Taking Center Stage For a Worthy Cause
Firefighters perform comedy to raise money for brethren

By Mary Beth Casper
Mary Beth Casper is a freelance writer.

October 3, 2003

Firefighters eventually retire from the job, but they don't leave the brotherhood.

Just ask William Denis of Selden in Suffolk County, who retired from the New York City Fire Department two years ago.

Denis no longer fights fires in South Jamaica, but he still has a profound interest in helping the families of his fallen brethren.

Today, he's a stand-up comic performing around the country whose stage name is Billy Bingo. And, he uses his comedic skills to raise money for a charity close to his heart: The Thomas R. Elsasser Memorial Scholarship Fund.

Denis, four fellow firefighters and professional comedians Jim Norton and Steve Byrne recently raised money for the Elsasser fund during the fourth annual New York's Bravest Night of Comedy at Queensborough Community College. Denis organized and emceed the event.

The Elsasser fund was established in 1992 to honor the memory of a veteran firefighter who lost his life to leukemia in 1990.

When a firefighter dies on duty, the surviving spouse is entitled to the firefighter's pension for life. And the spouse and children are covered by health insurance. But the families of firefighters who die while off duty receive only their loved one's salary and health benefits for two years.

The Elsasser fund was established to assist families of firefighters who die off duty by providing scholarship funds to their children. Today, it provides additional financial aid to families who may be experiencing financial stress.

"I'll never forget the look of gratitude on the face of the first widow to receive the scholarship money," Denis said. That memory inspired him to organize comedy fund-raisers. The Elsasser fund benefits from the generosity of the general public and different FDNY fund-raisers.

"It's our way to honor Tommy, who organized his own softball tournament years ago to provide money to fallen firefighters' families," Denis said. The tournament continues to this day.

Each of the FDNY participating comics performed a 10-minute routine he wrote himself. To a man, they agreed that fighting fires is less stressful than performing onstage.

"At a fire, nobody yells, 'You \,'