Celebrating 80 Years of Good Times at the Peanut Bar
By EDWARD A. TAGGERT
As landmarks go, it is not the architecture that sets Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar apart – it’s the people. Jimmie set the tone and his heirs have marched in time with his zest for mixing business with pleasure.
If the Pagoda is Reading’s No.1 most enduring tourist attraction, Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar certainly gets the attendance prize. To visit Reading without visiting the Peanut Bar is touring Manhattan and ignoring McSorley’s.
Cheers, one of TV’s most successful comedies, celebrated the friendly bar where almost everybody knows your name. In Reading, we pay homage to Jimmie Kramer’s Peanut Bar for the same reason.
Where else has a customer slapped a twenty on the crowded bar, loudly declaring, “give the house a drink,” and gotten $19.20 change. Jimmie would have enjoyed that moment in his bar’s history, but he was long gone by then.
Starting April 19, the bar and restaurant that is Penn Street’s only surviving tavern from the Prohibition era will begin its week-long 80th birthday celebration. Folks of all ages will be drawn together to celebrate the good times of their eras, to share tales of times never forgotten, and to toast the present.
It’s been 53 years since Jimmie died. Since then, the family business has grown and prospered by capitalizing on the founder’s philosophy of running a business almost like raising a family. Today, Harold Leifer looks back on all those years of continuing what his father-in-law started. Shortly after Jimmie’s death, Harold married Jimmie’s daughter with no intention of a major career change. But as he approaches 79, Harold and his son Michael are revving up another of their promotional fetes that have given the Peanut Bar its unique personality.
There are not many left who remember when the bar opened at its current location in 1933, and even fewer who witnessed Jimmie Kramer’s new venture into the tavern business in 1924. Prohibition was in full swing when he decided to get out of the freewheeling real estate business and take a plunge into the precarious hotel trade. For $19,000 ($10,000 mortgaged) he bought the Green Terrace Hotel just south of Wernersville on Feb. 1, 1924. But his ownership of the building, which now houses the Danken House at the foot of South Mountain, was short-lived. Almost seven months to the day after the purchase, he sold the property for $15,000, the new owner agreeing to pick up the mortgage. Having made about $5,000 on the sale, he immediately leased street-floor space in Reading’s Central House Hotel at 404 Penn Street. That was the birthplace of the Central Cafe, which quickly became one of Reading’s most popular midtown speakeasies.
Jimmie met Annie Ploxtin in Reading during the World War I years. Both were young immigrants from Russia. They were married and soon had two holiday babies: Edith, born on Memorial Day, 1918, then Beatrice, arriving Christmas Day 1921. Jimmie, Mom, Edie and Beatie each of them contributed to the family institution that eventually became the Peanut Bar.
In the early days, typical of Prohibition haunts, at the Central Cafe you didn’t sidle up to a bar and order a beer and a shot. You sat at a table when you weren’t dancing to live music provided by one of Reading’s numerous bands. Legal near beer, .02 percent alcohol, was served. But for those with stronger tastes there was a door with a round hole that you whispered into. If you were recognized by the inside guard the door was opened and you were ushered into a back room. Four-point Reading Brewery porter cost ten cents a glass. Shots of name brand liquors were in the quarter range. Local moonshine usually cost less. Then you returned to your table, coffee cup in hand to sip your cocktail. Such were the good times of the flapper era – naughty but nice.
The congenial Jimmie Kramer had a strong belief in goodwill. He enjoyed people, they enjoyed him, and he was happiest when his customers were happy. There were an estimated forty speakeasies on Penn Street, some with names, some with only sliding openings on alley doors. Some had members; some were little more than kitchens in row houses where neighbors paid to sip from a jug of corn liquor cooked at a Bern Township still.
Jimmie would take his young daughters along out in the countryside to refresh his moonshine stock. In the back seat of their car the girls would sit on the blanket-covered contraband on the ride back to Reading.
Edie recalled when the family lived on Greenwich Street; she was about 8 years old: “Daddy forgot to take the money along one morning when he went to the cafe. So Mom put me on the 4th Street trolley with a paper bag with about $400 in it. I delivered it and was so proud when Daddy praised me for helping him.”
But three years of happy prosperity at the Central Cafe was interrupted when federal Prohibition agents padlocked the place in 1927. That’s when Jimmie began a vagabond existence by moving his speakeasy frequently in the next six years. One of his stops was at South 4th and Spruce streets, the present location of the Silver Dollar Bar. Finally he bought 332 Penn Street, naming the tavern the Old Central Cafe. When real beer became legal in April 1933, Jimmie’s tap ran steady. It wasn’t until December, however, that the sale of liquor again became legal. During those months, however, state and federal agents backed off and rarely did they enforce the terminal law. Jimmie received a state license to sell all types of alcoholic beverages in March 1934. The Old Central Cafe by now was established as a friendly neighborhood bar and was building a steady clientele.
Against Jimmie’s wishes, Annie insisted on becoming the cafe’s cook. Known to the customers as Mom, she never accepted a paycheck, worked 12/13-hour days, and gained a reputation for her fried fish – haddock, always fresh, 10 cents for a delicious 4-ounce square.
Until the expansion years, the Old Central Cafe was mostly a drinking-man’s bar with food available. Today it is a 250-seat restaurant with the old bar still intact, overlooking the floor covered with peanut shells. It was 1935 when Jimmie decided to offer free peanuts to his customers, and the barroom floor on which to dispose of the shells. Who could forecast it would be a marketing masterpiece? The sight and sound of crackled casings have left indelible memories for thousands who have trod the boards and tiles of the Peanut Bar – and thus its name.
By 1951, Jimmie was having heart problems. Along came Harold Leifer, a Pottstown fellow courting Beatie. Jimmie passed on his goodwill philosophy of running a bar; Harold listened but didn’t realize how helpful it would be.
The last of several heart attacks, and Jimmie was dead at 56. This happened a week before Beatie and Harold planned to announce their engagement. Soon they were married and Harold gave up his job with the fast-growing Levitz Furniture in Pottstown. He moved into the Kramer apartment over the bar with his bride, promising to help run the taproom for six months – or a year. But Harold never regretted his decision to stay in the bar business and all the security and pleasure it gave his family and him. Although Beatie worked at City Hall, since the age of 20 she helped her mother in the kitchen or waitressed when she was needed. Edie married Abba Koenigsberg who joined the family business for a few years before he died of cancer in 1955 when their only child, Jeffrey, was 18 months old.
Harold developed a close relationship with Harry Fishman, president of Reading Brewing Company, who served as his confidante and advisor. And above all, Harold remembered Jimmie’s advice about customer service and taking a personal interest in his patrons. Realizing the promotional value of all those peanut shells on the floor, the family changed the business’s name to Jimmie Kramer’s The Peanut Bar, Inc. in 1958.
The 332 property was the average width of Penn Street storefronts but it ran all the way back to Cherry Street. At that south end of the tract was an abandoned pretzel factory. Harold had it demolished to provide parking for the bar.
With a real talent for marketing, Harold started to innovate. Specials: a sale on clams, 25 cents a dozen, 5,800 down the hatch in three days; bell-ringers for penny beers; a large schooner of free beer on your birthday. Later, membership cards to the Birthday Club were handed out. Today, almost 8,000 belong to the club. St. Patrick’s Day became a mob scene as the bar’s popularity grew. Then came more anniversary parties. Mardi Gras was another annual event. It was either expand or explode.
With the Reading Eagle Company located almost directly across Penn Street, the Old Central Cafe was a natural favorite for the newspaper people. In the 1950s and 1960s, Kramer’s attracted ever more politicians, lawyers, policemen, and federal agents in town to root out the racketeers. It became a place to meet the insiders, a place you might hear about something before it hit the headlines. Edie came in a few nights a week to close up at 2 a.m. – or later. If five pitchers of beer occupied the bar when closing time arrived, it might be 4 a.m. before the last pitcher was drained. Good times, good memories.
Harold thought about expanding some years before it happened. He became friendly with old Miss Levy at 330 Penn who continued to operate the Model Shoe Store after her father died. When she passed on, Harold made an offer to the estate lawyers, closing the deal with a phone call. Now the family owned that building and its contents. Harold recalls: “The only thing I regret to this day about that deal was that I wasn’t smart enough to keep the hundreds of pairs of ladies high-button shoes that were stored in the basement. When the place was cleaned out, so were the shoes. Think what they would be worth today.”
Included in the renovation of the two properties in 1972 was the modernization of the front of the two buildings to its present design with the 500-pound peanut as the bar’s emblem.
When the first anniversary party was held in 1954, Harold dated the beginning as 1934, according to the bar’s first liquor license. But old customers, who felt they should have a say in the matter, convinced him the Central Cafe really dated back to 1924. So future anniversaries were lengthened ten years. Each extravaganza surpassed the last, and the 80th promises still more surprises.
The Peanut Bar was the first drinking spot on Penn Street to install air conditioning. When television became popular, Harold resisted, fearing the talking box would slow down the talking heads. But he relented in 1952, installed a TV set with one stipulation – no sound. For important sports events he allowed the volume to be turned up. To this day, however, Harold believes bars lost a bit of their personality when the box crashed the party. The Peanut Bar has had its share of neighborhood characters: Storchie the moving man who dragged his kitchen refrigerator to the bedroom entrance when his wife complained once too often about no air conditioning; Charlie, the mechanical whiz who wired his dying father’s bed with an alert signal, almost electrocuted the old fellow; Paul, the dancing teacher who claimed he just missed out on being one of the Three Stooges. Know-it-all Paul was to The Peanut Bar what Cliff was to Cheers.
“Every bar has one,” says Harold. When the Reading Times crew invited Harold to join their late-night bowling league, it was the first time in years Harold took time off for a little group recreation.
Of the many celebrities who sauntered through the shells, Red Skelton left the fondest memories by signing every autograph asked of him. The old comedian stood to sign, shook each hand, made personal comments, and left them laughin’ for three hours. The list is long of theatrical folks, politicians, writers, and notables in many fields who made The Peanut Bar a must stop whenever they came to Reading. At one of the anniversary celebrations, Dick Peters, managing editor of the Times, arrived just in time for a penny beer bell ringer. Old Pete didn’t bother to count heads before fulfilling a lifetime wish:
“Give the house a drink,” he boomed and plunked down a twenty. The last of the big spenders smiled as he pocketed his change – $19.20
Until the addition of 330 Penn Street, the bar operated with a skeleton crew. The early bartender started at 7 a.m. Harold came in at 11 a.m. and usually worked till closing, the same hours Mom put in. Florence Care was a waitress for 25 years and Ethel Thornberg put in almost 20 years. Kitty Galls, a child of World War I who helped her dad remove bodies from the Hungary battlefield, once carried a full-grown man the length of the bar to prove she hadn’t lost it at 70. Kitty, in addition to waitressing, often did a late-night search through the peanut shells looking for dropped changed. When a frantic patron returned to the bar declaring the diamond from her ring had fallen among the shells, it was Kitty who searched and searched till she found it.
Annie died at 78 in 1968 without witnessing the drastic changes that were coming. Harold calls her “the real backbone of the business.” Sundays were the only respite from her heavy work schedule, but she never complained nor asked for monetary compensation. Mom just turned out good, simple, cheap meals in her small kitchen that satisfied the clientele for more than three decades.
With the addition in 1972, table space was now available for 100 diners. During that decade many of Penn Street’s principal stores and restaurants closed but the Peanut Bar continued to grow. The family’s young bloods, Mike Leifer, and Jeff Koenigsberg were showing interest in the business and Harold began laying the ground for their future as the next decade started. They were given more responsibilities and Jeff’s wife, Judy, headed the growing kitchen staff
And with them came a contemporary crowd. When the Italian grocery story at 328 Penn Street went up for sale in 1980, Harold bought the property. For five years the building was used for storage, then came renovations and the addition of a modern kitchen capable of handling the ever-growing traffic. That $300,000 project was completed in 1986. Additional tables have been added over the years until the present capacity is 225 seats. The menu became more upscale and the service force grew to a staff of 70. When Jeff and Judy left the business in 2001, Harold and his son added more supervisory help.
Always in downtown business groups, Harold has acquired a wide-ranging group of friends and acquaintances. The late Mayor Gene Shirk had lunch at the Peanut Bar four days a week for years. Since his death, Harold stays in touch with Gene’s widow, Annadora, just as he does with numerous other friends who have left the area.
Links to the Old Central Cafe are dwindling. Edie died in 2000, and Beatie passed away six months later. Health problems have slowed Harold, but not stopped him. On doctor’s orders he’s supposed to cut his workday to four hours. Sometimes he manages to squeeze it down to six or more. But the future of The Peanut Bar is in good hands.
“The Boss” is now Mike Leifer. That’s how Harold refers to his son who is president of Jimmie Kramer’s The Peanut Bar, Inc. His partner, Harold, retains the title of chief executive officer, but it’s Mike who runs the place. He attended Albright College after high school, intending to study medicine. He continued along that line when he left Albright to work with the Governor Mifflin Area Ambulance Service for several years. He also became active in the Reading Civic Opera, serving as assistant production manager and lighting director.
When he decided to work in the family business, he learned every phase of it. Later he returned to Albright, earning a bachelor’s degree in business. He graduated in 1998, summa cum laude. Harold credits his son with having the foresight to focus on the restaurant when laws governing alcohol consumption drastically changed the drinking and driving habits of so many. Also, to keep up with culinary advancements and restaurant management, Mike attended schools in Washington State, New York City, and Philadelphia.
In the past year alone, The Peanut Bar was rated the Best Small Business in Berks County by the local Chamber of Commerce. At a market place event, the Chamber also gave its People’s Choice of Hot Wings Award to The Peanut Bar. Best Business Lunch in an Hour honors were awarded to The Peanut Bar by Berks County Living magazine. And similar recognition has been the bar’s good fortune in recent years.
Support of civic, sports, and musical events have woven The Peanut Bar into the social fabric of Reading for many years. The annual Jazz Festival, fundraisers for Berks Community Television and Big Brothers, support of local professional sports teams, and collaborations with numerous other organizations – the essence of The Peanut Bar is the sideshows.
When The Peanut Bar begins its 80th Birthday Celebration on Monday April 19, surprises aplenty will please its customers: food and drink specials, unusual entertainment, special guests. . . The gala will continue all week, ending with a typical big blast on Saturday the 24th. Especially welcome will be all the rollicking good-time ghosts of years past – especially Jimmie’s.