Their red building is easy to spot, not far from where Ocean Street leads onto Highway 17 in Santa Cruz, California. That’s only part of what has made Marianne’s Ice Cream tourists’ last stop on their way out of town and the local’s favorite family ice cream parlor for nearly 70 years. After serving several generations of customers, they’ve earned fervent loyalty. Some customers consider themselves aficionados of the distinctive flavors of the locally made ice cream and will gladly tell you which ones are their favorites.
A Blast from the Past
Marianne’s Ice Cream was founded back in 1947 by Tom and Lenore Becker. The building at 1020 Ocean Street was built that year, and the couple were the first tenants to occupy the space. Decades later, in the same location, the store still looks like it jumped out of the 1950s – frozen in time.
Founding the ice cream parlor was all about family for the Beckers, because they opened the storefront to send their two oldest children to college. The name also had family ties, too, because it was named after Tom and Lenore’s two daughters, Mary and Anne.
Tom Becker worked another job during the week and was home only on weekends. That left running the business mostly to Lenore. She made the ice cream and ran the storefront, which boasted 13 homemade flavors at the time. The Beckers owned Marianne’s for the next 11 years until they couldn’t keep up with the business any longer.
The Guy Who Created the Flavors: Sam Lieberman
In April of 1958, Sam Lieberman and his wife Dorothy bought the ice cream shop and continued to build the Marianne’s reputation as a Santa Cruz classic. At the time, the storefront was half the size it is today. The ice cream was produced in the back of the shop, with a small counter facing the front windows for customers to order from. Sam, excited by the endless possibilities of his newly acquired trade, began to experiment with new flavors. Throughout half a century of ownership, he came up with more than 250 recipes.
Lieberman claims to have been the first to dye bubblegum ice cream blue. He also had his hand in creating several of Marianne’s innovative and unique flavors, including “1020” Marianne’s street address number, Highway 17 Rocky Road and the Alice B Toklas Fudge Brownie. (Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein’s companion, was the woman who was first credited with including cannabis brownies in her cookbook back in 1954.) Sam was a huge fan of the 1968 film “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas,” in which the lead characters eat pot brownies and antics ensue.
One popular flavor inspiration came to Sam in the middle of the night. While in the midst of experimenting with ice cream flavors during the day, Sam woke up abruptly at 2 in the morning with the urge to make an ice cream with fudge and blackberry swirls. The next day he created the “2 am Truffle.”
Today, Marianne’s offers a whopping 75 flavors daily, all thanks to Sam.
With the production of ice cream growing, Lieberman expanded the storefront to include the property next door, a former beauty parlor. The newly acquired space became a larger production area for the ice cream until the early ’70s when Sam began to expand his wholesale accounts in the area. The production of the ice cream was then moved from the 1020 storefront to a plant near Harbor High School on the east side of Santa Cruz. The Marianne’s wholesale business continued to grow. After another shift to the neighboring town of Aptos, the Marianne’s ice cream plant moved to the west side of Santa Cruz off of Delaware Avenue, where it is today.
After the initial shift to offsite production, Lieberman found himself with more space in the storefront and decided to move the customer counter to the center of the shop. To this day, Marianne’s employees serve ice cream from behind the counter on the raised platform from which the ice cream was previously produced.
Home of the Dancing Cow
The “dancing cow” wallpaper that lines the shop’s interior was introduced in the shop around 1987. Lieberman had sold the shop but was unhappy with the new owners, because he felt they were neglecting the upkeep. After a year and a half, he bought the ice cream shop back and started a remodeling project to get it shipshape again. The cows were chosen by a group of women who were on the remodel team. The ’80s era cows were a big hit and generated enough positive feedback over the years that they have become part of Marianne’s iconic charm.
The wallpaper is not sold in stores anymore, so in a renovation of the storefront in December 2015, it had to be specially produced so they could patch up some of the wear and tear on the walls.
Carrying on a Tradition
The Liebermans owned Marianne’s Ice Cream for 54 years. When it came time to retire, Sam wanted to take the time and care to find the right successors. He chose Kelly Dillon and Charlie Wilcox. They bought Marianne’s Ice Cream in 2012 and have continued the longstanding tradition of quality and passion for ice cream.
Besides keeping up with Marianne’s standards of locally made products, the duo has expanded the business by opening a second location in the Seacliff neighborhood in Aptos, California. This location, like its older counterpart, shares a warm and inviting atmosphere that echoes the aesthetic of an old ice cream parlor.
Marianne’s Ice Cream is a Santa Cruz staple. The same family-oriented ethics that began the small business are still present, as are the same ice cream making methods and locally made products. It’s no wonder locals and tourists alike flock to the shop on warm days to enjoy the fun local flavors and maybe even dance with the cows.
We thank Stefanie Mistry who works at Marianne’s Ice Cream and wrote this story as part of a local history summer course at the University of California, Santa Cruz. We also thank Marianne’s Ice Cream owners, Kelly Dillon and Charlie Wilcox for supporting Stefanie in this project and providing her with information and historic photos.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Highway 17 Tour. Download the free app, start with an ice cream at Marianne’s Ice Cream, then head out on Highway 17 with your self-guided mobile tour leading the way!
- Personal communication with Charlie Wilcox, owner of Marianne’s Ice Cream, Santa Cruz, August 2016.