Earlier this month, Ellison Berns, the younger brother of the DJ, actor, singer and party organizer Don Berns, walked into a bank in Caledon, Ont.
He was there to sort out his late brother's affairs and expected to simply talk with a teller and be on his way.
No. Numerous patrons and staff began coming up to him, wishing him well, offering their condolences and sharing stories of his brother. Don, who lived nearby, had known everyone and been a part of their lives in some way; he'd often bring back cases of oranges from his trips to Florida and give them to bank staff. "He made a community wherever he went," Ellison, a cardiologist, said.
Don was a part of the glory days of the Toronto radio station CFNY – both on the air with his warm baritone and behind the scenes programming the music. In the 1990s, he organized some of the first and most notable raves in the city under the moniker Dr. Trance. He was dubbed the Godfather of Rave for his contribution to the scene. His voice was everywhere – various radio stations, Global TV, TSN, Pride Toronto – and he was also an accomplished actor.
Mr. Berns loved music, and his rich, deep voice was perfect for radio. He was a big guy with a huge and giving personality. "He was the biggest kid I ever knew," says Eddy Dobosiewicz, who was close friends with Mr. Berns for more than 40 years, having met him at a concert in Buffalo in the 1970s when Mr. Dobosiewicz was just 16. "He had this infectious, gregarious, bigger-than-life personality. He made people feel welcome and accepted immediately."
The two had a decades-old private joke that they shared the motto of Chuckles the Clown from The Mary Tyler Moore Show: A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.
Mr. Berns died on March 1 at the age of 67 after a suspected heart attack. Just a few days earlier, he'd had minor surgery to put in a stent for an arterial blockage.
From his early days, Don Berns loved music and theatre. Born on Aug. 18, 1947, in West Hartford, Conn., the son of Vivian and Lawrence Berns, he sang in the a cappella group the Pelicans in high school. From there, he went to Brown University, where he studied English, did theatre and sang with the Jabberwocks (and attended every reunion for the legendary group except for the most recent, as the number of his peers attending was dwindling). He also got involved at the radio station WBRU. According to friends and family, Mr. Berns was instrumental in helping shape the station's progressive approach to music.
After graduation, he worked as a DJ in various New England cities. In 1970, he landed a dream job: midday host at WKBW, the Buffalo Top 40 station that was one of the biggest in the country. He was eventually promoted to music director. "It was the tail end of radio in that era, where radio personalities got to be creative," recalls Mr. Dobosiewicz, who was hired by Mr. Berns to work at the station.
Then Mr. Berns shocked the local music industry by defecting to the album rock station in town, where he had more creative freedom. In 1975, he left for Dallas, and for the next decade did a series of DJ gigs across the United States in cities such as San Diego and Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Mr. Berns met David Marsden, a DJ at CHUM-FM in Toronto, and started doing voice-over work for his commercial production company. Mr. Marsden would actually fly down to wherever Mr. Berns was living in the United States to record him. Then, Mr. Marsden launched CFNY, and pioneered an entirely new approach to radio. He actually used Mr. Berns's voice for station ID spots: In other words, Mr. Berns was the voice of the station before he even worked there.
In 1985, a DJ slot came up at CFNY and Mr. Marsden offered it to Mr. Berns. Mr. Berns was living in Pittsburgh at the time and was doing live theatre, TV and a high-profile radio show. "He dropped everything," recalls Mr. Dobosiewicz – CFNY was so well respected in the industry at the time. Soon, Mr. Berns was promoted to assistant program director and music director, then program director.
He stayed until 1992. By then, the station's format had become more traditional and Mr. Berns was ready to move on.
He began DJing at Toronto's Energy 108, spinning techno music – and did the same later on at CHIN-FM and other stations. He adopted the stage name Dr. Trance and began organizing raves.
Through the promotion company Nitrous, then Atlantic and later Effective, he helped organize massive raves at high-profile venues such as the CN Tower, the Ontario Science Centre and the Toronto Island Airport. He was very much a face of the scene, going out to parties several nights a week as Dr. Trance and talking about raves on the radio.
When the rave scene wound down, Mr. Berns kept busy with voice work and other jobs. He was the station ID announcer for Global for a few years and later for TSN. He always had the main stage at Toronto Pride, DJing during the annual festival. He appeared on numerous radio stations and Internet radio shows.
Mr. Berns did live theatre for most of his life, both directing and acting with community groups wherever he was living. In his later years, he spent more time on the stage and went out regularly to the theatre as well. He played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray at the Meadowvale Theatre in Mississauga and Daddy Warbucks in a production of Annie in Brampton. Most recently, he appeared in Puss in Boots in Diversified Theatre's production in Whitby.
Mr. Berns leaves behind numerous tight circles of friends. "What was so amazing about him is what you see as a public persona is his private persona," his brother recalls. "He was as much of a room-filling person in public as he is in private." He was a loud guy with a loud laugh, who always made time for everyone he met.
Years ago, Mr. Berns met one of his many distant cousins at a family event when the boy was just 10. Despite all the other older relations in the room that were closer to his age and he knew well, Mr. Berns sat down with the boy and asked very caringly about his life and his hopes and dreams. "He could meet a stranger and within moments you felt like you'd known him your whole life," Mr. Dobosiewicz said.
For his part, Mr. Dobosiewicz remained close friends with Mr. Berns for decades, despite living in different cities. His children considered Mr. Berns a favourite uncle.
Mr. Berns was extremely active in the nightlife and theatre scene in Toronto but he liked to live away from the bustle. He moved to Brampton when he first came to Canada and then relocated to Caledon. Though he lived alone, he rarely had an empty house.
He had many friends who stayed with him on and off over the years. If anyone needed a place to crash, Mr. Berns's door was open. That went double for pets. He had a German shepherd, Mr. Briggs, that he was particularly devoted to until it died a few years ago. At the time of Mr. Berns's death, his long-time friend and frequent housemate Matthew Brown says he "only" had one dog and two cats.
Mr. Brown recalls often seeing Mr. Berns lying in bed reading magazines (he subscribed to many) and sharing the bed with as many as five cats and a big dog.
Mr. Berns was out as a gay man for as long as anyone can remember, but he didn't like to make a big deal out of it. (He once got angry at a friend who introduced him as being gay.) He had a few romantic partners over the years, but the most enduring relationships in his life were his friends, his huge extended family in the United States and his pets.
Several years ago, he took great strides to improve his health, shedding about 100 pounds and quitting smoking.
He drank very little but was an excellent toastmaster. Apparently, he was a terrible driver. He was so good at Scrabble, though, that playing against him was almost pointless.
He had a big voice, and a big, generous heart.
Mr. Berns leaves his brother, Ellison Berns, and his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Berns.
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