Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Real Scoop on Sealey's Ice Cream / Sealey's Lunch

Sealey's logo Sealey's Lunch, which closed a year ago this month after many years on Cypress Street, was a neighborhood institution beloved by generations of area residents and students and staff at Brookline High School.

News stories at the time of the closing followed local lore in reporting that Sealey's had been around for just under a century, founded as Sealey's Ice Cream by a man named Sealey in 1914.

I set out to learn more. Research showed that, in fact, there never was a Mr. Sealey and that the history of the little luncheonette didn't go back quite as far as the stories assumed.

But the real story of Sealey's — uncovered via town records, newspaper accounts, and interviews with the children and grandchildren of early owners — reveals a colorful past and one basic truth: the characteristics that made Sealey's a local institution up until the end — a warm atmosphere and proprietors who knew and cared about their customers — persisted across seven decades and several changes of ownership.

Saying Goodbye
It was big news locally when Sophie and Tony Vessiropoulos announced the closing of Sealey's Lunch, on Cypress Street just off Route 9, at the end of March 2013.  Longtime customers turned up to say goodbye. The Tab, the Globe, and WCVB-TV all covered the news — in words, pictures, and video. Social media carried fond farewells.

Montage of stories about Sealey's

Why would the departure of a small local eatery garner so much attention?

It says something, of course, about the importance of local institutions to community and sense of place. It says something, as well, about local history: for even in a town with as rich and varied a past as Brookline's it's the little stories that really tell it like it was for the people who lived here.

But what was the history of Sealey's? It took a good bit of digging, but here is some of what I found.

Sealey's Beginnings
1919 atlas map

Source: WardMaps LLC

Sealey's building in 2013
The brick commercial building at Boylston and Cypress Streets as seen in a 1919 atlas and as it looked last year.

The block of stores that rounds the southwest corner of Boylston and Cypress Streets was built between 1913 and 1914. The first occupant of 147 Cypress, the storefront that would become Sealey's, was the Boylston Bakery, run by a Bavarian immigrant named Jacob Umscheid.
Help wanted ads for Boylston Bakery
Boston Globe help wanted ads for Boylston Bakery, 1920 & 1921

Lloyd Seaman
Lloyd Seaman before he opened
Sealey's Ice Cream in Brookline
(Photo courtesy of Vicky Hubbard)
Sealey's—then known as Sealey's Ice Cream—first occupied the space
in 1936. The founders were Lloyd and Rhoda Seaman.

Lloyd Seaman was a former stunt pilot, one of many young men who took up flying in the wake of Charles Lindbergh's historic 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. He ran an air taxi service between Boston Airport (later Logan Airport) and the Islands until his plane, and his livelihood, were lost in an accident.

His wife Rhoda, the former Rhoda Page, was the daughter of the longtime gardener of the Charles Sprague Sargent estate in Brookline and a 1928 graduate of Brookline High School.

After the loss of his plane, Seaman worked for a time at the Neapolitan Ice Cream factory in Cambridge before opening Sealey's in Brookline in June 1936.

The opening included an offer of a free sherbet cone for every child accompanied by an adult. It was announced with an article and an advertisement in the Brookline Citizen.
1936 Sealey's ad
Advertisement in the June 26, 1936 Brookline Citizen
The Citizen described the "unique arrangements" at the new ice cream specialty shop.

Customers may watch all the stages of preparation, which includes the use of cream high in butter fat content, and the use of fresh fruit flavors in season. The black and white motif of the booths and tables is followed throughout the shop and gives an air of cleanliness to the whole store.

The Citizen also noted that Rhoda Seaman was in charge of booth and counter service and that "Every package of this distinctive ice cream that is sent out is packed in an insulated bag to insure proper condition at the time of serving."

Rhoda and Lloyd Seaman
Rhoda and Lloyd Seaman in their flying days (Photo courtesy of Vicky Hubbard)

But if there was no Mr. Sealey where did the name Sealey’s come from? The Seamans’ daughter, Vicky Hubbard, solved the mystery. Her father, she told me, made up the name as a combination of his own last name and that of his best friend Fred Beardsley.

Lloyd Seaman and Fred Beardsley
Lloyd Seaman, on the right in the photo at left, and his friend Fred Beardsley in later years. A combination of their last names gave Sealey's Ice Cream, later Sealey's Lunch, its name.
(Photo courtesy of Vicky Hubbard)

Sealey's stayed under the proprietorship of the Seamans for only a short time. Not long after founding the store Lloyd Seaman, perhaps driven by the same restless spirit with which he took to the air, left Brookline and Sealey's for Panama. His family followed soon after, and for a dozen years the Seamans made and served ice cream for the crews of thousands of ships passing through the Canal Zone.

Italian Ice Cream
The second owner of Sealey's, starting in 1937, was an Italian immigrant named James (born Giacomo) Malerbi. Malerbi was the youngest of 13 children. In March 1915, four months before his 17th birthday and two months before Italy entered the First World War, his family sent him to the United States to avoid the draft.

Malerbi lived at first with his sister Orlinda and her husband Dante Baldi in Boston. Baldi was an ice cream maker, working for the C.C. Whittemore catering company in Boston. Malerbi, too, went into the ice cream business and worked for a time for the same Neapolitan Ice Cream factory in Cambridge where Lloyd Seaman had worked. It’s uncertain if they knew each other, but Malerbi took over Sealey’s after Seaman left for Panama. He owned the store for more than 20 years.

Sealey's ad, 1937
Advertisement (right) in the Brookline Citizen, July 1937. The “Former C.C. Whittemore Foreman” referred to was most likely James Malerbi’s brother-in-law, Dante Baldi.

James Malerbi’s grandson Robert Malerbi lived with his family at 126 Cypress Street, across Boylston Street, in the 1950s. He remembers his grandfather running across the street to the shop to bring back ice cream for dessert after family dinners. But most of what he knows about Sealey’s comes from stories his father Robert would tell.

My father said they did a tremendous business with the wealthy people making ice cream cakes. He also used to tell stories about high school kids hanging out at the store during the war. They couldn’t always make ice cream during the war [because of shortages], but the kids would hang out there anyway.

A Neighborhood Institution
Murivian ad for Sealey's
Sealey’s regularly took out ads in the Murivian, the Brookline High School yearbook, including this one from the 1940s
James Malerbi sold the store in 1958. The new owners were Louis and Rose Tanzi. The Tanzis had owned the Mobil station on the northeast corner of Cypress and Boylston Streets — where Audy Mobil is today — before moving across the street and into a very different kind of business.

The former owner gave them a hand. “Mr. Malerbi worked with my parents when they first took over,” says Carol Ross, the Tanzis’ daughter. “He stayed on with them to help for a while. He taught my father how to make ice cream.”

Under her parents’ stewardship Sealey’s was open for breakfast and lunch, in addition to serving homemade ice cream. Two of her aunts also worked at the store, says Ross, and she herself worked there each summer.

In those days, a lot of the big homes around there were rooming houses, [she recalls]. There were people who came in and had breakfast every morning.

Some of them, she noted, asked if they could pay on Friday, which was payday, and her father said “Sure” and didn’t even write down an amount. (A customer told a similar story about the Vessiropoulos family when Sealey’s closed last year.)

The last big group he got was the high school kids getting out of school. He would close around 4 in the afternoon.

Rose & Louis Tanzi
Sealey’s was also popular with town workers. “I remember many a day,” says Ross, “when there were snowstorms and my father had a cot” — the Tanzis lived in Jamaica Plain — “and he would sleep there and open early for the people who worked all night clearing snow.”

“My parents loved Brookline. A good part of their lives focused on Brookline. They made many friendships that lasted long after they left.”

Rose & Louis Tanzi (above) with the cake presented to them at a farewell party thrown by customers 
after their retirement from Sealey’s in 1970 (Photo courtesy of Carol Ross)

Renamed Sealeys Lunch, the business passed through several more owners between the Tanzis and the Vessiropoulos family, the last owners. It’s gone now, but holds a special place in local memory and in the history of the neighborhood it served for more than 75 years.

Sealey's Goodbye Logo

(This article originally appeared in the members' newsletter of the Brookline Historical Society)