C.K. Farnsworth is a familiar face to anyone who has attended a vintage lifestyle event in the Los Angeles area over the past few years. Impeccably dressed in white and typically riding a bicycle outfitted with an ice box, Farnsworth’s vintage ice cream-slinging persona is a welcome sight to many a famished flapper. I can personally attest to how wonderful one of his ice cream sandwiches tastes on a hot summer day.
Farnsworth is now looking to open a brick-and-mortar soda fountain—formally C.K.Farnsworth’s Soda Fountain and Luncheonette—in Altadena, California, and he has created a Kickstarter campaign to help make this dream a reality. To help promote the cause, he gathered some friends together to recreate the silent film scene that first inspired his love for vintage soda fountains. Silent Film Quarterly recently gave Farnsworth a call to discuss his wonderful project, as well as to draw some parallels between silent films and soda fountains.
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SFQ: Can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to recreate a silent film to help promote your campaign?
Farnsworth: I actually saw a clip from Buster Keaton’s College  about 10 years ago. It was at a men’s shaving supply store, and they had this clip running on a video screen. I sat there one day, it was a Sunday and nobody was on the street, and I watched it over and over. I was fascinated by the stuff that this guy was doing. That’s really what inspired me to want to go into the ice cream business in the first place. After that I caught the bug, started researching everything I could about soda fountains from that era, and I stumbled across another film—a Harold Lloyd film called Speedy —which also has a soda jerk portrayed in it. After that I was hooked, there was no looking back.
Are there any other places like this in Los Angeles?
Not that I know of. The main difference, what I want to create, is not just the soda fountain—that’s a huge part of it. But if you do find a place like this, they’ll have high school kids with t-shirts and ball caps behind the counter serving you like it’s Dairy Queen. I really want to recreate the experience of what I saw in that film. What you would experience if you walked into a 1927 soda fountain. The soda jerk would be very confident, maybe a little cocky, he would be a consummate show person. He’d whip out a drink really fast and he’d “wow” everyone who was watching. I’ll have my staff trained in the lingo of the period, everyone gets to learn how to flip ice cream.
You’ve built up a following in Los Angeles, and it sounds like you have a lot of the logistics in place for your soda fountain. What will the money from the fundraiser be used towards?
I was very lucky to find a company in Chicago called American Soda Fountain, and they’ve been around since 1917. They’ve built soda fountains since then; they now refurbish equipment, restore antique equipment so it can be used today, bring it up to health code. I’ve worked with them already for a mobile soda fountain unit I’ve used on the Queen Mary and at the Egyptian Theatre. I’ve already contacted them and I’ll be working with them to outfit my soda fountain with that equipment. That’s what I need the funding for is to get this authentic equipment that looks right, works right, that creates the environment and allows me to do the job that I want to do the way they used to do it.
I feel as if there’s a parallel between silent films and soda fountains. With silent film, it’s a very different experience to sit in a theatre with a live organist and people on either side of you reacting in real time to the film than it is to watch something on an iPhone screen. Likewise, going to a soda fountain is very different from getting a soft-serve at the McDonald’s drive-thru. Do you feel there’s a similarity between these two experiences that have both been lost over time?
Absolutely, I agree whole-heartedly, and that’s really what I’m trying to capture is the experience. People walk in and it’s eye candy everywhere, it’s beautiful and very nostalgic, it’s very happy and positive and uplifting. You walk into an ice cream shop nowadays and they want to scoop your ice cream and move onto the next person. I’m looking to change that.
For more information about C.K. Farnsworth and or to support his soda fountain project, visit his Kickstarter here!