If you visit Carmen Nadler in her East Petaluma apartment, you will be offered the best flan you’ve ever tasted. The texture is dense and the flavor rich but somehow it’s not heavy. She makes some every week for her family (a son and daughter-in-law, three grandsons, two great-grandchildren), and her second family — the owners and staff of Petaluma’s Fuji restaurant.
There’s plenty to go around. But don’t bother trying to get the recipe. It’s a family secret — and there are probably plenty more of those to go around, too.
Born in Cuba in May of 1930, Nadler is the youngest of a family of performers — five sisters and two brothers. She has danced or flipped around with everyone from Bob Hope to Art Blakey and the Afro Cuban Boys to the famous acrobatic troupe The Great Wallendas — and that was when she was only 7 years old.
“I was walking by the theater when the circus was in Havana and the back door was open,” the always perfectly coiffed and made up Nadler says. “I went in and saw the stage, and started bowing and doing my acrobatics. I didn’t realize anyone was there, but the whole team was up on the wires practicing their act.”
The troupe’s leader, Herman Wallenda, scampered down from the high wire and demanded, “How did you learn to do that?” 7-year-old Carmen put her hands on her hips, stood up straight and replied, “I taught myself!” He hired her on the spot for the remainder of their Cuban tour. She played a wind-up doll who contorted into increasingly impossible positions, culminating with tiny Carmen doing a perfect handstand on Master Wallenda’s outstretched palm.
When the acrobats left Cuba, Karl Wallenda (played by former Petaluman Lloyd Bridges in the TV movie “The Great Wallendas”) wanted to adopt Nadler and bring her with them on tour, but her mother refused.
Years later, when the glamorous grown-up Nadler had dinner with Karl Wallenda following a performance in Hawaii, he disapproved of a new habit she had picked up.
“You should quit smoking,” he said, judgmentally. She retorted, “You’re 69 years old. What are you still doing up on the high wire?”
“He said he was going to die doing what he loved,” Nadler says today of the man who fell to his death four years later, traversing a high wire between two Puerto Rico hotel towers. “Karl was tough. If one of his brothers said, ‘No, we can’t do that — it’s too difficult,’ Karl always said, ‘We’re doing it!’ ”
The sound of a mambo rumba tune interrupts her recollections.
It’s her phone’s custom ring tone.
“Hello dear,” she says and her entire face lights up. “How are you doing?”
When Nadler hangs up, she tells me it was her grandson, who is taking her to dinner for her 88th birthday. Continuing her walk down memory lane, she says, “We were very poor growing up. Dancing was the only thing we knew how to do.”
The mamba ringtone dances through her phone again. It’s a telemarketer this time, but she greets him with the same kindness and enthusiasm she had just had for her grandson.
“I feel bad for them,” she says after she hangs up. “They are just doing their job.”