News Flash – Al Mac’s Diner of Fall River, Mass. Closes!

I just read a very disturbing news article out of Fall River, Mass. Al Mac’s Diner has closed its doors! The article which was written by reporter Will Richmond of The Herald News was posted on their website this afternoon has taken me, and I’m sure a host of other people by complete surprise.


Al Mac’s Diner in Fall River, Mass. May, 2011 photo by Larry Cultrera

As the slogan on their sign says….. Al Mac’s Diner was justly famous since 1910, even though the current building dates to the early 1950’s. Al McDermott had been in the business all his life operating lunch wagons and diners too numerous to keep track of. Co-owned since 1989 by Norm Gauthier, his daughter Dawn Xanyn and son-in-law Garet Xanyn this diner was known for its home-cooking.

This is the second diner I featured in my book “Classic Diners of Massachusetts” that has closed within the last week. Buddy’s Diner of Somerville was seized by the Mass. Dept. of Revenue for non-payment of taxes last week and now Al Mac’s has been affected by the slow economy. Here is the text from the newspaper article…..

Al Mac’s Diner closes

By Will Richmond – Herald News Staff Reporter
July 23, 2012

FALL RIVER —

 The clock on the facade outside Al Mac’s Diner is stuck at 10:39. Unfortunately for the owners, the century-old restaurant wasn’t frozen in better times. Owner Norm Gauthier confirmed Monday the diner that he has owned for 23 years and has been part of the Fall River landscape since 1910 is closed. No longer will pancakes be available at 6 p.m. or homestyle meals eaten away from home.

Gauthier said the restaurant was done in by the economy. “We’re out of money,” Gauthier said, standing outside the darkened diner. “I’ve put every dime I have into this business and it’s just not successful anymore. The diner era is over. People would rather have flat screens to look at then have a conversation with somebody.” Gauthier said he is hoping to find someone who would be interested in purchasing the diner and breathe some new life into the business. “This would be a great opportunity for somebody interested in a turnkey operation,” he said.
 
Gauthier said his first 20 years of ownership were successful, but called the last three a “disaster.”  In addition to rising fuel and food costs and fewer patrons, Gauthier said other expenses increased in recent years, such as licensing fees. He said costs to meet tightened requirements have also played a role in the diner’s demise. In an effort to offset some of those costs Gauthier, had recently cut back on the diner’s hours of operation. “I feel awful. There is nothing I would like more than to open this place up again,” Gauthier said. His customers would agree. With word of the closure still making the rounds, potential customers looking for lunch Monday said they were shocked by the news.
 
Leo Marien, of Dighton, said he had just returned from vacation and was hankering for something from the Al Mac’s menu. “Boy, I’ll tell you, this is a landmark,” Marien said. “When you think of Fall River you think of Al Mac’s. This is a surprise.” Marien, who got familiar with Al Mac’s during a 40-year career working in Fall River, said he didn’t have a favorite menu item. Instead he said he often went with one of the daily specials, which he considered to be as good as home cooking. He recalled one time marveling over a slice of cherry cheesecake baked by Gauthier’s wife. After offering to purchase the remaining cheesecake, he said she instead baked him a fresh one. “I would always say coming here was like going home and eating,” Marien said. “I’m going to miss this place. I hope it isn’t going to be closed for long. I wish them all the luck.”
 
Calling the omelets, the Greek one in particular, his favorite, John Mello had traveled from Somerset for lunch Monday. Instead of getting a meal, he learned about the diner’s fate. “I knew they weren’t doing well, but this is depressing,” Mello said. “To me they had the best breakfast. This sucks.”
Hearing rumors about the diner’s possible demise, Tom Khoury, of Fall River, drove by to check for himself. He wasn’t pleased to see the “Closed” sign hanging in the window, confirming the worst. “It’s iconic and part of our social culture,” Khoury said, recalling an image from a car calendar that displayed the diner lit up in its neon glory. “It’s a shame it’s being closed. I’ve lived in Fall River all my life and to see something like this emotionally affects me.”
 
Marien offered a similar thought before getting back into his car in search of lunch. “It’s a piece of Americana we’re losing,” Marien lamented.
 
I will echo what these loyal customers stated…. this really sucks! I hope Gauthier can indeed find a worthy successor who can step back in and get this classic back up and running.
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Somerville, Mass’ Buddy’s Diner seized for non-payment of taxes

I just received word from Brian Ballou, a reporter for the Boston Globe that an old time favorite of mine, Buddy’s Diner has been seized by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue for non-payment of taxes. This apparently happened yesterday, July 18th.


Buddy’s Diner – 113 Washington Street, Somerville, Mass.
April, 2011 photo by Larry Cultrera

According to Mr. Ballou, this has been coming on for quite some time, in fact he mentioned that a seizure is usually the last resort for the Dept. of Revenue when all other options have been exhausted. The amount of taxes owed is quite substantial and more than likely the diner will be auctioned off to get some of the monies owed at some point in the future.

Buddy’s Diner is a 1929 vintage Worcester Lunch Car (WLC No. 624) that originally operated in Leominster as Sawin’s Diner and reportedly came to Somerville in the early 1950’s. Although it is not included in the Multiple Property Submissions for the National Register of Historic Places, it nonetheles is designated a Landmark through the Somerville Historic Commission.

I am saddened by this news, even though I have not patronized the diner on a regular basis in the last few years. At various times I was there every morning before work. Back in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, during a stint working for a company in the Allston section of Boston and again more recently when I was employed down the street at Acme Bookbinding in Charlestown just 4 short years ago. Buddy’s was one of the featured diners in my book “Classic Diners of Massachusetts” (published last October by The History Press).

I will keep tabs on this and hope that the diner can possibly reopen sometime in the near future.

“Diner” the movie hits 30 year old milestone


recreation of the opening graphic for the movie “DINER”

I’m not sure when I first heard that there was going to be a movie coming out called “DINER”, but I seem to recall the news came from an old acquaintence of mine by the name of Bob Festa. But if I had to guess, I would say it was possibly the summer of 1981. I am sure that I had not heard what the storyline was going to be and that probably would not have mattered. With a name like Diner, I was definitely going to see it!  Anyway the movie came out in the spring of 1982 and was the first movie written and directed by Barry Levinson, a journeyman writer and sometime actor who had cut his teeth writing for TV variety shows and Mel Brooks movies.


The publicity poster from the movie. This version was reworked by adding Paul Reiser to the image for the release of the DVD a number of years ago.
The original did not have Reiser in the shot.

Levinson, a Baltimore native had been telling stories to his Hollywood friends and acquaintances for years about his experiences hanging out with his buddy’s at Brice’s Hilltop Diner in Northwest Baltimore in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He got encouragement from Brooks and others that the stories he was relating could be made into a movie. So Levinson took a leap of faith and wrote the screenplay. Long story short, Diner was born.

He did all the filming primarily in Baltimore but there was one big hangup, Brice’s Hilltop Diner was not being used as a diner anymore. It was now a liquor store and somewhat disguised. Also, the neighborhood had gone downhill since Levinson and his pals had frequented the area.


recent photo of the former Brice’s Hilltop Diner, currently operating as Pepper’s Liquors. Photo courtesy of Randy Garbin


recent photo of the former Brice’s Hilltop Diner, currently operating as Pepper’s Liquors. Photo courtesy of Randy Garbin

A true factory-built diner was needed for the exterior and interior scenes and Levinson found out that there was a used diner at the Paramount Modular Concepts factory in Oakland, NJ that could fill the bill! The diner that was at Paramount was the former Westbury Grill that had operated for years in Westbury, Long Island (NY). This diner evidently was taken in on trade for a newer replacement. It was in pretty original condition when Levinson’s production people saw it. The decision was made to use the diner and it was transported down to Boston Street in the Fells Point area of Baltimore and set up to be filmed for the movie.


former Westbury Grill as filmed in the movie.


Levinson outside the diner during filming of the movie.
Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun

The film featured a group of young actors. A few had been in other films previously including Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke and Kevin Bacon. Newcomers were Ellen Barkin, Timothy Daly and Paul Reiser. Levinson made it a point to have the cast hang out together prior to and during filming which helped the illusion that these people were longtime friends and made the premise of the film work. The characters were loosely based on real people who Levinson knew. In some cases a character may have been a composite of more than one person for story-telling purposes.


A scene from the movie with L – R… Tim Daly, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern,
Kevin Bacon and back to the camera, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser.


another scene featuring Kevin Bacon and Daniel Stern


A prize piece of my collection. A promo coffee mug that was made available to me by Jim Dunn, a friend and co-worker from around 1990.

I am not going to get into a description of the whole movie except to say the plot revolves around this group of friends who have spent a number of years hanging out at the diner. It involves how they relate or not relate to women in their lives, with varying degrees of success. The have all come altogether around Christmas, 1959 to celebrate the upcoming marriage of Guttenberg’s character Eddie. It also covers to a degree their reaching a point in their collective lives when they realize that like it or not, the world as they know it is changing and they collectively have to grow up and figure out what they are going to do.

I have watched it too many times to keep track of. In fact I watched it again just a week ago (in preparation for this post) and it still holds up tremendously! An all-time favorite of mine to be sure! As mentioned in a previous post, after seeing the movie for the first time, I was planning a trip down to Baltimore to see if I could photograph the diner and possibly have a meal.

Well myself and Steve Repucci did make it down on Memorial Day weekend of 1982 and quickly found out that the diner was only there for the filming of the movie. We did find the neighborhood and the empty lot where the diner had been……


the empty lot where the diner had been for the movie.


another recognizable view from the movie, just across the street from where the diner had been.

So needless to say no meal and no photos of the Fells Point Diner that day. In fact as time went on, we found out bits and pieces of the puzzle, lttle by little. On August 26,1983, David Hebb visited the Paramount Modular Concepts Company and shot the next photo…..


the former Westbury Grill at PMC in Oakland, NJ. This was of course after the movie was shot. Photo courtesy of David Hebb

Earlier this year, The Baltimore Sun ran a piece detailing this diner’s history in Baltimore:

1981 — Location scouting begins for the MGM production “Diner,” which is to be filmed in and around Baltimore. The Hilltop Diner, the northwest Baltimore hangout that inspired Barry Levinson’s screenplay, has by now devolved into a liquor store, unrecognizable as its former self.

The production team eventually discovers and leases the diner it wants from Paramount Modular Concepts of Oakland, N.J. The diner, which was manufactured by Mountain View Diners of Singac, N.J., was formerly the
Westbury Grill on Long Island, N.Y., according to Paramount sources. The “Diner” is not a replica of the Hilltop Diner, however.

For filming, the diner was placed on a Canton lot near the intersection of Boston and Montford streets, currently the site of the Anchorage town homes.  After filming, the diner is returned to Paramount.

March 3, 1982 — Diner has its world premiere at the Senator Theater.  In the movie, the title hangout is named the Fells Point Diner. Mayor William Donald Schaefer puts the return of the diner to Baltimore on a much publicized “wish list,” a plea for private citizens to donate goods and services to the city. WBAL Radio fulfills the diner wish, purchasing the diner back from Paramount for $34,000 and donating it to the city.


The above article was given to me around 1988 by John Messinger a co-worker I had around that time who recalled the piece and still had the magazine. The age of the diner mentioned in the article is slightly wrong, it is a 1950’ish diner. In fact it is Mountain View Diner No. 326.

January 1984 — The diner is trucked back from New Jersey to Baltimore and placed at the corner of Saratoga and Holliday streets, where it stands today.  The diner is camera-ready but not ready for customers – it has no kitchen or
bathrooms. Local businesses and private citizens donate nearly $1 million in cash, services and equipment to renovate the diner and set it up as a training center for entry-level restaurant jobs.

September 18, 1984 – The Kids’ Diner opens. The diner is run by the city schools and the mayor’s office of volunteer services. “Food service is one of the largest industries in the United States,” says Fontaine Sullivan of
the volunteer office. “(The Kids’ Diner) will be unique training ground for vocational educational students.” The first customer is Mayor Schaefer, who is talked into ordering an “SOS,” which turns out to be a creamed chip
beef on toast. “It’s good but it’s not great,” the mayor says.


Kid’s Diner 400 East Saratoga Street, Baltimore. July 1, 1985 photo by
Larry Cultrera


Kid’s Diner 400 East Saratoga Street, Baltimore. July 1, 1985 photo by
Larry Cultrera


Kid’s Diner menu cover from my collection

As evidenced by the previous 3 photos, I managed to finally have a meal at the Diner from the movie Diner! In fact after the diner was back in Baltimore, it made it convenient for Barry Levinson to shoot some scenes for his movie “Tin Men”, the second of his Baltimore movie series.

Here is more of the diner’s timeline in Baltimore…..

October 1984 – Dissatisfied with the offerings and prices at the newly opened diner, the mayor orders an assessment of the operations.  “The prices were out of line,” Schaefer says — a hamburger is $2.35, a grilled
cheese sandwich is $1.95.

April 1986 — A May 14 closure is announced.  According to news reports, the Kids’ Diner runs a $100,000 deficit per year. City officials float the idea of turning over the diner’s operations to Baltimore Culinary Institute (later the Baltimore International College). Alternate proposals include keeping the diner under the school system, allowing the BCI takeover and relocating the diner to the downtown fish market (now the home of Power Plant Live),
where it would be run by private owners. But by month’s end the city reconsiders, and Schaefer defends the diner’s mission, saying that it was never intended to make money.

1991 –A Brooklyn (Md.)-based nonprofit, the Chesapeake Foundation for Human Development (now the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development), takes over the diner’s daily operations, working under a contract with the city’s department of juvenile services.  By May, the diner is shuttered by the finacially strapped city department, and Chesapeake applies to take over the diner’s financial management.  In September, Chesapeake reopens the newly named Hollwyood Diner and begins offering six-month training program for
juvenile offenders. An informal placement program with the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, now the Renaissance Harborplace, is inaugurated.  The diner continues to lose money, a Chesapeake official say, but not as much. 
“We might lose $20,000 to $25,000 per year compared with the Kids’ Diner, which lost $100,000 to $200,000 per year. “

ca. 2001 – The Chesapeake Center signs a 20-year lease on the Hollywood Diner with the city’s office of real estate, according to Ivan Leshinsky, the Chesapeake Center for Youth Development’s  current executive director.

September 2009 – Crema Coffee Company, which operates eateries at the University of Maryland’ s downtown law and medical centers, takes over the diner under an operating agreement with CCYD.  Training remains part of the diner’s mission.

November 2010 — Crema Cafe at the Hollywood Diner closes in November 2010. “It was tough,” owner Terry Jett says, “It’s been a really hard year.” Jett admits that Crema’s home-made ingredients and locally sourced
coffee and breads may not have appealed to a value-seeking lunch audience.  Attempts at keeping late-night hours, in what has evolved over the years into a small nightclub district, ends up costing Crema more in security than it makes in sales, Jett says. By December, Chesapeake has lined a new operating partner, Cheryl Townsend, a caterer of southern-style food and owner of the former Red Springs Diner on Calvert Street.

March 2011 – Hollywood Diner presents Red Springs Cafe opens with a menu of Southern food.

September 2011 – Townsend posts a closing notice, saying that she will use the diner as catering facility until her contract with Chesapeake runs out. But Chesapeake balks, saying that Townsend is contractually bound to operate it as training facility. Red Springs Cafe stays open.

October 13 – The comptroller’s office informs Chesapeake that its lease is being terminated. The center is given 60 days to vacate the premises. Chesapeake clears out by Dec. 14, but Townsend does not.

Feb 2012 –  After a brief hiatus for renovations and menu updates, Townsend reopens the diner. The comptroller’s office says, though, that Townsend will only remain on the property until the end of March.
The city announces on Feb. 17 that it will seek a new operator for the diner and will issue formal request for proposals in April 2012


a recent photo of the Hollywood Diner courtesy of The Baltimore Sun

Happy 30th anniverary to the movie DINER, my favorite!

July 4th Interview – Boston Globe

I was honored to be interviewed for a piece that appeared  in the Boston Globe “G” section on July 4th. It is part of their series called the “G Force”……..

 

Medford native celebrates classic diners

G Force
July 03, 2012

WHO

Larry Cultrera

WHAT

From 1988 to 2007, the Medford native wrote a column about diners for the Society for Commercial Archeology Journal. Since then, he has maintained
his Diner Hotline blog, and last year, he published “Classic Diners of Massachusetts” (The History Press), which goes into its third printing this month.

Q. You write that your journey started in 1980, and you have since visited and photographed more than 820 diners. What spurred your interest?

A. I’ve had an interest in diners since I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until 1979 or 1980 that I became aware they were disappearing. I was also getting into 35mm photography around that time and [diners] fed my different sensibilities: my love of history in particular. The history grabbed me.

Q. What about the history?

A. I knew that diners were built in factories; they weren’t generally built on-site. It wasn’t until 1980 that some books were starting to come out. First, John Baeder, the photo-realist artist, brought out “Diners” in 1978 and it featured his paintings and drawings. And in 1979 Richard Gutman brought out “American Diner,” which was the precursor to a book he brought out in the ’90s called “American Diner: Then & Now,” which has since become the bible for diner history. Once I started reading the history and figuring out there’s all these different manufacturers that used to build diners and some that still do at that point in time, you start identifying the different manufacturers by the different styles, details they put into their products.
So it was like how a classic car buff could look at a certain car and say, “Oh, that’s a 1957 Chevy Bel Air and it’s modified in this manner.’’ A diner buff can say, “That’s a 1948 Jerry O’Mahoney and it’s been altered by doing this or that ” or “most of it’s original.”                

Q. Are New England diners different from diners elsewhere?

A. What really differentiates northern New England diners from southern New England diners, say, Connecticut, or even Long Island, N.Y., or Pennsylvania diners, is the fact that after 1960, especially by 1965, we weren’t getting any new diners up here, whereas the diners down in New York, southern Connecticut, were continually being upgraded. Owners go back to the factories and have new diners built, generally bigger than what they had. Up here, you could call them conservative-style diners, because they were just very small. And they managed to hold on, still dwindling little by little over the years. We still have the greatest collection of early- to mid-20th century diners anywhere.

Q. Does interest in diners ebb and flow or are they destined to eventually become extinct?

A. It sort of goes in spurts. By the late ’70s, diners were really starting to die out, especially around here. But with the books that came out, there came a resurgence. Right now, you don’t see too much happening around here except there’s a chain called the 5 and Diner that started out in the southwest, Phoenix. In about 2006, a family from Massachusetts decided to buy a franchise of the 5 and Diner and they opened it in Worcester, where the history of diner-building started. And within two years, they bought the whole chain.

Q. Which local diners are your favorites?

A. The Capitol Diner in Lynn, which has been run by the same family since the late ’30s, and the Salem Diner. Even though its current owners are fairly new to the diner, they’ve been in the restaurant business for many years and they are continuing the tradition at the Salem Diner and have rejuvenated
that place.

Q. In your photo, you’re wearing a shirt from Tim’s Diner in Leominster. What’s the story?

A. It’s a great diner and one of my favorites, primarily open only in the mornings. It’s one of the diners I wish I lived closer to because I’d be there a lot more often. The family that’s been running it has been running it since the early ’50s. It was originally known as Roy’s Diner. They’re famous for their fish chowder. The locals can’t wait for Fridays. It goes right out the door.

Interviewed by Glenn Yoder