School turns to unusual benefactor for fund-raising help

Former Flock of Seagulls lead guitarist Eddie Berner arrives in his "Rockin' Road Grill" food truck/bus for a visit with autistic children at Durand Academy. Berner is trying to create a reality TV series.
Former Flock of Seagulls lead guitarist Eddie Berner arrives in his "Rockin' Road Grill" food truck/bus for a visit with autistic children at Durand Academy. Berner is trying to create a reality TV series. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 13, 2014

Eddie Berner's tour bus was running late.

Inside Durand Academy and Community Services headquarters in Mount Laurel, administrators milled about, waiting to meet their new fund-raising partner. They were happy to wait: Durand, which provides housing, schooling, and support services to people with autism in South Jersey, had never been visited by a rock star before.

Fifteen minutes after Berner's publicist said his tour bus would arrive, a black RV, its sides plastered with red vinyl flames, squealed into the lot outside the headquarters on Gaither Drive.

For those who run Durand, the sight of Berner's "Rockin' Road Grill" tour bus on Friday meant their organization would gain some much-needed publicity after 42 years of serving special-needs individuals.

The tour bus, equipped with a full kitchen and barbed silver sconces, has been visiting bars and charity events across South Jersey since January 2013. Berner uses the bus to cook and play music for guests, in an effort to jump-start a reality television series and regain the fame he once had as the lead guitarist for A Flock of Seagulls.

Berner, 47, a Burlington Township native, joined the group in 1987, a full five years after the English New Wave outfit's lone Top-10 U.S. hit, "I Ran (So Far Away)."

"I was always able to just pick out a song by ear," he said. "It really bothers a lot of other musicians."

After falling out with lead singer Michael Score, famous throughout the '80s for his combed-forward blonde haircut, Berner quit the group in 1998.

When he wasn't touring with the band, Berner, who holds a culinary degree from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia, earned his living as a chef, working as a line cook in New Jersey, Florida, and California.

Berner settled in Palm Springs, Calif., following his stint with the band, but would move back to Burlington in 2009 following a divorce, taking a job at a P.F. Chang's in Princeton.

"It was either hang myself or move back in with my parents in Burlington," he said.

Things were running smoothly until Berner fell, shattering his right knee.

"My doctors just said, 'You won't be able to stand for more than five hours at a time. This is how things are going to be for quite a while,' " Berner said.

No longer able to work as a chef, Berner brainstormed the concept for a reality series, titled Eddie Berner's Rockin' Road Grill, wherein he would traverse the country - "A few hot women would be with him on the bus," business partner John Killian said - playing guitar with famous musicians and cooking his guests their favorite foods.

The pair said they have submitted the show to Scripps Networks Interactive, which operates networks such as the Food Network and Travel Channel.

"The ultimate goal is to get our TV show on the air," Berner said.

On Friday, Berner's tour bus made stops at three of Durand's locations across South Jersey, in the lead-up to a fund-raiser Berner is to host for the organization at the Flying W Airport in Medford on June 6.

The partnership came about after Berner met Paul Nelson, a member of Durand's board of directors, at Ott's Tavern in Delran.

"We've been around for 42 years, and we aren't as popular as we should be," said Dennis Rivell, chairman of the Durand Foundation, which helps raise funds for the academy. "The more money we raise, the less we need to rely on the government."

Upon entering the Durand Academy in Woodbury, a special-needs school funded by the New Jersey Departments of Education and Developmental Disabilities, Berner found himself engulfed in a whirlwind of flashing bulbs and wide-eyed children.

He made his way through the main hallway, at one point bending down to kiss a young girl on the cheek.

"This is my way to give back after being so blessed in my career," Berner said.

Contact Jerry Iannelli at 856-779-3882.

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