16 February 2010

The Gypsy Tea Kettle


I recently posted an old photo of an Elpine Drinks stand in Times Square. Above the stand, on the second floor, one reader noted a business called the Gypsy Tea Kettle, and wondered what its story might be. So I looked into it.

Weirdly enough, Gypsy Tea Kettle was the name of a chain of restaurant/tea-leaves-reading joints. It's strange to think of that sort of dicey line taking on a corporate structure. There were several in Manhattan, including one which began in 1931 on the second floor at the building at the northeast corner 42nd and Fifth Avenue, right near the Public Library. The various "readers" would tell your fortune by looking at the leaves at the bottom of your tea cup. ("It's all in the tea leaves.") Yet these were primary dining places. People ate there, drank their tea, and then got their fortune told at the end. A bizarre gimmick. And kinda fun-sounding.

There was also one at Broadway and 39th, northeast corner, begun in 1930, and at Fifth Avenue and 38th Street. And, of course the one at W. 50th Street and Broadway found in the picture.

In 1971, there was some trouble when Gypsy Tea Kettle Inc. was named a co-defendant in a City case against the Radio Centre Hotel on E. 50th. The City contended that illegal activities, including prostitution, were going on on the premises.

The chain hung around, after a fashion, into the 1990s. A 1995 article in the New York Times describes a visit to a Gypsy Tea Kettle on Lex and 56th, near Bloomingdale's. Apparently the dining aspect of the experience had faded away. The place still looked like a lunch counter, but there was no food. You paid $10 for a 15-minute reading to a man behind a glass case. He wrote out a restaurant check assigning you to a psychic, who was sitting inside a green vinyl booth. There were six booths. Each psychic told your fortune using ordinary cards. No one read tea leaves anymore.

There was a scene in the stage musical "42nd Street" where some chorines gathered at a Gypsy Tea Kettle.

3 comments:

Beth in the Bronx said...

Thanks Brooks! That is weird. I imagine stopping for a "tea snack" might be like getting a muffin at Starbucks now. PS: Read your blog every day.

Kathy Eimers Chandler said...

I have a nice Gypsy Tea Kettle memory. While shopping in NYC on my honeymoon in 2000, I realized with horror my purse was no longer on my shoulder. After calling all around where we'd been that day with no luck, I called my home phone in Phoenix on the off chance someone had left a message. And there, on my answering machine, was a message from a lady with a heavy New York accent, saying she didn't know if this could be the right number, but that she'd found a purse lying in her entryway and it had my name and number in it. She said she was from the Gypsy Tea Kettle near Bloomingdale's in NYC, in case I got this message. So of course we hurried over there and met the tough, but nice, lady who'd left the message. Sure enough, there was my purse, minus some credit cards, but still with my driver's license and, best of all, the hankie I'd worn tucked into my sleeve during our wedding as "something new." It was a lovely, unexpected ending to a momentarily bad story! We tried to give her a tip, but she wouldn't take it. The Gypsy Tea Kettle will always have a fond place in my heart. :-)

Scarlet Gypsy said...

I frequently visted the Gypsy Tea Kettle on 151 West 57th Street. My friend and I would have a sandwich and then the have our cards or tea leaves read. Very wonderful memories! I've been searching the web for a photo of the old building...Gypsy Tea Kettle was on the second floor. I can still visualize the sign.The building has since been torn down to make way for something new.