Wednesday, August 15, 2012

MELS' DRIVE-IN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS DINER - PART 2

Another cool pic of the first Mels drive-in 2 days before the grand-opening on December 23, 1947.
 PREFACE
I received a lot of positve feedback on my previous post, MELS DRIVE-IN PT. 1.  I even received a praiseful e-mail from Steven Weiss, the son of the co-proprietor of the first Mels franchise, Mel Weiss. Steve along with Donald Wagstaff brought back the Mels drive-in restaurants in the mid-1980s with the initial diner on Lombard Street in San Francisco.  It was very flattering to receive positive recognition from him.  He also mentioned that this fall Mels will be on the Food Network with Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri in a segment that was filmed at Mels drive-in 8585 Sunset Blvd.  W. Hollywood. So, look for it.

Before, we dig into the meat of this post I'd like to preface it with two things. First, if you haven't read Part 1 of this article, I suggest you turn your happy ass around and do that before digging into Part 2. Second, I want to present some clarification and a bit of an introduction to what is sort of a mini, San Francisco, Bay Area history lesson. When we think about and discuss America in the 1950s we tend to associate the era as a pleasant time when things were much simpler.  The era is often connected with cultural teenage icons like the greaser, hot-rod cars, and rock and roll records.  Yes, indeed they were great times.  However, when one takes off the rose colored glasses it is clear that those wonderful years were not so wonderful for everyone. If you were African American,
chances are you faced bigotry and discrimination from a society that was ruled by those who were predominantly male and pale. Your chances of finding a good job were extremely thin even though the African American freedom struggle was working hard to revolutionize American race relations long before the '50s were out.  So, as we explore this second chapter of MELS DRIVE-IN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS DINER it only makes sense to discuss how the restaurant was affected by some of the historical events that took place during the civil rights movement of the early '60s. The latter part of this post looks at the restaurant's starring role in American Graffiti and the eventual demise of the original Mels. Nuff said. Start reading.

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A patrol car cruises past Mels (Bottom left). This scenario would be replicated 15 yrs later in American Graffiti
THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN'
In the early 1960s, Mels drive-in was a place of controversy as it became the location for the first mass sit-in of the San Francisco Bay Area civil rights movement. This distinction is one that Mels owners would probably rather forget. In the Fall of 1963, a group of young people calling themselves the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination first picketed and then organized a sit-in at all three of the Mels-drive ins in San Francisco. Many of these people were students at Cal Berkeley or S.F. State who were protesting the fact that management did not hire Black people to work in "visible capacities" such as carhops, waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and cashiers.  The picket lines began to first appear in October as activists carried signs with slogans such as, "Where are the Negro Waitresses?" and "Don't Drive-in, Drive-out Segregation."  Other picketers made reference to Harold Dobbs' job discrimination position. By the first weekend of November the protest had evolved into the first mass sit-in of the Bay Area civil rights movement. Although new to many, it was a classic form of non-violent disruption; all the actions were legal but they significantly interfered with the drive-in's ability to conduct business. Mels was not the only Bay Area establishment to be affected by mass demonstrations. A month or so earlier demonstrations at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco had begun due to its discrimination against black people and after the demonstrations at Mels, Lucky's supermarkets became the target of large protests for similar reasons.
"One cup of coffee and 6 straws, please!" Protesters occupied all the seats in Mels Drive-in and refused to order. Over one hundred were arrested.

Mels co-owner, Harold Dobbs was a San Francisco Supervisor running for mayor of San Francisco at the time and some believe that the demonstrations were politically motivated because the protesters used the weekend before the mayoral election to demonstrate.   In addition, the local newspapers noted that protesters chose to picket in front of Dobb's home but not the home of co-owner, Mel Weiss. Organizers of the demonstration denied any political motivation. It is not clear as to what effect the protesters had on his campaign but, unfortunately, for Dobbs, he did not win the election; John Shelly did. One week later, management settled their dispute with the civil rights protesters by agreeing to hire and train Black employees in "up front" positions.  Some Black carhops and bartenders were hired immediately. The agreement was reached just 5 minutes before 200 protesters had planned to picket and stage a sit-in at a Mel's Drive-in located at 2300 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley.   So, even though their discriminatory hiring practices initially echoed a negative mindset typical of the 1950s, Mels was, conversely, one of the first establishments to improve their policies by making them more fair to African Americans which reflected the awareness and open-mindedness that the civil rights movement helped to usher in.  They, in a sense, were a shiny brass hinge on the door that opened to the next generation.  
 

 At the bottom of this page I've posted a clip from the documentary, Decision in the Streets (1965) by Harvey Richards which has some historic footage from the 1963 protest that took place in front of the Mel's Drive-in located on Geary Street.

A typical afternoon crowd at Mels.  circa 1964.  (Photo by: Alan J. Canterbury)
A lthough civil rights protests at Mels had briefly threatened business, the jeopardy it had faced was miniscule compared to what the future held for the carhop restaurants. Mels continued to reign without conflicts or major competition for almost 10 years but fast-food hamburger chains eventually squeezed out their service. McDonald's was the biggest culprit.  With it's limited menu and a self-service ordering system McDonalds had established itself as the undisputed leader of the fast food industry. By 1970 The McDonalds empire consisted of 1,500 franchised outlets and was quickly growing.
Mels Drive-Ins with carhop service were pushed out of business by fast-food chains such as McDonalds. (photo 1962)

A DRIVE-IN BY ANY OTHER NAME...

By 1972 Weiss and Dobbs had sold the Mels franchise to the Foster's chain.  It was during this year that the location manager for American Graffiti, Nancy Giebink was scounting a location for a building to represent a drive-in called Burger City in the film.  The 140 S. Van Ness location came to her attention and arrangements were made through Dennis Kay, Director of Operations for Foster's West to lease the restaurant for the film.

New paint and lights helped make the drive-in movie worthy.
Graffiti Co-Producer, Gary Kurtz recalls the drive-in being rundown when they first leased it. "It was in terrible shape," he said. "We had to repair the neon in the signs and repair the light bulbs and paint it. When [cinematographer,] Haskell [Wexler,] saw it for the first time, he decided, since we were going to do so much shooting there, to replace the light bulbs with photofloods."  In addition, the neon letters that spelled COCKTAILS on the large street sign (under the arrow), were replaced with the words BURGER CITY to match the burger shack that was described in the American Graffiti script. Ironically, in the film, the restaurant is always referred to as "Burger City."  No one ever calls it "Mels!"  The name, "Burger City" is a twist on the popular 1950's slang term, "Fat City" meaning a great thing or place.

Filming at Mels began on Monday July 10, 1972 and continued for the following two days. During the nights of filming, the restaurant was closed for business but reopended in the morning.  The crew returned the following Monday on the 17th to film the interior scenes and exteriors such as Curt talking on the phone.  Unfortunately, in the process Lucas' expensive Eclair camera fell off the tri-pod causing damage to the camera and some of the film.  So, they had to return one more day, August 2nd to shoot some exterior shots.

Richard Dreyfuss crosses arms over chest in an attempt to stay warm between filming scenes at the drive-in
The outfits worn by the carhops in the film (including roller skates) were not typical garb for the Mels employees.

I spoke with the set decorator for the film, Douglas Freeman a few years back and he conveyed an amusing anecdote that took place when they were filming at the restaurant.  Apparently, he and “Woody” (Prop man, Dale Woodall) had gotten the "munchies," and this led to some indulgent behavior.  "We went crazy in their kitchen and started making all sorts of sandwiches, burgers, and ice cream floats for the crew and ourselves," he remembered.  "Without really thinking about the consequences, we’d eaten several hundred dollars worth of their food and when the drive-in opened up the next day they lost a lot of business because they were out of so many things," he said with a chuckle and then added,  "Needless to say the management was not too happy."

12-yr-old Mackenzie Phillips relaxes between scenes in a booth at the restaurant.
I asked Freeman about the tasks he had while working on-location at the restaurant. Since Mels did not use intercoms at their restaurants Freeman had to build about ten non-functional intercoms to be used as props for the film. "To make the base I simply used a large outdoor umbrella stand.  Those bases were extremely heavy.  I remember carrying one and dropping it on my foot and breaking a toe, [Laughs]."   Incidentally, because the intercoms did not actually work, the voices heard emanating from them in the film were added in post-production.

The tall trees to the right and precarious camera positioning helped to obscure the fact that the drive-in was not located in a small California town, such as Modesto but, rather in the enormous city of San Francisco.

Sometime after filming had completed, Foster's eventually filed for bankruptcy and the restaurant was sold once more. Contrary to what's previously been written about the original drive-in, it did not close down immediately after filming.  The eatery was open several more years before it met its demise and was torn down in November 1976.


Longtime, Milner Coupe owner, Rick Firgari shared a couple of incredible pics of the movie car parked at the location of the first Mels in a parking space 10 years after the restaurant had been torn down. The large building, in the background can be briefly seen in some of the daytime scenes in the film.  This pic was taken facing South sometime around 1986.

Another shot of the coupe diminished in size by the enormity of the lot that once held the legendary super drive-in. The photographer was facing North for this pic.  The surrounding walls and trees no longer exist but are familiar landmarks seen in old pics of the restaurant, & in the opening scenes of Graffiti. The billboard advertising Dewar's Whisky is a post-Mels addition to the lot.

The location where the first Mel's once proudly stood was a vacant lot for a lengthy amount of time. In 2002 it became the permanent locale for an 11-floor, 212 unit high rise luxury condominium development. To the right is a Chevron Car Wash that takes advantage of its angled corner location by allowing customers to enter the wash on Van Ness Ave and exit with a clean vehicle on Mission Street.

Fortunately, Mels drive-in, at 140 S. Van Ness in San Francisco, with it's dramatic structural form and dazzling neon has been preserved in George Lucas' classic film.   And, the popularity of the film, has helped to establish Mels as an icon of mid-century American popular culture.  In addition, the "Next Generation" Mels Drive-ins and Mels Diners which first opened in the mid-'80s, have assured that the name, spirit, sights, and sounds of the original eatery are alive and well for many people to enjoy.

 Here's a clip from the documentary, Decision in the Streets (1965) by Harvey Richards which has some historic footage from the 1963 protest that took place in front of the Mels Drive-in at the Geary Street location.


 FIN


NOTES_______________________________________________________________

  • Bayer, Patricia. Art Deco Architecture. London: Thomas and Hudson, Ltd., 1992.
  • Burger Chain Delivers Mels on Wheels Cruising Modesto. The Modesto Bee.  Oct. 5, 1991.
  • California Living Magazine, November 20, 1983.
  • Figari, Rick.  1986. Photographer.  Pictures of '32 Coupe in former Mels' parking lot.
  • Freeman, Jo. From Freedom Now! to Free Speech: How the 1963-64 Bay Area Civil Rights demonstrations Paved the Way to Campus Protest.  Website.  Retrieved 8/13/2012.  http://www.jofreeman.com/sixtiesprotest/baycivil.htm 
  • Freeman, Jo. At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist, 1961-1965. Indiana University Press
  • Hurley, Andrew. Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
  • Online Archive of California; Specialty Real Estate Web Page. Retrieved Sept. 6, 2012. www.specialtyrealestate.com/issues/nov98/aclassickeepsonrockin.htm
  •  Picketers photograph: San Francisco News-Call Bulletin newspaper photograph archive. Retrieved 8/10/2012.  http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/hb9w1009k9/?order=3&brand=calisphere        
         

    Monday, August 6, 2012

    MELS' DRIVE-IN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS DINER - PART I

    Director, George Lucas standing between a '58 Impala & a '66 Citroen across the street from Mels.
    When it comes to eateries, the name "MELS" instantly strikes a familiar chord with anyone who is a fan of George Lucas' classic, American Graffiti.  The original drive-in that was a distinctive element in the 1973 film, is sadly, no longer standing.  However, thanks to the everlasting popularity of Lucas' tribute to his teenage years, the intriguing original structure, that once stood in a large parking lot in San Francisco, has become an icon and will continue to be the object of intrigue, fascination, and appreciation, for folks like myself, for a long, long time.  So, it is with this self-professed “obsession” that my next two entries in Kip Pullman's American Graffiti Blog will be the subject of, (and a tribute to), the original MELS DRIVE-IN.

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    THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE MELS

     
    Anyone who has seen the 1973 film, American Graffiti remembers the large neon sign buzzing in the background exclaiming, Mels Drive-in.  Burger City or Mels was the hub of the gang's activities and the place where the kids in the film converged. At the beginning of Graffiti, the main characters are all introduced one-by-one, as each shows up at the local carhop drive-in.   Even though the story allegedly takes place in Modesto, California, the scenes at the carhop eatery were actually filmed at the very first Mels drive-in, formerly located at 140 South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, California.

    Although Texas was fertile ground for the very first drive-in restaurant, the state of California is where the concept first really took off.  Warm climate made eating in one's car convenient, consequently most drive-ins in California first appeared in the southern portion of the state.  However, in 1947 when the post-World War II economy was booming, Mel Weiss along with San Francisco lawyer and politician, Harold Dobbs opened the first drive-in restaurant in San Francisco.  According to Dobb's 1994 obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, the restaurant was constructed by his father who was a professional carpenter.

    Mel Weiss (far right) & unidentified others stand proudly at the entrance of the new restaurant.



     In a 1991 interview with the Modesto Bee, Mel Weiss recalled that when the carhop eatery first opened they only expected modest success.  However, much to their surprise the restaurant was a hit from the start.  "We did $120,000 the first month," he recalled.  If Mr. Weiss recollections are correct, the drive-in’s first months gross almost paid for the cost of building the entire restaurant. The cost of building the super drive-in was approximately $135,000.

    The original location of Mels drive-in was at 140 South Van Ness Avenue near Mission Street and was the perfect location.  It consisted of ample grounds, attractively landscaped with the capacity for 110 cars, and a two-story rectangular building.  The distinctive Streamline Moderne structure had great expanses of glass that wrapped around the circular dining portion of the building and a foundation of orange tile. It's round shape suggested the mobility of a flying saucer ready to spin off into outer space.  And, like the aerodynamic wing of a jet, a roofing canopy (with smooth edges and recessed lighting) stretched alongside the rectangular portion of the building to cover cars. During the later part of the 50s, the appearance of automobiles with flared, rocket-like tailfins were a perfect match for the building’s mobility imprinted design.

    With an indoor customer capacity of 75 people, the interior was typical diner style with plenty of Formica tabletops and booths framed in chrome and upholstered with orange Naugahyde. In the center of the main floor, a row of stools faced a circular dining counter that wrapped around two complete soda fountains and a battery of pie cases and coffee urns. The original cooker had the ability to turn out 180 hamburgers per minute. A large staff of cooks, dishwashers, and servicemen were part of the Mels staff that kept their business thriving.

     As many as 14 girl carhops prompted fast service and many repeat customers.

    1948 FIRE MAP
    The 1948 fire map above shows that Mels drive-in (highlighted area) was surrounded by a used car dealership, service station, welding shop and other businesses with streets that received plenty of traffic.  The property included a huge parking lot to accomidate many customers.

    MORE OF A GOOD THING

    Sometime around 1952 the 3rd Mel's in San Francisco opened for business.  Located at 3355 Geary Street near Beaumont St., the drive-in employed Weiss' son, Steve who worked as a soda jerk during high school and then later operated the restaurant. 


    In the mid-1950s California became the North American state with the highest rate of car ownership in the nation. Witnessing the growth of the automobile culture, Mel Weiss and Harold Dobbs began expanding the San Francisco-car service based restaurant into a successful chain.  By 1954 the Mels franchise was pulling in about $4 million annually. It was estimated by Weiss that they were cooking up 15-20,000 hamburgers a day.  But, the menu consisted of many more items than just the MelburgerAlong with the proverbial beverages, desserts and fountain specials, the Chicken Pot Pie for .85 cents was a popular item. In fact, the choices of American-style food were almost endless. Depending on the individual restaurant location, one could order Half Fried Spring Chicken (like mother used to make), Roast Young Tom Turkey, Fried Jumbo Prawns, a Chef's Salad Bowl, Thick Top Sirloin Steak & Eggs with potatoes or sandwiches such as the Mels' Pore Boy, (with a full pound of choice ground beef on a quarter loaf of French bread served with salad).  

     Waitresses at the Mels on Geary Street pause to smile for the camera. The location became a Pacific Stereo store for many years beginning in the late-1970s, but then reverted to it's iconic self once more in 1984, before the turn of the century.

    Motivated by the success of their first drive-in, in July of 1951 Mel Weiss and Steve Dobbs opened their second Mels on Mission & Geneva in San Francisco.
     
    Mels became a fixture of contemporary life, with lurid neon lighting, carhops, and a pre-fast food menu. During the 1950s and '60s you could find one or more Mels drive-ins located throughout Northern California, in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Sacramento, San Jose, Walnut Creek, and Salinas.  
    A typical billboard advertising 3 Mels locations in San Francisco.  circa 1950s
     
    Mels @ 16th & E. Santa Clara, San Jose, CA.

     Mels Bowl @ 2580 El Camino, Redwood City, CA. (Opened:1960.  Closed: 2011)

    At one point Mels also ran several bowling alleys and restaurant complexes.  Mels also branched off into a second chain called KINGS.  The Kings restaurants were located on the Peninsula south of San Francisco.  

    On April 21, 1952 another Mel's opened for business at 909 South Main, in Salinas, CA.  photo: c.1955.
    During the 1950s Mels' was a thriving franchise and was an example of capitalism at its best however, as the end of the decade had begun to give way to the turbulent 1960s, the reputation of  Mels Drive-In was not to go unscathed.   To find out more click on the Mels menu below to go to part 2.



    NOTES
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    • Bayer, Patricia. Art Deco Architecture. London: Thomas and Hudson, Ltd., 1992.
    • Burger Chain Delivers Mels on Wheels Cruising Modesto. The Modesto Bee.  Oct. 5, 1991.
    • California Living Magazine, November 20, 1983.
    • Freeman, Jo. From Freedom Now! to Free Speech: How the 1963-64 Bay Area Civil Rights demonstrations Paved the Way to Campus Protest.  Website.  Retrieved 8/13/2012.  http://www.jofreeman.com/sixtiesprotest/baycivil.htm 
    • Freeman, Jo. At Berkeley in the Sixties: Education of an Activist, 1961-1965. Indiana University Press
    • Hurley, Andrew. Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
    • Mels Drive-in Web Page.  Retrieved 8/12/2012. www.melsdrivein.com.
    • Obituaries. San Francisco Chronicle. August 18, 1994. H. Dobbs, Began Famed Drive-in Eatery.  Sun Sentinel.com  Retrieved 1/27/2013. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1994-08-18/news/9408170431_1_mel-s-drive-in-restaurant-san-diego-mel-weiss
    • Online Archive of California; Specialty Real Estate Web Page. Retrieved Sept. 6, 2012. www.specialtyrealestate.com/issues/nov98/aclassickeepsonrockin.htm