At one point, when people dropped a coin in the wishing well, a thank-you light came on. When people put a hand into the sherbet cave, a free bowl of sherbet was sent up a conveyor. (The sugar rations of World War II ended that.) Until the health department stepped in, live canaries joined the sounds of the waterfall. An entertainment tax prompted an end to the organist; these days taped music runs from Brahms to Frank Sinatra to Mick Jagger.
Clifford Clinton intended to provide food for the soul as well as for the body, and the business has always had a spiritual component. That was served in part through the 2,338 issues of "Food for Thot," a pamphlet of poems, stories and announcements that was published for 63 years, until 1995. Diners can still find old ones displayed at Clifton's, with the Clifford Clinton quote at the top: " 'We pray our humble service be measured not by gold, but by the Golden Rule.' Suggestions and criticisms appreciated."
A new generation
Robert Clinton wasn't always sure he wanted to spend his life in the family business. After high school, he considered other careers before coming to work with his father. Later, he left briefly to work as a salesman. But for most of the last four decades, he has carried on. He knows many of his customers by name, and occasionally they see one another on the train downtown.
Twenty-nine years after meeting his wife at the Clifton's in Century City, he says, "we're still together; we still love each other."
Clifton's, open every day, aims to be as steadfast.
"Our concept hasn't changed. Our food hasn't changed much," Robert says.
Robert, who turns 55 this month, may be the last generation of his family to operate Clifton's. His daughters, young adults, are not interested. But he says, "Dad's 82. I figure I've got at least another 30 years."
And downtown is changing, with some theaters reviving and new galleries, new residents. With ads and fliers promoting "an after-dark adventure," the resolutely un-hip Clifton's hopes to add downtown's hipsters to its guest list. The bakery at the front is staying open until 10 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and during the monthly downtown art walk held on Thursdays.
"It won't cost much to try it," Robert said. "Maybe we'll make some new friends."
Heather Desurvire, who ventured in on a Thursday night with a friend, could be one of them.
"This is the best gallery I've seen all night," she said. "There are some spirits here for sure."