(New York Jewish Week) — For any New Yorker, the background noise of the 2000s may well have been marked by the numbers 800-888-8888, the ubiquitous jingle for the Buffalo-based personal injury law firm Cellino and Barnes.
The renown of Ross Cellino and Stephen Barnes grew even more when the pair contentiously split up in 2017. Their acrimonious business divorce included clashes over managing the business, a restraining order against Cellino, claims of “bullying” by Barnes and a complaint that Barnes refused to let Cellino hire his own daughter.
Naturally, comedy writers Michael Breen and David Rafailedes needed to write a show about what might have gone down, including a scene about how that infamous jingle came into existence.
Breen and Rafailedes had performed the show, “Cellino v. Barnes,” a handful of times in New York in 2020 before the pandemic shut it down. Breen moved to California and Rafailedes headed to grad school and the play they wrote about a unique New York sensation almost faded into the ether.
But this isn’t that story. This is the story of how two 25-year-old high school buddies and amateur theater producers made sure that didn’t happen — and how they leaned on their synagogues to get the job done.
David Pochapin and Cameron Koffman were 22 when they saw “Cellino v. Barnes.” They loved the show for the way it spoke to their sense of humor, their New York childhoods and their love of niche theater. The pair would eventually take on the task of producing the play and teaming up with Breen and Rafailedes to bring it to a wider audience, this time in a vacant office space in Manhattan to really give audiences the feeling of authenticity.
Now 25 and a year into producing “Cellino v. Barnes: The Play,” Pochapin and Koffman are admittedly amateurs — Pochapin works a day job in FinTech and Koffman in city government.
“When we are trying to get people to come see the show, we say, ‘we’re doing this not because we saw a business opportunity but because we genuinely saw a story that more people needed to see,’” Pochapin said. “It’s hard to imagine finding another project quite like this. It’s been a wild ride and we’re super excited for the show.”
(On Oct. 2, 2020, Stephen Barnes and his niece were killed in the crash of a private plane in upstate New York. Pochapin said there is “absolutely no comedy about the plane crash” and the show centers around the creation, success and break-up of the firm.)
Ahead of the show’s opening, the New York Jewish Week spoke to Koffman and Pochapin about why they love the show, how their synagogues and Jewish communities have supported them in this process and what changes they are most excited about.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
New York Jewish Week: How did you get involved as producers with the show?
Cameron Koffman: We first saw the show in January of 2020. We had no involvement — we had just seen an article from the Buffalo News: “Show about Cellino and Barnes is an 8.8888 out of 10.” It sounded fun and it was playing in New York City for just a couple shows in January at the Bell House in Gowanus. It was the absolute funniest thing. Then COVID hit, obviously, six, seven weeks later, and life moved on.
I got an email from the venue that the show was back for two performances in August of 2021. David and I dragged more of our friends. It was a big group activity because we had been talking about the show for a year and a half at this point. I mean, it’s Cellino and Barnes, iconic New York names and a jingle that everybody recognizes. We saw it again and it was even funnier.
We had a mutual friend with one of the actors and pushed to get a drink because we just really wanted to tell them, “We thought the play was so funny. It was so great that someone wanted to tell this story.” When we met up with him, we asked if he ever had aspirations to make a permanent run out of it. He said yes, but COVID happened, he ended up having a kid and the other co-writer and actor moved out to the West Coast. Basically, life got in the way. When we talked to [Breen and Rafailedes], it really just sounded like more than anything they needed people to help initiate the process, which we thought we would be able to handle.
We certainly didn’t have experience in production, but we were so passionate about the story and we like to get our hands dirty with logistics. We just thought it was so fun that we wanted to take it to another level and really create a full run of this. We put our heads down, worked on a proposal and here we are.
How did your Jewish communities step in to help get the show back on its feet again?
DP: When we first got into this, which was over a year ago now, we talked to everyone we could, every person that would hear us out and offer an opinion. We reached out to people at my synagogue and they offered to provide chairs for the audience and books for the set, so now we have chairs and books. We’re both very involved in our synagogues — mine is Sutton Place Synagogue and Cameron’s is Temple Emanu-El. My first exposure to theater at a young age was not only in school, but during the Purim spiels at my synagogue. It is because of our communities and our upbringing there that we have the confidence that we’ll be able to do this.
CK: It really is. So many people that we know, that we rely on, that we talk to and the time that we spend with them have helped us put this show together. For example, I lead a couple of lay-led groups at Temple Emanu-El. Through that, I’ve become friendly with dozens of people, I’ve met other people through the young members circle, through becoming friendly with the rabbi and actually leading Shabbat once last year. So — for both of us — one of the main reasons we knew we could do this was because we’re deeply embedded in a large Jewish community and we knew that we could tap into people that would be able to sort of help and guide us with advice and knowledge along the way. Also, we knew we’d be able to blast out the show to a lot of people. David could tell you, one of the first people to buy a ticket for the play was the rabbi [Rachel Ain] from Sutton Place Synagogue, she and her whole family.
As producers you have a little more control than you did as audience members. What changes are you most excited about since the first production?
CK: Not much had to change about the story. Breen and Rafailedes had done the play and certainly the story of Cellino and Barnes is still ever present in the cultural milieu of today. For a large swath of people, millions of people in the New York area, and even in California, where Cellino and Barnes worked too, that jingle just rings a bell and it seared itself into our brains, so our vision didn’t have to be focused on making sure there was name recognition.
When we saw it at The Bell House, the show was very bare bones. The venue had a stage, but it’s a big hall with 200-250 seats and you don’t really feel like you’re at a theater venue — you certainly don’t feel like you’re at an experiential venue. The space that we got on West 23rd is a vacant commercial space that feels like you’re actually in a law office. That was one of the key things we brought — we thought, “if we’re going to really lean on the vibe and the aura of Cellino and Barnes, we want to make you feel like you’re stepping into a dingy personal injury attorney’s office, with plaques on the wall and all of it.”
Why should people see it?
CK: I’m deeply passionate about my love for New York. A couple years ago, right out of college, I actually ran for the New York State Legislature. I love the city. It’s just such an amazing place. Cellino and Barnes is very much a part of New York’s cultural fabric. There are just certain things that resonate with all New Yorkers. It’s Roscoe the bedbug dog from Bell Environmental, it’s Sandy Kenyon from the Eyewitness News “movie minute” in the back of the taxi cab. All those sorts of things that people who grew up in New York or who have spent significant time here will know and recognize.
So many people come from different backgrounds, but there are still these unifiers — everybody’s seen the billboards and subway ads. And although it is a very New York production, we do think that it can resonate with everybody. Every city seems to have their own version of Cellino and Barnes — the mysterious personal injury lawyer who’s on every billboard, on every bus, and who has their slogan.
DP: When you’re in the theater and you’re laughing at these two people that are so nostalgic and are two of the easiest people to laugh and make jokes about, it’s just an unforgettable night. It’s hilarious, and even though it’s a comedy it also makes you think. Cameron and I have had several discussions about who’s right or wrong and Team Cellino or Team Barnes.
“Cellino v. Barnes: The Play” opens on April 13 at 320 W 23rd St. Tickets start at $40.
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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