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by Burl Willes

The Elmwood Pharmacy and Soda Fountain at the corner of College Avenue and Russell Street is a treasured piece of living history. Designed and built by John A. Bischoff, little has changed since it opened on January 15, 1921. To enter this local business is to step back in time to an era when the local pharmacy was the neighborhood gathering spot.

Fred Beretta, the second proprietor, began his many years of ownership in 1923. He actually ran the fountain himself. It was a neighborhood gathering spot for young and old. Cherry cokes, malts, floats, sodas, lime rickeys, sandwiches, and soups were as popular then as they are today.

The fountain's current appearance is much as it was seventy-five years ago: wooden cupboards line the far corner, and behind their sliding glass doors lies a museum of antique colored glass ice cream dishes, coffee cups, and soda bottles. Scattered throughout are photographs of the friends and neighbors who have crowded the red-vinyl swivel stools for years. A bulbous fifties-style soda dispenser offering "ice-cold Coca-Cola" is surrounded by ornate glass bottles filled with the brightly colored syrups used to make the still popular ice cream sodas, phosphates, and egg creams. Competing for space on the shelves lining the large windows are homemade cakes and cookies piled high under domed platters.

Jeanette Hadley's first job was behind the counter while in high school in the 1940s. It was an easy commute as her family lived two blocks away on Hillegass Avenue. She and her husband-to-be Bob Gilmore were occasional customers of the fountain before they purchased Bolfing's Elmwood Hardware.

"Everyone liked Mr. Beretta and his family. He was an exceptionally nice man," Mrs. Gilmore recalled recently. "In fact, my sister married Mr. Beretta's son, Bud [Dr. Fred Beretta, Jr.]." Fred Beretta was known affectionately as Pop Beretta, and he had many friends who would do anything for him, including the impossible task of getting nylons for the female counter staff during World War II!

Elise White of Avenue Books enjoyed a Greek salad and iced tea at Ozzie's Soda Fountain recently and talked about her first visit to the Elmwood Pharmacy in 1951. "Mr. Beretta had a petition he was asking people to sign. It was a protest against the plan to build the 580 Freeway down Ashby." Once a quiet residential street, Ashby Avenue became a state highway in 1943 when 12 houses were removed just above College Avenue to create a cut-off for quicker access to the new Caldecott Tunnel. The widening of Ashby Avenue for the freeway was the daily topic at the counter. Fortunately, active Ashby residents and Elmwood merchants were successful in their protest and the plan was abandoned.

Charles Osborne bought the fountain in 1950. Soda fountains were still common at mid-century, but Ozzie's chatty friendliness and quiet generosity earned him loyal customers. As coffee houses and fast food enterprises took over in most neighborhoods, soda fountains started to disappear. By 1980 Ozzie's Fountain was the last remaining old-fashioned soda fountain in Berkeley. "Couples courted at the fountain. You'd be surprised how many people met at the counter and later married," Ozzie said recently. In a book of interviews by Penny Rosenwasser, Visionary Voices, Barbara Lubin recounts how Ozzie's played a role in national history. "From the time we moved to Berkeley in 1973 when Charlie [born with Down's Syndrome] was four years old, we lived around the corner from a soda fountain named Ozzie's. Every day for years, Charlie could walk around the corner to Ozzie's late in the afternoon, he'd sit down on the same stool every day, and he'd order the same thing: tuna, chips and a Coke. It was the only place he could go by himself at all in life, and it was two hours of respite that I had every day. Now any mother who has a retarded child, or any disabled child, will know that there's nothing more in life that you cherish than respite time.

"One day in July 1981 Charlie came home and said, 'Mom, Ozzie's has been sold.' I jumped up and ran around the corner to Ozzie, and said, 'What do you mean it's been sold?' He told me that a group of investors had bought the building."

"Prior to Barbara, others had asked and brought in material for signatures to keep me in place," Ozzie wrote us recently, "and I had refused. But when other businesses stated they were also in danger, I made the decision to make a fight of it. The real issue was the pharmacy and, after a meeting with attorney Myron Moskowitz, I was convinced. Marty Schiffenbauer was the intermediary, thus my longtime friendship with him. So I told Barbara 'go for it.'"

The next day Barbara Lubin set up a table in front of Ozzie's and called a neighborhood meeting at her house. For the next year Lubin worked with a crew of dedicated volunteers at the table and received enough signatures to put Measure I, the "Save Our Stores" initiative, on the ballot.

After a long day at the counter, Ozzie went out every night after work and walked the precinct to campaign for Measure I. His group of volunteers, especially Mark Pearson, were instrumental in getting the first neighborhood preservation ordinance passed by 60% of the voters. It lasted for six years until overruled by the State Senate Judiciary Committee. During that time, several merchants (Elmwood Hardware, Your Basic Bird, Lewin's Metaphysical Books, and others) were able to purchase their own buildings and thus guarantee their right to stay and the chance to sell their business.

One of those cheering the victory of Measure I was Mercilee Jenkins, a playwright now living in San Francisco. She recalls the circumstances that introduced her to Ozzie and the soda fountain: "I don't remember exactly what kind of day it was, but I was in a hurry. I had to get my application into graduate school. It was 1976, and the post office was still on the corner directly across from the Elmwood Pharmacy.

"Finally, it was my turn and I handed over my manila envelope only to find out I did not have money for the postage. There wasn't time to go back home to my commune, so I dashed across the street and went right up to the lunch counter and abruptly asked the nice looking man with graying hair if I could have a dollar. He said 'yes' and gave me the dollar without asking for any explanation. I ran back across the street and mailed my application. Then I came back to the lunch counter and introduced myself to Ozzie, and that began my thirty-three year association with a very special place.

"I became a regular at Ozzie's and was involved in the 'Save the Elmwood' campaign. I was there on the victory night when we passed the first commercial rent control initiative in the country. Eventually I had to move to San Francisco because the commute to San Francisco State where I taught was too difficult, but I still came to the counter.

"I always said I would write something about the lunch counter. It's sort of like the bar in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life without the booze. There is no such thing as a private conversation. Anyone is free to interrupt with an opinion. Advice is freely given. Someone is likely to ask you what you were getting at the pharmacy. To the staff behind the counter, Sally, Barbara, and Derk in my hey-day, you were known by the lunch you ordered. He's the egg salad on rye. She's the chicken pecan on whole wheat toast.

"One of my favorite regulars was the old man who ate his tuna sandwich while smoking a cigarette, and the elderly lady who arrived in a cab and took a sandwich home for dinner. Ozzie used to have a New Year's Eve party at the counter for older folks who wouldn't be going out to celebrate in the evening. You were just as likely to see the mayor or other important political figures in Berkeley. I made some acquaintances and a few friends and always enjoyed the conversations, whether they were about baseball, music, politics, teaching, writing, art, or relationships. I'm sure some of that dialogue ended up in my plays. I also had the chance to watch Charlie, Barbara Lubin's son with Down's Syndrome, grow up. He had a place to be somebody at the counter just like we all did. You had to be ready to be teased, and you might be just one of the two thousand or so people that Ozzie knew by name, but still you were part of something special.

"The counter consists of about a dozen or so stools, but it accomplishes more than a multi-million dollar community center in terms of bringing people together. When Ozzie decided to retire, I was worried that we would lose this venerable institution: the last real soda fountain in the East Bay. I was there on his last day as he gave out postcards and menus as mementos of our good times. Someone asked me to make a speech, but I don't remember a word of it. I'm happy to say that the lunch counter still exists with a new owner who is carrying on this tradition. My commune is long gone, burned down in the 1991 fire, but I still come to the counter as often as I can. Last time I was there I saw a sign that read 'Happy 30th Birthday, Charlie.' Sometimes you can go home again, even if it is just for a chicken sandwich and a chocolate soda."

from Tales from the Elmwood by Burl Willes
©2000, Berkeley Historical Society


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