Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Elpine Revisited

For a while, I've had a thing for the Elpine drinks stand in Times Square. Long gone from its spot on 46th Street and 7th Avenue, it appears in the background of many old photos and had its big moment in the film Sweet Smell of Success.

There's really no information out there about Elpine. They served fruit drinks and hot dogs, among other items. They had two locations, but did not achieve the success of Papaya King and Gray's Papaya.

The story of the little stand remained a mystery. Then I got an email from a guy named Al Streit.

1943: John Vachon, via Shorpy

Mr. Streit writes:

"Elpine Drinks was a business owned by my wife's grandfather and his two brothers. Yes, Elpine: 'el pine' as in pineapple. The name has nothing to do with the Swiss Alps.

The Varons were a Spanish-speaking Sephardic family. Originally spelled with an accent mark over the 'o' (Varón), the pronunciation was anglicized to VAIR-un. Three brothers, Joe, Frank, and Morris came to NYC from Gallipoli before World War I.

One of the businesses they founded was Elpine Drinks. The signature drink was based on pineapple juice, and being Spanish, they decided to call the business 'el pine' as in 'the pineapple.' Yes, I am very much aware that the Spanish word for pineapple is 'la piña,' but that point was lost, I'm sure, on English-speaking Americans of the day. It was, I guess, an inside joke.

And given that pre-Castro Cuba was a popular vacation spot for east coast Americans back in the day, perhaps they hoped to conjure up images of relaxing under a palm tree while drinking the pineapple mix?"


circa 1960s, Aaron Signs, via Lost City

The Varon brothers also went into the liquor business and had a large liquor store near Wall Street.

Mr. Streit sent along a photo of his wife's grandfather, Frank Varon, co-founder of Elpine. Here he is advertising the Schenley line of alcoholic beverages.

Elpine lasted at least into the 1970s, according to photo records. Below is a rare color shot of the spot in 1971.

It is the latest dated photo I have found yet. After that, Elpine just vanishes.

1971, Michael Jacobi


James said...

Great story. So this is another Jewish-Cuban-New York story (like Bergdorf-Goodman's).
I've worked with a Long Island-based Varon in the music business. I wonder if he's a relative. Great pictures.

Thee Erin said...

I wonder if this family spoke Ladino in place of Spanish.

Unknown said...

Interesting to note that in the 1943 photo there is an advertisement boasting Papaya drinks, but then the sign is no longer featured after. I wonder if there was some legal pressure from Papaya king to tone it down? Anyway, I can't believe I was unaware of Elpine being that it was right there near the heart of Times Square! The little gems we miss...well, it was last seen in 71 so it was a bit before my time.

Uncle Al said...

You are correct, Thee Erin. You are among the one-tenth of one percent of the population (if that many) who has ever heard of the Ladino dialect. From what I understand, Ladino is basically the Spanish language as it was spoken in the 15th century.

Mark said...

Another small hot-dog-and-drinks counter that's missed is Leo's. It was the smallest possible chain: two establishments, a block and a half apart on Sixth Avenue in the lower 30s. The best hot dogs: Hebrew National, grilled to perfection ("tube steaks"). The uptown outpost, at 32nd St., was greatly beloved by several of us with atavistic appetites who worked at Information Builders down the street. On many an afternoon it fueled the editorial output of my colleague Jim and I.

You can see a painting of the storefront by Ken Keeley.

The Times penned a paean to Leo's in its prime and another when the end was near.

Unknown said...

As the daughter of Al Streit (meaning I'm Frank Varon's great-granddaughter), I can confirm that yes they spoke Ladino, not Spanish.

Unknown said...

This is just answers to some of the comments I found! I am Joanne Streit, married to Al Streit! My mother's family owned Elpine!! We are Sephardic Jews from Spain originally, who emigrated to Turkey in 1492!! They did speak Ladino, although my mother never spoke it to me! The Long Island based musician one person mentioned in the comments might very well be a relative, as most of my Varon relatives lived on Long Island. I never learned Ladino, but maybe El Pine was the Ladino name for pineapple! We went there often when I was a child!! I always remembered the hot dogs and the egg creams!!

Andrew Porter said...

Didn't this site become an Orange Julius stand? I worked in Times Square at 1515 Broadway in 1974, and I think that was where OJ was.