Berta featured on NPR’s ‘What Do Ya Know’
by BETH ALTENA
Jerry Berta is well known in Rockford for his dining-car fame, having purchased and operated Rosie’s Diner for years. Now in the hands of owners Randy and Jonelle Roest, the diner is still associated with Berta. Less well known is that Berta was once interviewed on National Public Radio’s (NPR’s) show “What Do Ya Know” with Michael Feldman. Berta, along with his wife, has managed the difficult task of earning a living as an artist and works in ceramic and neon. Now “newbies” or old hands at ceramic art can learn from Berta in his new Rockford Community Education (RCE) class, which is held at Rockford High School.
Rosie’s Diner, located on M-57 in the CedarRock business district, is nationally known for the Brawny “Quicker Picker Upper” commercials featuring Nancy Walker as Rosie the waitress. Rosie’s Diner wasn’t Berta’s first, however. Berta has been a lifelong fan of dining cars and used to travel to the country’s east coast where the old mobile restaurants were more common. Berta found Michigan’s last remaining diner in Flint in 1987, built by the Jerry O’Mahony Dining Car Company. He purchased it for $2,000 and moved it to a lot on 14 Mile Road in Rockford and used it for his art studio. Despite a neon sign that read “No food, just art,” people still wandered in, hoping to sit down for a meal.
Berta was out east, admiring a dining car, when the owner came out to talk to him. He discovered that Berta already owned one diner and asked if he’d like to own two. A minute later, Berta had purchased Rosie’s, which was built by Paramount Dining Car Company in 1946 and was originally called the Silver Dollar Diner. The restaurant was 700 miles from Rockford, however. After four days, 10 flat tires and one fire, the diner was in Rockford where it continues to be a landmark and has served well over a million meals.
Berta’s work as an artist in neon may be related to his dining-car interest, but he is also known for his ceramic work, which is featured in the RCE classes. With both experienced and new artists in clay in his first class—which was a six-week offering now extended to another three weeks—Berta walks students through the steps of creating, decorating and firing the work in the two kilns Rockford High School owns.
Deb Napieralski is one of the students in the first class Berta has offered through RCE. She said the school lets students leave their materials in the classroom between classes. She said the class is appropriate for beginners or those with experience. Each of the sessions focuses on a different technique, from pinch pots to coils to working on the wheels. Her first night she made four or five pots.
Kurt Becker started working with clay in some 22 years ago at community college and continued while a student at Western Michigan University. He said it is very satisfying to “start with something cold and wet and end up with something nice for your house.” He also said the process is therapeutic.
Berta said he finds ceramics fascinating. He described a visit he took to Casa Grande in Arizona to a protected park where pot shards prove people were working in clay and firing pots from 300 to 1300 AD. He said 40,000 people lived in the desert community and fired the pots in pits in the ground. Conditions at the RCE classes don’t require digging holes and all supplies are provided.
For more information about Berta’s upcoming class offerings or other classes offered by Rockford Community Education, visit online at Rockford Public Schools’ signup website at www.rpssignmeup.com or call (616) 863-6322.