran 289 performances and left an imprint on the American music scene with such unforgettable songs as “My Funny Valentine,” The Lady is a Tramp,” “Johnny One-Note,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and “Where or When” by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart.
Deni, the son of Italian immigrants, was raised in a New Jersey suburb of New York, and moved to the Los Angeles area in 1972, hoping to get work in film and television. That never materialized, but, starting with virtually nothing, he decided to go into the restaurant business.
After running an eatery at the beach in Santa Monica, Deni and a friend discovered what was then called Paradise Café, located on Broadway just east of 20th Street in Santa Monica.
“It was a dump. I looked around at it and was hesitant to buy it, but a friend of mine encouraged me,” Deni said. “I told him, ‘Little did I know I’d go full circle and end up back on Broadway like this.’”
And thus, in 1982, his restaurant, Back on Broadway, was born. Later, he purchased Back on the Beach, which is adjacent to the old Marion Davies estate at 415 Pacific Coast Highway that’s now being restored by the City of Santa Monica.
Deni’s restaurant business gave him the opportunity to get into the world of volunteerism and philanthropy. When he noticed homeless people rummaging through the trash bin behind his first restaurant in 1979, he decided to offer free Thanksgiving dinners – and more than 700 street people showed up.
In the 1980s, he then began providing free meals to the city’s elderly, and delivered meals to firefighters during the disastrous 1993 Malibu fires. The next year he fed victims of the Northridge earthquake. His free Thanksgiving meals continue to this day.
But it was an act of kindness – and cuddliness – to the people of war-torn Bosnia in the mid-1990s for which he is probably best known.
While on vacation in 1992 with Jim Christel, his life and business partner, in what was then thought to be a safe area in the former Yugoslavia, Deni found himself on a bus filled with Bosnian refugees, all seeking safe passage to Italy.
“It killed me to see these people,” he says. “I vowed to come back some day and help these people who were being treated so badly.”
And that’s what he did. In 1995, as a member of the board of directors of the American Red Cross in Santa Monica, he took off on a fact-finding mission, criss-crossing the war-ravaged regions of Bosnia, visiting orphanages and mental institutions. He was told that at one mental institution – on the Serbian-Croatian front – the patients needed something to hold and call their own. Teddy bears would be just perfect.
So when he returned to Santa Monica, Deni put up a small sign at his restaurant seeking teddy bear donations. He hoped to get 1,000. He ended up with nearly 5,000.
“The outpouring was unbelievable, more like what happened during World War II,” he says. “There really was a humanity that came out during this war.”
Deni arranged and paid for shipment of the stuffed animals. At the last minute, he decided he needed to meet the teddy bears in Bosnia and distribute them himself. Getting to Bosnia in 1996 was not easy, but somehow — through many flights and acts of what seemed frequently to be acts of divine intervention — he arrived ahead of the shipment. And distributed the bears himself at several orphanages and mental institutions.
“These kids took the teddy bears and held them like they were carrying a child in their arms,” he says. “They would so lovingly kiss them on the forehead. They were just so glad to see us, it would bring tears to your eyes.”
Not surprisingly, Deni has been honored for his acts of humanitarianism – by the American Red Cross of Santa Monica, Salvation Army, Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition, and more.
He accepts the awards with his humor and genuine modesty. He says, “Giving is such an adrenaline rush – and they give you awards for it, too.”For tickets and information for “Babes in Arms,” call (310) 397-3244 or go to http://www.ruskingrouptheatre.com.