This copyrighted article originally appeared in the The Times of Trenton and NJ.com.
Hamilton resident John DeMasi discovered Chris Burke’s love of the limelight and his ability to connect with an audience years before Burke became the first actor with Down syndrome to star in a television series — a late ’80s and early ’90s show called “Life Goes On.”
DeMasi’s friendship with Burke, which began at Camp ANCHOR on Long Island in the late 1970s, turned him into an advocate for the disabled and pushed him in new directions as a musician.
Now, Burke and DeMasi are collaborating again on “Forever Friends,” a children’s television program that shows how people with disabilities can be included in fun and friendship. Burke and DeMasi and DeMasi’s brother, Joe, portray musicians who travel from gig to gig in a magic yellow bus.
At the end of each episode, the fun and music stop for a moment and Burke addresses the camera directly, “I may have a disability. I may have Down syndrome, but I have the ability to be your friend.”
Two episodes are available at the website http://www.chrisburke.org, but DeMasi would like to bring it to television and a wider audience.
Burke recently came down to Hamilton from New York City, where he works three days a week as goodwill ambassador to the National Down Syndrome Society, to rehearse some tunes for “Forever Friends.”
In DeMasi’s Hamilton home, the longtime friends reminisced about meeting years ago when Burke was a camper and DeMasi was a volunteer at Camp ANCHOR — which stands for Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation — in Hempstead, Long Island.
DeMasi and his brother, Joe, heard about the camp for kids with disabilities from a friend in their orchestra.
“I had no preconceived notions,” DeMasi recalled. “Before I went to the ANCHOR program, I had never met people with disabilities. They really touched my heart. They are so loving, real and nonjudgmental.”
DeMasi described the ANCHOR counselors and campers alike as pioneers. Parents had just begun to reject institutionalized care for disabled youngsters and raise them at home, but how to keep them constructively engaged during the summer was a question that hadn’t been answered yet.
At Camp ANCHOR, the DeMasi brothers took up the guitar to lead sing-a-longs. Then, they discovered the campers were more interested in being entertainers than in being entertained.
So with the help of some video cameras and the camp’s loudspeakers, ANCHOR came alive with music videos, television commercial spoofs, and disc jockeys.
As they rehearsed and reminisced in Hamilton, DeMasi uttered the phrase “disc jockey,” and Burke burst in from another room with a sample of his on-air patter. “I’m Chrissy Burke and I’m bringing you the hits of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s at WANC, where we rock Lido Beach all summer long!”
“We did the Camp ANCHOR version of ‘We are the World,’ DeMasi said. “You should have seen Chris as Stevie Wonder.”
When a handful of tough guys at Camp ANCHOR had remained aloof, DeMasi found out the playlist was the sticking point.
“You don’t play the kind of music we like,” one boy said.
“Not a problem,” DeMasi said, inviting the tough guys to rap like gangsters, scratch the records and play heavy metal tunes.
DeMasi stayed in touch with Burke long after he left Camp ANCHOR for a career as a professional musician, playing weddings and working in recording studios. Burke came to hear DeMasi and his brother play their original songs at gigs around New York City and cheered for them on an “American Idol” precursor out of Nashville called, “You Can Be a Star.”
The DeMasi brothers returned the favor, cheering for Burke when his acting ability came to the attention of television producer Michael Braverman, who built the show, “Life Goes On,” around him, DeMasi said. In “Life Goes on,” which ran from 1989 to 1993, Burke’s character, Corky, was a teenager in the process of transitioning to a mainstream high school.
As “Life Goes On” wound down, a new trio was born: Chris Burke with Joe and John DeMasi, The singers brought their message of inclusiveness to audiences of disabled people, their families and their advocates.
Playing off a line from the Beatles tune that served as the theme for “Life Goes On,” their tagline was: “Everyone can be a singer in the band.”
Burke and DeMasi still play off each other like old friends. As Burke rattled off his television appearances since “Life Goes On,” he mentioned a turn on “The Commish,” a TV series that aired on ABC from 1991 to 1996.
“That’s the Commish, not the knish,” he said, explaining that the Jewish delicacy is DeMasi’s favorite treat to buy from street vendors in New York.