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Bayside restaurateur aspires to second career in Hollywood

Instead of waiting on tables to support a burgeoning acting career, the Bayside restaurateur is getting into the game after a successful lifetime of running a popular Italian spot.Celi, the owner of Maria's Trattoria at 45-73 Bell Blvd., jumped into his newfound hobby last fall when a longtime customer, Gary Morgan, told him about his work in dinner theater."He was telling me what he does, and I got interested," said Celi, who is in his late 60s. "I'm a little bit of a ham myself."His first performance was in a short film titled "Johnny Balls," about a newly sprung convict's attempt to join the mob."I was the consigliere," Celi said. "So (the convict) wanted to be a tough guy. So he comes to me and says, "I wish I had a different nickname, like all the other guys.' So I named him 'Johnny Balls,'" a genius bit of improvisation inspiring the director's name for the film.Celi has also been an extra in an upcoming Julianne Moore movie and played a nursing home patient in an industrial film. His highest profile job so far has been a VH1 spot, where he portrayed a senior citizen fighting for a precious dose of flu vaccine. Although acting may come naturally to Celi, he has spent most of his life in the food industry. A native New Yorker who grew up on the Lower East Side, he initially worked as a jewelry box maker until his wife's family brought him into their Little Italy restaurant. Inspired by his experiences, Celi moved to Bayside and opened Maria's in 1976. "It's a nice homestyle restaurant with tablecloths, napkins, candlelight," he said. Baysiders still flock to the eatery, drawn by deals like the $10.95 Early Bird Special. The restaurant itself was also recently inducted into the movie business in early March, when a director shot a short film there about a waitress, her love-struck suitor and some furry boots. In 'UGG,' Celi had the role he was born to play: restaurant owner. The 10-minute film, directed by Ted Ryan, was shot in two intense days of hard labor."We as novices don't realize how much work it takes to make a movie," Celi said. Work lasted from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. each day, and with all the sensitive recording equipment in the restaurant, Celi even had to assign someone to silence the bubbling noises from the lobster tank during each take. He said the film will probably be entered into competitions.Celi enjoys going to auditions and meeting fellow actors while standing in line, but his true passion will always be the restaurant, and he has no plans to move to Hollywood or retire anytime soon."This is my love. What am I going to do, stay home?" he said. "I greet everybody here. I love it."Reach reporter Sophia Chang by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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