Franchina’s Grill and the Brake Band

Ralph Brake
Ralph Brake

Article Contributed by
Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist

Although there were many restaurants in old Brooklyn Square where patrons could get a good meal and enjoy a certain level of camaraderie, not all of these eateries provided entertainment. The Town Hall, of course, did with Dorothy Brooks at the piano, but there was a small bar and grill on the southeastern periphery of Brooklyn Square that was undoubtedly a popular spot for neighborhood locals as well as out-of-towners. I’m talking about Franchina’s Grill at 151 Foote Avenue between Allen and Harrison Streets that was owned and operated by Giuseppe Franchina and family from 1936-1954.

Much of the history of Franchina’s Grill lies in its entertainment, and therein lies the story of Ralph Brake, a banjo player who organized his own band that played at Franchina’s on weekends in the late 1930s. The original band members included Brake, who played a 17-fret Vega Whyte Laydie banjo, Andy Blashaw on violin, Hank Huntley on stand-up bass, Arvid Olson on accordion, and Stan Olson on piano.

Brake Band ad, 1939

Ron Brake, Ralph Brake’s son, recalls the times he was at the Grill with his big brother Jim when his father was the head-liner and his mother Mabel was waitressing. According to Ron, the Grill was quite large with two sets of stairs, a bar where one could get a five cent beer and free peanuts, and a stage with a piano. The Brake Band played music from the 1920s and 1930s, anything from popular ball room dances, such as the fox trot and waltzes, to Swedish and Polish polkas. Square dancing was also featured, and Franchina’s was large enough to accommodate 16 to 24 people, eight to a square. Callers over several years were Bob (last name unknown), Charles “Chub” Pierce, and Squire Burch.

The Brake Band was one of the local premier dance bands from the mid-1920s to 1944. In addition to playing at Franchina’s Grill, the band performed at Terrance Gardens in Frewsburg, the Gehreco Restaurant in Waterboro as well as the Bullfrog Hotel advertised as the “nite spot” in Jamestown in the 1940s, both the Busti and Kennedy Fire Halls, Hilliker’s, and the Celoron Restaurant.

Blue Room

The Brake Band brought a lot of joy to people during the Great Depression, but Ralph Brake needed other jobs to keep his family going. He worked at the Grandin Milling Co. on Allen Street, and when WW II broke out, he also worked at Swanson Machine on the corner of Allen and Tiffany Streets, stamping out canteens on a press for our troops overseas. One night in 1944, while working at the press, Ralph Brake lost his ability to play music. He failed to get his hand from under the press quickly enough, and in a moment, he lost the four fingers on his left hand. Ron recalls that his father tried to switch the strings on his banjo so that he could play the frets right-handed, but it just did not work.

However, when Ralph was visiting family in West Virginia, he discovered a way to make music again and could play a few songs on just two strings, not fast but “getting a beat out of it.” Ralph declared he would never play in public again, but the music in him just refused to die. One summer he was coaxed to play outside on the porch of his home on Willow Avenue, and Ron said that people stopped their cars just to listen to his dad play the banjo once again.

Franchina’s Grill shared in the extraordinary musical career of Ralph Brake and the Brake Band. Many had the pleasure of hearing Ralph Brake play music, but his was the privilege of making it.

My special thanks go to Ron Brake for the information and photos he supplied for this article. And for those of you who recall, Franchina’s became the Blue Room from the mid-1950s to 1987.