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A scoop of history

Thursday, June 24, 1999

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Klavon's Pharmacy opened in 1920 and was a social fixture in the Strip District for 59 years. The pharmacist dispensed advice and kibitzing along with tonics, salves and prescriptions. The pharmacist's wife presided over the penny candy counter, the greeting cards and the soda fountain, not to mention the many romances that blossomed there.

  The cool neon sign is just a hint of the creamy pleasures within Klavon's at 28th and Penn in the Strip. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

Each summer James and Mary Klavon's eight young grandchildren came for vacations and were serious but gleeful helpers in the store. This American tableau continued until 1979 when the pharmacist passed away. The family closed the doors and sadly ended a chapter of an era.

For 20 years, the doors and windows of the old building at the corner of Penn Avenue and 28th Street were boarded up. Last year, the Klavons' oldest grandson, Ray Klavon, set into motion a lifelong dream. He blew away the dust, moved out the pharmacy counter, cleared the shelves and added the bare necessities for accommodating the '90s. When he reopened the doors to the newly named Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor in January of this year, he unsealed a time capsule.

Many old-timers remember. They were there in their budding youth, long, long ago.

One senior gentleman who stopped by recently pointed to the last booth. "When I was home on leave from The War," he said, "I used to come in here and call my girlfriend up in Lawrenceville. She'd rush over to meet me and we'd share sodas. Right there in that booth. We got married."

Two ladies of a certain age dropped in and played the "I remember" game. "I used to sit here on this second stool every day when I ate my lunch, remember? And you'd bring in your lunch, order a Coke and sit next to me on the third stool there, remember?" Her face softened as memories of their girlhood rushed back.

One old fellow walked through the door, looked around and burst into tears. Never said a word.

    If You Go:

A modest menu accompanies the ice cream. If you're hungry, get a sandwich, none priced higher than $3.75, or a bowl of soup for $2.35.

If you're having a party, you can even rent the shop.

And if you want a preview, rent "The Strip Show," the WQED video produced by Rick Sebak. It shows exactly how the pharmacy looked back in 1979.

Where: Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor, 28th Street (at Penn Avenue), in the Strip District

Parking: Private parking lot plus lots of street parking on 28th

Phone: 412-434-0451.

Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, noon to 8 p.m. Later hours on summer nights.


What'll you have?

"Everything you see in the store is original, from the 16-foot, all-marble soda fountain to the eight Art Deco chandeliers," says Klavon, now owner of the shop. "The ice cream freezers and syrup pumps are original and so is the inlaid terrazzo floor. Grandpap used to tell us that the shapes of the seats on the cast-iron fountain stools were modeled on a Coca-Cola bottle cap."

What you see is old, but everything you don't see is new. Klavon put in new wiring, plumbing, heating and air-conditioning. "Up until close, there wasn't even an ice machine in here," says Klavon.

Klavon, 50, is an elementary art teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, now in his 28th year. He teaches K-5 at Grandview elementary school. Like a true old-time owner, he lives over the store. And with his handlebar mustache and gentle demeanor, he's straight out of central casting, for all the world the icon of an ice cream parlor owner. Klavon knows what will please kids of all ages. It's ICE CREAM in capital letters.

If you don't like decisions, you'll have a problem when you order -- make that build -- a sundae. These are the choices you have to wade through: 12 kinds of Reinhold's ice cream, two frozen yogurts, two sugar-free ice creams, two sherbets, one sorbet, eight toppings, nine different sprinkles, three types of toasted nuts and five flavored whipped creams.

And just when is the last time you had a choice of flavored whipped creams? Klavon buys heavy whipping cream from Turner's Dairy, then fiddles with it by pumping Italian Torani brand syrups into the dispenser. Shake, shake, shake and the nozzle spritzes out a high fluffy cloud of whipped cream so luscious you could eat a dish of it all by itself. The daily whipped creams always include vanilla, chocolate and amaretto. But the other two are up for inspiration. Does cherry whipped cream on White House ice cream sound good? How about hazelnut whipped cream on toasted almond fudge?

  Ray Klavon, owner of Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor in the Strip, concocts an ice cream float at the original soda fountain in what was once his grandparent's pharmacy. (Joyce Mendelsohn, Post-Gazette)

The flavored syrups also add a fling to sodas, coffee and phosphates. Remember phosphates?

"We make real phosphates," says Klavon. "We add about three drops of phosphoric acid to add tang and cut the sweetness of the sodas. Phosphoric acid is harmless, despite the alarming name. It's one of the main ingredients in Coke."

Real is the operating philosophy. The Cherry Cokes are made real. Cherry syrup is drawn into a glass over ice, Coke syrup is pumped from the gun and sparkling soda is splashed over all. Milk shakes, malts and floats are made with real milk and real ice cream, not a space-age-thickened mixture. The Hamilton Beach triple milk shake machine was added to keep up with demand.

The Super Bowl Sundae is huge. The dish, big as a birdbath, holds eight scoops of ice cream cradled between bananas, with gooey toppings and nuts filling in the cracks, topped with flavored whipped creams, as many as you want, then heaped with jimmies, sprinkles and a few outrageous decorations. It might take your whole team to "kiss it goodbye."

Although Klavon has the original banana split dishes from the old days, they can't be used because they are too little. Bananas were smaller in the old days, says Klavon.

"Since I'm a teacher, I like to add a little prize to our ice cream dishes," says Klavon. So every ice cream concoction comes with a novelty on top.

Generously scooped ice cream cones are jauntily stuck with a mini pinwheel. Paper umbrellas are jabbed in the Tin Ceiling Sundaes, and gold coins tumble over the banana splits. Oars and paddles decorate the floats and hot pink palm trees with a monkey on a stick top the tropical sherbets.

Every child who licks a cone also gets a shiny new pencil. Repeater-eaters who already have a pencil boxful can choose an eraser shaped like a parrot instead.

A penny is still worth something at Klavon's. Get "Honest Weight" for a penny on the white lollipop-style scale. Buy a gum ball or pick out penny candy -- Tootsie Rolls, buttons on a strip, Mary Janes, even Sen-Sen.

Sit in one of the original four booths. Later, make a pretend phone call in one of the not-yet-working phone booths in back. Be sure to look up at the tops of the folding doors inside the booths to see old penciled phone numbers. If you call EMerson-4466, Carl just might answer.

A sound track underscores your memories. "I love the old tunes," says Klavon. "I play only CDs from the Thirties and Forties and the big band era."

Any old timers remember the 1936 flood? The flooding Allegheny River reached almost to the ceiling, and some of the flood damage can still be seen in the mirrors of the display cases and the wood veneer near the soda booths.

  Katie Rose Davidson of Squirrel Hill checks out the old-fashioned scale at Klavon's Ice Cream Parlor. (Joyce Mendelson, Post-Gazette)

Growing up in the store

The store is still a family affair. Although it is owned and run by Ray Klavon, he gets major pitch-in help from his brothers and sisters -- the other seven Klavon grandchildren -- Mary Ellen, Jane, Geraldine, Gloria, Jimmy, Audrey and Mark. Their mother, Martha, now 79, works the store every day and makes the homemade pizzelles. Nieces, nephews and spouses also take their turns.

"Not much has changed since the drugstore was first opened in 1920 by our grandparents, who were first-generation Polish on both sides," Klavon says. "My grandparents worked in the store every day of their lives except for the only vacation they ever took, which was to the 1939 World's Fair. The store was closed on Sundays, but Grandma and Grandpap were in here anyway to clean and catch up on the detail work."

The Klavons had one brush with the law. "It was during Prohibition and the store was selling a lot, really an awful lot, of cough syrup," Klavon says with a laugh. "The police wanted Grandpap to justify the quantity. Grandpap just told the police that all the soot and smoke from the mills and factories was bad for the lungs and made people cough." There was no further discussion on the subject.

"My grandparents had only one child, our father Raymond," Klavon says. "Dad grew up here in the Strip at 29th and Penn. He married the girl from practically next door, my Irish mother Martha, who grew up on 29th and Smallman."

The young couple moved into the house with the elder Klavons and had the first four kids. That's the way families did it in those days. Then the growing family moved next door and had another four kids.

"Our dad was now a doctor," Klavon says. "He needed a neighborhood for his general practice and the family needed more room, so we moved to the country. Bloomfield. After living in the city, my brother Jimmy wasn't used to trees and grass. One day he ran into the kitchen and screamed to my mother, 'AAGH. There's a huge gorilla out on the porch.' Turns out it was the first squirrel he'd ever seen."

During the summers, the eight Klavon kids would go on vacation to visit their grandparents. "We'd go two by two, and spend whole days in the drug store," Klavon says. "Grandma let us wait on customers, count change and stock the penny candy. We were all so little and slow, but we loved the work and customers would get a kick out of it. Customers were more patient in those days."

"When Grandpap died in 1979, we closed the doors. Just shut down, brought down the curtain," Klavon recalls. "Twenty years ago, the Strip District was an area in transition. Factories were moving out. We never had the heart to sell the store because it was so much a part of our family history. We played here, had our first jobs here."

It's also important to remember that Ray Klavon is an artist and knew the value of the Art Deco design. All through the inactive years he maintained the shop. When the pendulum began to swing in the '90s and the Strip District began to regain its old vibrancy, he decided to make a dream come true and re-open the store as an ice cream parlor.

"Grandpap never threw out anything," Klavon says. "We kept the seven display cases that you see today." Everything from old drug bottles and prescription pads to graduated cylinders and tonics are displayed there.

He'd love to tell you more stories if you ask.

Related Recipes:

Super Bowl Sundae

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