Wednesday Night at the Movies: Soda Fountain Series

OUR GANGNEIGHBORHOOD MOVIES DISAPPEARED FROM THE BIG APPLE in the 90s, bankrupted by mega-Loews showing this week’s poorly acted action films in eye-splitting 3D. Forget about finding old-timey silent movies that have stood the test of time and reached across language  barriers, except late at night on Turner Movie Classics. And except at the Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain.

Strange? Maybe not. Ben Model, silent film curator and accompanist and the evening’s host, says the earliest movie theaters were converted storefronts like the wonderfully preserved turn-of-the-last-century Farmacy. Wednesday night was the last in the Farmacy’s 2012 soda-fountain film festival, and by the time the show was about to begin, the place was packed with people in their 20s, begging one another for their tables’ empty chairs, sitting on the step where the almighty pharmacist used to hold court, leaning against the soda fountain, and slurping down their famous chocolate egg creams and hot chocolate.

The show Model assembled consisted of four comedy shorts, each 20 minutes in length (or 2 reels long), each converted from flammable acetate to 16 millimeter film (which, he explained, once were mailed to private homes, shown in parlors, then returned—a service much like Netflix). Then decades later each was converted from 16 millimeters to DVDs like the kind sent out by Netflix, and exactly what we would be watching. Before the movies started the Farmacy’s Gia Giasullo warned everyone that fountain service would be suspended during the movies, and then the lights went down.

big business posterCharlie Chaplin’s silent short Behind the Screen kicked off the festival. The print, crisp and clear, shows the hero’s antics as an assistant at a movie production company, with typical Chaplin slapstick. The next, Buster Keaton—the Human Medicine Ball, Model labeled him—was up with The Goat, featuring a mistaken identity and police chases galore. Then it was Good Cheer, a sentimental Hal Roach comedy featuring The Gang (sort of a prototype of Our Gang), an archetypical bunch of tenement-dwelling kids who wonder if Santa Claus really exists. This print was poor, but it was a lesson in film preservation, and how acetate film stock decays when the original is not copied to a more permanent material. A huge percentage of silent films have been lost, mostly because there’s no profit motive. (By the way, according to Good Cheer, Santa’s the real deal.) The last on the bill was arguably the most hilarious: Big Business, a rare Laurel and Hardy silent two-reeler (most of their movies were talkies), and a portrayal of Reciprocal Destruction: The pair’s attempt to sell a Christmas tree starts with an irate would-be customer clipping the tree’s top and ends with his house and their car reduced to rubble.

After the show Model took a couple of questions from the audience, and said that like most accompanists back in the day, he doesn’t play by a score. Fascinating stuff for the film buff, and a cheap date for the twentysomethings: the night at the movies was free. If you’re lucky, you can get to go next year.

Executive Editor Phil Scott often writes about travel and aviation.

Dreams of Egg Creams

Day Three 12 Sips of Brooklyn
Brooklyn Farmacy, located in a former pharmacy/soda fountain that had been shuttered for decades, is a lovely throwback. It hits the right notes, with attention to detail, and use of authentic materials and techniques. This is not Disney, but a return to something real and evocative of old Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Farmacy, located in a former pharmacy/soda fountain shuttered for decades, is a lovely
throwback. It hits the right notes, with attention to detail and use of authentic materials
and techniques. This is not Disney, but a return to something real and evocative of old Brooklyn.


THE SCENE: A QUIET NIGHT ON A BATTLEFIELD half a globe away, a harmonica warbles mournfully. The hard-bitten combat veteran turns to the embedded reporter: “What do you miss most from home, Brooklyn?” “Sarge, when I get stateside, I’m gonna grab me a girl and my dog and get the biggest egg cream in town.” Well, maybe it didn’t go quite like that, but Phil Scott’s essay of return from Afghanistan nails that sense of longing for a Brooklyn of dream and legend. The boisterous city of today jostles with an older Brooklyn of memory that breaks through when you least expect.

A fair chunk of my childhood was spent as an urchin roaming the city on 15 cent subway tokens bought with nickels scrounged from pay phones. I often sojourned in Brooklyn, so when I started to work and play here as an adult, eventually came a hunt for the drink of my childhood, the ambrosia, the very essence of Kings County—the chocolate egg cream.

Egg creams, from left: Hinsch's, Brooklyn Farmacy, Tom's Restaurant

Egg creams, from left: Hinsch’s, Brooklyn Farmacy, Tom’s Restaurant

Craft beers and pour-over coffees are fine beverages but are essentially imports and upstarts; for artisanal beverages, the granddaddy has to be the egg cream. Its origin is shrouded in legend and many lay claim to patrimony, but no one doubts its Brooklyn DNA (a straightforward description is found in Fix the Pumps by Darcy O’Neil, a history of the soda fountain). A simple drink which contains neither egg nor cream, it is long on seltzer (cheap) and parsimonious in milk and chocolate syrup (costly), suited to the working class city of the early 20th century. The craft is in the construction, detailed in this post by Jay Keller. Making an egg cream is testimony to a time when soda jerk was a job and required more skill than pushing a button to dispense prepackaged milk shake. The foamy head that is the glory of the egg cream is achieved with application of technique with spigot and spoon.


Phil heads into Brooklyn Farmacy in Carroll Gardens to try his first egg cream.

So, this fall I took up the hunt to find my dream egg cream. First stop was Brooklyn Farmacy, a gem of an eating place at the corner of Henry and Sackett in Carroll Gardens. The tin ceiling and the wooden cabinetry are straight from the early 20th century. The store, an old pharmacy, was closed and left virtually untouched for decades until reopened in 2010 by Peter Freeman and Gia Giasullo, a brother-sister team that like to wear T-shirts proudly proclaiming themselves as “Jerk.” Such chutzpah!

Brooklyn Farmacy has taken a stand for authenticity, with fine attention to details. They use a carbonator and spigot to dispense the soda water and their chocolate syrup is the quintessential Fox’s U-bet. The store demonstrates a commitment to locally sourced and artisanal foods with a strong showing in Brooklyn products, including serving Brooklyn Cured ham in their grilled ham and cheese sandwich, and stocking many other small-batch products for sale.

My childhood obsession drove me to the chocolate egg cream, while my companions chose vanilla and maple (both were excellent, and the last appealed to my Canadian roots, despite its sacrilegious blend). Gia talked to us knowledgeably about the drink, noting that the egg cream must be made with a carbonator and served quickly, as the foam starts to disappear rapidly when the drink sits on the counter. She also eschews the drinking straw: “The straw pulls up the material at the bottom. It is better to drink it straight down so you taste each layer starting with the foam.” She also touted the obvious health benefits: “An egg cream has the same number of calories as a slice of buttered toast” with far less sugar than a similarly sized cola drink. Of note, the Farmacy charged the least for their egg cream: $2.50. As I remember it, the price of the egg creams I used to drink were about equal in cost to the subway ride to get to them, so the Farmacy’s price appears historically accurate.


Tom’s Restaurant is an anchor on Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights.

Next up was Tom’s Restaurant, the friendly anti-slick breakfast palace on Washington Avenue. Tom’s has an authentic feel of continuity with the past. And the egg cream was near-classic (they also use U-bet, for one) in taste and texture. The real problem, Tom… Tom… why the whipped cream on top? It killed the start of the egg cream experience—nose to foam spray. Are you doing it to justify the $3.50 price (nearly 3 times the inflation-adjusted price from 1962)? Tom’s: great for breakfast, ditch the whipped cream.


Hinsch’s window sign: These drinks would be history if white knights hadn’t rescued the soda fountain from closure in 2012.

Finally, an R train ride away (what I knew as the RR on the BMT line, children, for historical accuracy) in Bay Ridge, we tested the egg cream at Hinsch’s. I have to say I loved Hinsch’s the place; it really kicked up the nostalgia meter recreating the early ’60s of my first Brooklyn experience. On that, Hinsch’s scored; its egg cream was less than it could have been. The counterman was deft and skilled, but the soda issued from the standard soda gun seen in every bar and lunch counter these days and it felt wrong. I had planned my journey for what I hoped was to be the Mecca of fountains and was underwhelmed. Ah well, I will return to Hinsch’s, but will stick with the milk shakes.

Brooklyn Farmacy, I salute you. May your egg cream reign in the Brooklyn of dream and memory. For now, I gotta go grab Phil—there have to be more memorable Brooklyn egg creams out there and I must find them.555-brooklyn-farmacy-recipe

Brooklyn Farmacy
513 Henry Street, Carroll Gardens

Tom’s Restaurant
782 Washington Avenue, Prospect Heights

8518 5th Avenue, Bay Ridge

Photos by Basia Hellwig; Bruce Campbell (Tom’s, window menu, recipe). Date stamp typographic design by Joy Makon Design. The font is Bauhaus, by Ed Benguiat and Victor Caruso, ITC, 1975.

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