October 29, 2017

Photo Essay: How Billions of Burgers Got Their Start in Southern California

The McDonald’s in Downey may be the oldest standing of the billion-burger-selling chain -- but to trace the founding of this fast food empire, you’ve got to head to San Bernardino.

circa February 2009

That’s where brothers Dick and Mac McDonald discovered the appeal of “speedy” hamburgers and fries...

...and, in 1948, gave Post-War America what they wanted in the form of a walk-up burger stand.

Although its premise became the prototype for all McDonald’s locations to come, this first one at 14th and E wasn’t included when the McDonald brothers sold the business to Ray Kroc – a deal that was recently dramatized in the film The Founder starring Michael Keaton as Kroc.

So, in many ways, it’s been wiped from the “official” history of the burger operation. The location in Des Plaines, IL was branded "McDonald's #1."

But of course we southern Californians know better—and that McDonald’s started right here and not in Illinois.

Though the original walk-up burger stand building was demolished in 1972, the building on the site now (built in 1980) functions both as the headquarters for the Juan Pollo chain...

...and as a free museum devoted to McDonald’s ephemera and memorabilia from around the world, much of which has been donated by members of the public (including a lot of kids who’ve given up their Happy Meal toys).

The owner of both Juan Pollo and the museum is Albert Okura, who also bought the entire ghost town of Amboy in 2005.

While this McDonald’s is located a couple of blocks on the other side of the 215 Freeway from the current designation of Route 66 in San Bernardino, it's inextricably linked to The American Dream and the Land of Opportunity, just like the "Mother Road."

McDonald's turned out to be Ray Kroc's Great American Dream—who ultimately ended up taking all the credit for the McDonald's franchise expansion and cutting the McDonald brothers out of the narrative entirely.

He even took credit for the creation of McDonald's altogether...

...even though he'd just been a Midwest salesman hawking equipment to make shakes...

...and the McDonalds brothers in San Bernardino were customers of his.

But McDonald's changed a lot under Kroc's leadership, moving away from 1940s and '50s family values, "Speedee" service, and "golden arches"... abject commercialism, namely with the creation of the character "Ronald McDonald" in 1963... well as sponsorships...


...and, in 1979, the chain's first Happy Meal.

All this from a "head franchisee" who joined the team in 1954 and bought out his partners in 1961.

The McDonald brothers always wanted to stay small, so they could pay the highest amount of attention to quality standards.

But Ray Kroc had created a juggernaut—and even when they sold out to him, he opened a competing location of McDonald's close enough to the original San Bernardino location (not included in the deal, and renamed "The Big M") to force them to shut it down.

The Speedee character was permanently retired in 1967, setting the stage for the emergence of the Gobblins in 1972 (later renamed the Fry Guys in 1983 and the Fry Kids in 1987).

Now, more customers probably associate McDonald's with its licensed toys and superhero movie cross-promotions than its own characters...

...though people of a certain generation will appreciate the First Original McDonald's Museum's generous representation of characters like Grimace, Captain Crook, and the Hamburglar.

Nowadays, some things are still the same as at the very beginning...

...including the standardization of menu offerings and the focus on burgers and fries...

...with some regional and international anomalies, of course (which is why I insisted on visiting Mickey D's when we were in Fez, Morocco—so I could try the "Chicken Mythic").

For many people, McDonald's has represented a first job, a quick bite on the go, or a cheap meal out with the family—but for me, it was a symbol of independence. Anytime I went to McDonald's, I was free of my home. Whether it was on a school field trip, family vacation, or lunch break at the mall or even my first job at Atlantic Records, there was always a McDonald's nearby.

And I could always afford something—even if it was just on the Dollar Menu.

Sometimes when I'm on the road even now, I find myself pulling up to the Drive-Thru of a McDonald's somewhere in Southern California, even if it's just to order a large diet soda for a dollar. I love those red-and-yellow striped straws that are wider than your typical restaurant drinking straw.

The burgers don't taste good to me anymore—there are too many authentic, homegrown burger stands in SoCal that are so far superior—but every now and then, I treat myself to an order of small fries.

And they taste the same as they did when I was a little kid, licking the salty grease off my fingers before my mother could wipe it off with a napkin.

Stay tuned for a photo essay of the Downey McDonald's, the oldest standing location of the billion-selling burger chain.

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October 28, 2017

Photo Essay: The Museum That's Gone Bananas

I guess you'd expect to find a wacky collection of tropical fruit out in the desert.

But while the area surrounding the Salton Sea is generally dominated by palm date groves and offerings of date shakes, there's only one place where you can have your pick of a banana sundae, a banana shake, or a banana bread muffin: the International Banana Museum.

In the town of Mecca near the North Shore of the Salton Sea (just up Highway 111 from the failed balloon festival grounds), just look for the bright yellow robot banana, a creation of outsider artist Kenny Irwin of Robolights fame.

Past that and through the door, you're welcome to "go bananas" for a nominal fee of $3 (waived if you buy something, which you definitely should)...

...and surround yourself with the world's largest collection devoted to the banana (or, any one fruit, for that matter).

Of course, you'll be in good company with other banana lovers...

...and every kind of banana-fana-fo-fana you can imagine...

...from Chiquita and Dole... bananas in disguise...

...banana splits...

...and way beyond.

They're all ready to party with you.

Some might even sing to you.

But you have to be sure it's a real banana...

...and not just somebody dressed up as one...

...or some monkey dressed as one, for that matter.

Of course, there's plenty of opportunity to monkey around at the Banana Museum...

...but the "top banana" here, of course, is the fruit.

And that includes not only how it looks in various commercial and artistic renderings...

...but also how it tastes.

If it's not the most a-peeling destination in the world, it certainly is along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea—especially if you're looking for some refreshment beyond what Bombay Beach has to offer at the Ski Inn.

It's a new discovery for me at the Salton Sea, as its current iteration opened in 2012, during a nearly six-year period of me being absent from the area. And now, I'm glad to see that it fits perfectly here, in this land—and sea—of misfits, misunderstandings, and tropical heat.

After all, nobody needs a fruit shaped like a smile more than the denizens of the Salton Sea.

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Surveilling the Santa Monica Mountains For Smoke

You might think that technology has supplanted the need for a human being to actually keep watch over the forest for wildfires—but sometimes, what we really need is a warning that something might be amiss.

With how quickly these conflagrations can spread, we need to catch them before things really go wrong.

And that’s where fire lookout towers come in pretty handy. But sadly, most of our forested fire detection facilities have been replaced by aerial surveillance.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations devoted to preserving the heritage of our historic fire lookouts—but not all of them have been preserved. Hundreds have burned down, succumbed to weather conditions, or been demolished or otherwise destroyed.

One of the last remaining “firelooks” in Southern California that you can visit—one of the last vestiges of a dying breed—is the Old Topanga Fire Lookout in Malibu, sandwiched between Stunt Ranch State Park and Topanga State Park and just off the Backbone Trail.

After finding the trailhead where Stunt Road meets Schueren Road and Saddle Peak Road, by the Lois Ewen Overlook, I walked along the Topanga Tower Motorway, which is a paved fire road until it splits off to the left and becomes a dirt trail.

I stuck to the main, wide, dirt trail, resisting some of the spur trail scrambles that go up the ridge to the right...

...and the paved portion to the right that becomes Radio Relay and leads to the privately owned radio tower.

I passed graffitied pieces of concrete that I though might have tumbled down from the firelook up ahead...

...until I spotted a concrete slab atop a peak straight ahead.

Hikers have clawed their way to the top at the end of the trail, but I followed a single-track trail to the right for a much more civilized climb up some old, graffitied steps.

On a clear day, it was hard to imagine that the smog had ever gotten so bad that it rendered the lookout tower more or less obsolete.

By 1972, the fire department had been relying nearly exclusively on helicopter surveillance and reports from nearby civilians.

And all that's left now is the slab, covered in messages mundane and profane, painted by teenagers who go up there to smoke and boast and Lord knows what else.

If nothing else, I got a spectacular view from up there—and that, of course, was by design.

For my complete roundup of fire lookouts for KCET, click here.

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