Marking 38 years of documenting Diners with my photographs

bypass-diner_11-29-1980
My first attempt at photographing a diner. In this case, the By-Pass Diner of Harrisburg, PA – November 29, 1980

It is still amazing to me that the photo featured above would ever snowball into hundreds if not thousands of photos over a span of 38 years (and that’s just counting the diner photos). Truth be told, this was not my first 35mm photo as I had taken other scenic & miscellaneous shots in the 3 or 4 months prior to this one.  But the above photo represents various forces that had finally coalesced into a 38 year personal crusade to document not only the American Diner, but other roadside buildings and businesses before they disappeared.

To this day I will tell you that I am not a technically trained photographer, I still basically employ a point and shoot kind of approach. But I can say that I am a camera geek and own many cameras. From a collection of Kodak Brownies and Instamatics, as well as five or six 35mm film cameras and close to a half dozen digital cameras. This also is curious because I can recall my feelings were quite ambivalent about photography back in the mid-to late 1970s.

These feelings toward photography started to change after meeting my long-time friend and travel companion, Steve Repucci. Our paths crossed toward the end of 1976 when I started a new job at Analogic Corporation, a company I had previously worked for briefly when I was still in High School in the Spring of 1970. We did not connect right away as we were in different departments. In fact I first became friendly with Steve’s brother Scott (who also was employed there) before I eventually socialized with Steve.

Steve and I had bonded a little at work thru passing conversations in the coming months of 1977 into early 1978. This bond was sealed further during an impromptu  camping trip to Lake George, NY on June 24, 1978. We found out that we were kindred spirits who enjoyed taking road trips, etc. I learned that Steve had been an avid photographer using 35mm cameras since his time in the U.S. Air Force during the early 1970s. By 1980, I had seen quite a lot of his photographs and was totally inspired to get into it myself.

So by the Summer of 1980 I had heard that a friend was selling a used 35mm Mamiya 1000 DTL, (which coincidentally was Steve Repucci’s first 35mm camera). I actually went and bought the camera with my older brother Steve and we shared it for about 1/2 a year before I sold him my half and got a new camera. The Mamiya was the camera I used for all my diner photos from November 29, 1980 into the Spring of 1981 when I got the first of two Chinon 35mm cameras. I later graduated to owning two Pentax 35mm cameras, the last one was my go-to camera until 2008.

Mamiya-1000-DTL
A Mamiya 1000DTL similar to my first 35mm camera .

LAC-1981
A photo of yours truly standing in Medford Square (Medford, Mass.)
Possibly the only photo showing me with the Mamiya 1000 DTL 35mm SLR.
(1981 Photo by Joe Fortunato)

Since that first photo of the By-Pass Diner, I have gone on to document over 860 diners, most are factory-built classic diners while others were home-made or on-site establishments. I have photographed some old neon signs and various roadside buildings as well.

I started to experiment with digital photography circa 2000 or so while continuing with film cameras. Gradually I was taking more and more digital shots for a few years until the last roll of film came out of the Pentax with photos from 2005 thru 2008. I realized that it was not worth using the film cameras anymore and decided to make the switch totally when I bought the Pentax K200 Digital SLR at that point.

This brings me to 2018 and I now carry 3 digital cameras in my bag. The Pentax K200 DSLR, a Nikon Coolpix P7800 and the newest – a Olympus E-PL29. This last one is a brand-new retro version of an Olympus PEN model that was very popular for years, starting in 1959. I have yet to shoot any diners with this one as I have had a skin ulcer on my left foot since the end of July which has kept me in a cast. When the foot is healed I hope to get back out and take some photos.

Also, in the last 2 years or so I have been diligently scanning all of my 35mm slides and prints to create a digital archive. I have completed the slides and am now slogging thru the prints. The prints take more time to scan, clean and enhance. It helps to have patience to do this because it is very gratifying to see the finished image. This process has made me appreciate the early diner photos even more. I am pleasantly surprised at how decent a lot of these shots actually are. The following images are some of my early favorites….

Collin's-Diner-3
Collin’s Diner – Canaan, Connecticut
Photo from October 3, 1982

Hightstown-Diner-2a
Hightstown Diner – Hightstown, New Jersey
Photo from May 31, 1982

Norm's-Diner-2
Norm’s Diner – Groton, Connecticut
Photo from September 18, 1982

Ruby's-Silver-Diner-3
Ruby’s Silver Diner – Schenectady, New York
Photo from October 2, 1982

Salem-Diner-5
Salem Diner – Salem, Massachusetts
Photo from May, 1982

Tom-Sawyer-Diner-1
Tom Sawyer Diner – Allentown, Pennsylvania
Photo from February 26, 1982

University reopens the Salem Diner

Salem-Diner-5a_6-29-13
The Salem Diner, July 29, 2013 photo by Larry Cultrera

Salem State University reopened the Salem Diner in mid-January. It is being operated by the schools food service provider, Chartwells. The management of Chartwells stated that this is the first “Diner” they have attempted to run. I had gotten a heads-up from my friend Kristen Nyberg (North Shore Dish blog) who visited the diner on opening day with Diane Wolf who is the co-owner with her husband Lee of The Lobster Shanty in downtown Salem.

Kristen told me things were kind of rough that first day, service was friendly but over-all very slow. The food was unremarkable as well which sounded like a let-down from the quality of food and service under the previous owners, George & Zoe Elefteriadis. The Elefteriadis’ sold the diner to the University back at the beginning of July and the diner has been closed until now.  Kristen basically said that people may want to give the place a month or so to get into the rhythm of serving people in a diner-like environment.

We stopped by on January 18th to check it out ourselves and knew what to expect from Kristen’s info. I was happy to see that the school spent some money to replace exterior and interior lighting. The interior was freshened up with a thorough cleaning and the woodwork was re-stained as well. We met with our old friend Saadia Zraizaa who is a veteran of the local diner scene. She was hired as one of the waitresses by Chartwells and certainly a plus for the diner. She introduced us to Jim, one of the managers who was very cordial to us as well.

The service was a little rocky as we observed that the cooks, who may have been experienced, were not up to the level of short-order service that a good diner should have, in my opinion. They might have been better off having Saadia doing the cooking as she knows what the rhythm should be having actually operated her own place, the Medford Square Diner for a short period a couple of years ago.

We will get back to the diner soon and hope that things have smoothed out with the new management and crew as I really want to see this diner survive and thrive!

Follow-up on the Salem Diner

Well, we visited the Salem Diner on Saturday for our usual breakfast between 5:30 and 6:15 AM. It was doing a great business even at that early hour. I went back to the kitchen to speak with owner George Elefteriadis about the sale of the diner to Salem State University. He said that he thought the diner would be in good hands as far as remaining intact and preserved. He and his lovely wife Zoe are retiring after many years of serving great food to many loyal customers in quite a few different restaurants, the last five and a half years here at the Salem Diner. I have stated this before… it is my firm belief that the Elefteriadis’ brought this diner back to life when they bought it. They turned it around from the slide it had been on, business-wise for a good 6 years or more prior to their purchase of this historic Sterling Streamliner. George thanked me again for being an enthusiastic supporter of their efforts and I said that it was my pleasure as Denise and I really and truly enjoyed eating there under their ownership.

Salem-Diner-1_6-29-13
Salem Diner, Saturday around 6:00 AM, June 29, 2013 photo by Larry Cultrera

Salem-Diner-2_6-29-13
Salem Diner, Saturday around 6:00 AM, June 29, 2013 photo by Larry Cultrera

Salem-Diner-3_6-29-13
Salem Diner, Saturday around 6:00 AM, June 29, 2013 photo by Larry Cultrera

George also told me the diner was physically closing on July 3rd (today). I was a little surprised it was happening so fast and made plans to come back within a few hours to say goodbye to Zoe. So around 9:00 AM we were back for coffee and a last goodbye to Zoe, Janie and Jose. I had hoped to get a photo of the whole crew but they were swamped and there just was not an opportunity to get the shot. I did get their last copy of my book “Classic Diners of Massachusetts” (they had sold a number of them). I also got the cardboard display they had gotten from The History Press. This will come in handy when I attend the New England Authors Expo later this month in Danvers, Mass. I will be one of two authors  attending this event occupying the table for our publisher, The History Press.

Salem-Diner-4_6-29-13
Salem Diner around 9:00 AM, June 29, 2013 photo by Larry Cultrera

Salem-Diner-5a_6-29-13
Salem Diner around 9:00 AM, June 29, 2013 photo by Larry Cultrera

I am a little sad that we will not be able to have a meal here, at least for the near future. I was a little concerned about the University’s possible plans for the diner and wrote an email addressed to both Patricia Meservey, the President of the University and Karen Cady, the Senior Director for University Relations. I introduced myself and told them of my interest and almost 33 years of documenting diners as well as about my book and this blog. I also wanted to express my concerns for the future of the diner. I mentioned how this was only one of two Sterling Streamliners left operating that are still in existence and how I would hate to see anything bad happen to it. I told them that I knew the article in the Salem News stated that the University is committed to preserving the diner and that it hopefully will reopen sometime in the future and that I would like to hear from them on this subject and possibly be kept informed on any developments in the diner’s future and continued existence. I got this following response from Ms Cady…….

Mr. Cultrera,

Many thanks for reaching out to us with this very interesting information. It is good to know of your interest in Classic Diners – and yes, the Salem Diner is certainly a favorite of so many of us on the North Shore. We have learned quite a bit of history of the Salem Diner via the Massachusetts Historical Commission and hope to learn even more through resources such as the one you have referenced.

I want to reaffirm that Salem State is committed to the protection of this unique property. The Diner is such an important piece of the historical fabric of Salem, and the university has made it a priority to preserve it for future generations to enjoy. I will keep you apprised of any future updates on the property – as indicated in the Salem News article, no concrete decisions have been made…except for the commitment of preservation.

Thank you again for contacting me.

Karen Cady

So, with that I want to wish both George and Zoe Elefteriadis well in their upcoming retirement and hope to keep in touch with them. I will post any further developments on the Salem Diner and its future here whenever I know anything!

Salem Diner being sold to University

Salem-2_4-5-09
Salem Diner, April 5, 2009 photo by Larry Cultrera

I was totally surprised to read that George and Zoe Elefteriadis, owner/operators of the Salem Diner of Salem . Mass. have been made an offer they could not refuse. Neighboring Salem State University has just announced they are buying the diner from the Elefteriadis’ for $600,000. Denise and I are fairly regular customers and try to get there at least once every 2 weeks or more. Anyway, here is an article from the Salem News about the pending sale……

http://m.salemnews.com/TSN/db_/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=s4kWyVVr&full=true#display

I will attempt to find out more this Saturday when we head up for breakfast bright and early.