Elisabeth “Betty” Silvani, 72, died last week after a long bout with emphysema. She was Betty Schnackenberg to many, a longtime pillar of Schnackenberg’s old fashioned luncheonette at 1110 Washington St.
Silvani and her sister Dorothy Novak inherited the store from their parents and maintained the wartime-standard low prices that dated back to the 1950s.
Silvani was the daughter of German immigrants, Dora and Henry Schnackenberg, who opened the eatery back in 1931.
The restaurant, with its famous Coke sign out front, has been used as a location for movies including “The Basketball Diaries” with Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg.
In an oral history documented by the Hoboken Historical Museum in 2001, Silvani remembered riding in the dumbwaiter as a child and her father’s insistence that the patrons not dance to the jukebox since the store didn’t have a dancing license.
Silvani was a registered nurse who graduated from Rutgers before making the decision to continue the family business.
Her nephew Mark Novak spoke for the family last week.
“When my grandmother [Dora Schnackenberg] got sick, my aunt helped out, and my mother and I would do Saturdays,” he said. “It’s been a family affair since 1931.”
‘Scratch-offs’ and chocolate Coke
“It was never customers,” Novak said last week, “It was all friends.”
About his aunt’s relationship with customers, he said, “She would drink a cup of coffee with them and do scratch-offs. She would share in their trials and tribulations.”
He added, “It was a different temperament. No one was rushing out. They could stay here as long as they want. And then they would go out and get some more scratch-offs and come back.”
Silvani said in her 2001 interview, “Mostly they came in just to have a Coke. But never a plain Coke. You had a vanilla Coke, a chocolate Coke, a cherry Coke, a lemon Coke,” she said. “It was an unusual person who just had a plain Coke.”
Silvani was known as a hard-working, cheerful, but no-nonsense woman – the seriousness came from her parents’ Depression Era sensibilities.
A Secaucus resident, she was also very involved in the Secaucus Women’s Group in the 1970s and 1980s and taught baking and quilt making at that town’s Adult School.
Silvani also made quilts for Project Linus, a non-profit organization that provided blankets to sick children, for more than 10 years.
Missing the job
For some time, Silvani had been laid-up at her daughter’s home in Somers Point, N.J., where she eventually passed away. Apparently, she missed the daily routine she cherished for so long.
Novak said last week, “All she really wanted to do was to come back and do the things she always did. It was her life.”
In Somers Point, Silvani made hundreds of decorative bows on a bowing machine to adorn this year’s Easter candy, an annual tradition at Schnackenberg’s, and mailed them just to stay a part of the goings-on in the store.
“I knew in her mind she was happy to be helping,” her nephew said.
“It was an unusual person who just had a plain Coke.”
– Betty Silvani
Mark Novak is planning to keep the store open for as long as he can, in part for the memory of his aunt.
“I’ve been here my whole life,” he said. “I want to carry on the tradition that my grandparents started, and that my mother and my aunt continued.”
He said he took time to travel and explore the world for a while before committing to the Hoboken institution.
“It’s a relic of the way things were everywhere,” he said of the old-time parlor shop. “It’s conducive to being sociable. The people who like it here, come here for that reason, even just to listen.”
“You can come here, relax, have a grilled cheese and a milkshake,” he added. “And 10 years later, you’ll remember it.”
Family left behind
Silvani is survived by her two sons, Eric and Brian Silvani; two daughters, Joanne Kilroy and Valerie Ellsworth; a sister, Dorothy Novak; and four grandchildren, Kylie Silvani, Christopher Silvani, and Branwen and Matthew Ellsworth.
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