Famous in its day: the Blue Parrot Tea Room

blueparrot1920sjpg“Hoity toity” was how a resident of Gettysburg PA in the 1980s remembered The Blue Parrot Tea Room in its heyday.

The tea room opened in 1920 on the Lincoln Highway (aka Chambersburg street) through Gettysburg [pictured above, before 1928]. Known initially as the Blue Parrot Tea Garden (rendered on its large lighted sign in pseudo-“Oriental” lettering), it was a soda fountain, candy store, and lunch spot at first. It quickly earned a reputation as an eating place for “discriminating” diners, according to its advertisement in the 1922 Automobile Blue Book [shown below]. Later advertising described the restaurant as modern, sanitary, and perfect for people who ran an “efficient table” at home.

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Its creator was Charles T. Ziegler, who spent years on the road as a salesman for a Chicago firm, returning to his hometown to open a gift shop in 1916 with the then-trendy name of Gifts Unusual. His shop featured imported articles such as Japanese household items and kimonos. In 1917 he bought the building his shop was in, turning it into a tea room a few years later.

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The tea room’s artistic decor, elements of which had reportedly come from England and Belgium, was of great interest to Gettysburgers. The sign on the front of the building was illuminated with 275 small lights (this was before neon). Thirty feet in length and topped with a blue parrot, the Gettysburg Times declared it “one of the most pretentious between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.”

In 1927 a visitor noted fine aspects of the Blue Parrot that he observed, many vouched for by their brand names, such as Shenango China and Community Silver. He was pleased to note that the kitchen was shiny and spotless and even the potato peeler was “cleaned to perfection.” He was also gratified by the back yard area where “every fowl is killed, cleaned and dressed by the kitchen staff.”

blueparrotadvjuly1921The Blue Parrot remained the place to go for decades. Local colleges held dinners there, as did fraternal organizations and women’s clubs. Guests included bishops, Washington dignitaries, Harrisburg business men, and traveling celebrities. A high point came in 1926 when Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Gloria Swanson and her husband, the Marquis de la Falause, stopped for dinner on a chauffeured road trip following the New York funeral of Rudolph Valentino.

The Blue Parrot could be counted on to furnish special holiday meals for Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day, and Easter. In 1924 it published the following menu for Thanksgiving Dinner, served from 11 am to 9 pm.

Grape Fruit
Oyster Cocktail
Bisque of Tomato
Celery              Olives
Salted Nuts
Roast Vermont Turkey English Filling
Giblet Gravy            Cranberry Jelly
Orange Sherbert [sic]
Mashed Potatoes             Green Spinach au Egg
Waldorf Salad
Hot Mince Pie                            Lemon Meringue
Pineapple Parfait                   Chocolate Ice Cream
Mixed Fruit Ice Cream
Mints
Café Noir

Dinners at the Blue Parrot in the 1920s ran from $1.25 to $1.50, while lunches were often 75 cents. The tea room advertised its prices as moderate, yet probably they would have been out of reach for many of Gettysburg’s working class residents. In the 1930s Depression the Blue Parrot, like so many other restaurants, was forced to lower its prices considerably. In the mid-1930s it offered lunch platters at 30 cents and New Year’s and Thanksgiving dinners for as little as 50 cents.

No doubt the end of Prohibition was a life saver for the Blue Parrot. As soon as beer became legal in 1933, Ziegler opened a Blue Parrot Tap Room and Grill on the second floor, with extended hours, Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap, and 10-cent crab cakes and sandwiches. He was at the head of the line for a full liquor license when they became available a few months later. The bar and grill had a western slant with rustic log cabin decor, knotty pine paneling, and a wagon wheel light fixture, all likely meant to appeal to a wide range of male customers.

blueparrotnowIn 1944 Ziegler sold the business to Gettysburg’s fire chief, James Aumen, who ran it for the next ten years, after which it had a succession of owners. Even in recent times, the original name has continued as the Blue Parrot Bistro, and now the Parrot.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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A hair in the soup

hairinfoodUntil the 1920s the catchphrase “hair in the soup” referred to something that was a trivial problem. In other words, just remove it and keep on eating.

And then women started wearing their hair short.

Manufacturers of hairpins, barrettes, and hairnets felt desperate as sales of their products fell off drastically. But Edward Bernays, a pioneer in the new field of public relations, had an idea of how to revive business. He found safety experts who warned of the dangers of women working without hairnets and getting their hair caught in machinery. Also, under his guidance health experts emerged who recommended hairnets for waitresses to avoid contaminating food.

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State legislatures and municipalities began to pass laws and ordinances requiring servers, mainly women, to wear hairnets or headbands [shown above, 1920s]. In Richmond VA the health commissioner advocated a hairnet requirement, saying he had witnessed waitresses with bobbed hair shake their heads to get hair out of their eyes, risking loose hair falling in food.

hairnets1967greensboroncIn the decades that followed consumers became hairnet watchdogs, sending off letters to newspapers asking why waitresses weren’t wearing hairnets or restraining hairbands. Newspapers took up the role of consumer protectors, asking health departments to investigate. Health departments around the country responded to complaints by making special visits to targeted restaurants.

Did the agitation about hair in restaurant food result in more sanitary conditions? Probably not, and not even when it resulted in waitresses covering or restraining their hair.

The reason was that special visits to restaurants interrupted the regular health inspection work by strapped health departments, stealing time from monitoring more serious issues.

In 1967 a Greensboro NC paper’s “Hot Line” surveyed 19 restaurants and found widespread noncompliance with state regulations calling for head coverings. In this case, however, the county health director said he felt head coverings were a minor health concern compared to issues such as improper refrigeration or spoiled food. In fact, he said, in annual restaurant inspections the absence of head coverings accounted for only a 10 point loss out of a total 1,000-point perfect score. He concluded that it was a misuse of time for his department to make special visits to check for head coverings.

Today, in fact, the federal Food and Drug Administration does not generally require restaurant wait staff to adopt hair restraints, though it does require restraints for those who prepare food. And there is the question of whether there are actually any negative health effects of swallowing a stray hair. Probably not.

hairnets1971nancyOn the other hand, there is little doubt that most Americans find it disgusting.

Usually when diners find a hair in food at a restaurant, they immediately stop eating it. Researchers have found that “contamination psychology” is deeply irrational and not influenced by logic. Experiments in which a cockroach was brought into contact with food resulted in disgust so deep that subjects could not overlook even the briefest contact. If the food was later decontaminated they still would not eat it, even if they recognized that all traces had been removed. According to Richard Beck in Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, “The rule seems to be “once in contact, always in contact.’”

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A significant aspect of the disgust reaction to hair in food seems to be that it was once part of someone else’s body. (One’s own hair does not elicit the disgust response.) The reaction may be stronger if the body or behavior of the other person is viewed as socially unacceptable. In the 1920s some people disapproved of bobbed hair on women; in the 1960s there were people offended by long hair. Take the woman from Pulaski IL who wrote to a newspaper about the lack of hairnets in 1968: “When we enter a restaurant and notice a loose long-haired employe we leave. There is no law YET that we have to eat hair, nor eat with the Hippies, nor anything that resembles them.”

In the 1970s male servers were also sometimes the target of complaints if they had long hair or bushy beards.

But times change. Some restaurant patrons did not object at all to servers with long hair, especially if they were young and attractive like the “Grog Shop girls.” Grog Shops were part of the Stouffer’s company, a restaurant chain that had a history of strict policies on waitress garb, banning seamless hose and requiring waitresses to wear lace-up oxfords, girdles, and hairnets. However, when the Grog Shops opened in 1970, Stouffer’s dressed waitresses in micro-mini skirts, boots, and blouses with plunging necklines and asked them to wear their hair long and loose. I seriously doubt that health departments got a lot of complaints about the absence of hairnets.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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When presidents eat out

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By now Americans are used to seeing presidential candidates chomping on corn dogs, pizza, Philly cheese steaks, and other hearty food of the people. For some – but not all — food eaten on the campaign trail has been quite a departure from their usual preferences when eating out.

presidentsjockeyclubdc1964It is certainly hard to imagine that John F. Kennedy normally patronized down-home restaurants such as the N-Joy Restaurant in Cornell WI which he visited on a campaign stop. The N-Joy was known for its homemade salad dressing and chicken dumpling soup, but not for chicken in champagne sauce, a specialty of the elite La Caravelle in New York. La Caravelle also supplied a French chef for the Kennedy White House and edibles for JFK’s airplane trips. He also enjoyed Washington’s Jockey Club, which he made famous through his patronage and later became a favorite of the Reagans.

Like the Kennedys, the Reagans enjoyed dining in the best restaurants, at least before Ronald Reagan was wounded in a 1981 assassination attempt. They liked Le Cirque in NYC and Jean-Louis in Washington, the latter visited by the Reagans just eight days before the shooting. But even apart from security pre-checks, a presidential visit to a restaurant could be a very complicated matter. Before the Reagans dined with friends for an after-theater repast at Le Cirque the restaurant was visited multiple times by the city’s health and fire departments as well as FDA inspectors. Ronald Reagan’s birthday dinner at Jean-Louis required that the restaurant accept no other guests that night.

presidents1903It’s hard to know how often presidents ate in restaurants in the 19th century. Possibly it was easier for them then, before 1902 when the Secret Service was created following President McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Probably many of them made their way to Delmonico’s and many, many hotel dining rooms. Harvey’s in Washington claimed it had been the “Restaurant of the Presidents since 1858” – the administration of James Buchanan – and it became famous in the Civil War when the Lincolns ate there. Presidents Garfield and Grant were said to enjoy Francesco Martinelli’s table d’hôte in New York City. Martinelli’s and Harvey’s were pretty nice restaurants compared to the cheap New York cellar where Chester Arthur ate corned beef and coffee just as he was about to take office in 1881.

Theodore Roosevelt showed a taste for lively night spots. As Governor of New York, he patronized Shanley’s, a popular NYC resort, and as president was known to frequent the Café Boulevard [pictured above]. He also visited Antoine’s in New Orleans, as did Presidents Taft, Harding, and Coolidge.

Miserable meals on the campaign trail were a hallmark of the failed presidential campaign of William Jennings Bryan in 1908, and of his political career generally. According to a Collier’s magazine article, in over 12-years traveling the country he had earned the dismal honor of being a “Quick Lunch Hero.” He had eaten at over 1,700 railroad lunch counters, gulping down “mummified food” and “historical eggs.”

President Wilson might have applauded Bryan for his no-frills meals. During WWI Wilson called upon the country to embrace “the simple, wholesome, nourishing dishes which mother used to make,” gladdening the managers of the earnest, squeaky-clean Childs restaurant chain which quickly shifted to a wheatless wartime menu by substituting rice and corn meal dishes.

presidentharrytrumandixonschiliWhether by circumstance or taste, Harry Truman was a humble diner. He was a fan of Dixon’s Chili Parlor in Kansas City MO, where the chili was made without onions, garlic, tomatoes, or chili powder. He is shown above visiting Dixon’s on his way home for the holidays, on December 23, 1950. After leaving office he and his wife Bess drove across country, according to a 2009 NY Times story, eating “a lot of fruit plates at roadside diners.” One of their stops was at the Princess Restaurant in Frostburg MD, still in business today complete with a “Truman booth.” In 1958 Truman’s finances improved when Congress passed the Former Presidents Act, ensuring former presidents would get pensions and Secret Service protection, but somehow I doubt that this transformed him into a gourmet diner.

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Although it’s probably true that Truman genuinely enjoyed Dixon’s chili and JFK really liked La Caravelle’s chicken in champagne sauce, it’s hard to know how much presidential restaurant choices were based on esthetic as opposed to political factors. President Carter had a tendency to eat in popular restaurants – such as KC’s Arthur Bryant’s [pictured above], NYC’s Mama Leone’s, and (surprisingly) Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. Were those strategic choices? If still in business today, it’s certain that Aunt Fanny’s Cabin would not be on the approved list.

According to John Mariani in America Eats Out, Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter generally weren’t big on restaurant going. Nixon, who came from a restaurant family, would sometimes go for dinner at Trader Vic’s in the Capitol Hilton near the White House. He was also said to be a devotee of NYC’s Colony where he was allowed to bring his dog into the main dining room. But the president who was hardest to keep in the White House was George H. W. Bush who enjoyed Italian (I Ricchi, DC), Chinese (Peking Gourmet Inn, Falls Church VA), seafood (Mabel’s Lobster Claw, Kennebunkport ME), and Tex-Mex (Rio Grande Café in Texas).

Apart from patronizing restaurants, often making them famous overnight, presidents can greatly influence the entire industry. For example, Franklin Roosevelt’s election was responsible for the repeal of prohibition in 1933, so critical to restaurants’ survival, while President Carter’s dislike of the three-martini lunch led him to champion cutting the deduction on business meals as part of a tax reform plan. He failed but eventually the deduction was reduced to 50%. Apparently the reform was not as disastrous to the industry as they had predicted.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Spooky restaurants

spookycolumbusohnightclub

Montmartre in Paris was the birthplace of what would come to be known in the U.S. as the theme restaurant. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Parisian entrepreneurs conjured up fantasy atmosphere in strange and unsettling forms. Themes included assassination, imprisonment, death, hell, and that harbinger of bad luck, the black cat.

As much devoted to drinking and entertainment as food, Montmartre’s ghoulish restaurants, cafes, and cabarets inspired Americans to duplicate them. Needless to say, both in France and in America such places were heavily geared to tourists and considerably short of good taste.

One Paris establishment, the Cabaret du Néant, deliberately transgressed the boundaries of decency serving wine in skulls (thankfully artificial), using coffins for tables and x-rays to turn patrons into skeletons, and – worst of all, in 1915 – digging trenches in the backyard so patrons could experience World War I warfare conditions while dining by candlelight.

spookycabaretduneantIn 1896 the Cabaret du Néant, renamed the Restaurant of Death, had been recreated in the Casino in New York’s Central Park, right down to a candelabra made of “skulls and bones.”

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Greenwich Village’s Moulin Rouge used coffins and skulls in its advertising, though whether it carried the theme over to its interior is unknown. It was padlocked in 1924 for serving liquor illegally. Columbus OH had a nightclub known as The Catacombs in the Chittenden Hotel [at top of page] but I was not able to learn anything about it other than that it was doing business in 1941.

spookyblackcatgreenwichvillageOn the whole, black cats and jails gained greater popularity in the U. S., both themes inspired by Montmartre. New York City’s Black Cat had many lives [shown above], being declared dead with regularity and then reappearing. San Francisco also had a Black Cat, opened in 1911, but it sounds as though it was quite tame, filled with ferns and potted palms and an orchestra hidden behind a screen. Perhaps another Black Cat Café in San Francisco, or maybe this one transformed, operated from the 1930s into the 1960s as a center for bohemians and beats as well as a gay clientele.

As sinister animals go, rats and bats were also celebrated. Greenwich Village’s café, The Bat, was said to have a “macabre interior” similar to Paris’s famed Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat). It’s likely that the advertising of both made them out to be far more sinister than they were.

spookysfjailrestaurant1921

As for jail restaurants and cafés, they were fairly numerous in this country. The first, labeled dungeons, opened in New York City and were places where patrons sat on crude boxes in cellars and ate steaks with their hands. They were particularly popular with men’s groups and conventioneers. In the 1920s and 1930s, restaurants and drinking places with jail themes, often with servers dressed as jailers or prisoners, appeared in Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and even a small town in Iowa. Strangely, San Francisco’s Dungeon restaurant of the 1920s, complete with cells and wardens, etc., served waffles rather than steak. But then sometimes it’s hard to keep themes on track.

I’ve been working on a future post on truly scary restaurants, ones where outbreaks of food poisoning have occurred.

Meanwhile, whether or not you find a spooky restaurant to hang out in for Halloween, have a good holiday!

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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The “mysterious” Singing Kettle

singingkettlepcA veil of ominous mystery has spread over the remains of a California roadside tea room once known by the homey name Singing Kettle.

It was located near the summit of Turnbull Canyon, high above the San Gabriel Valley, on a winding road running through the Puente Hills in North Whittier. The road was completed in 1915, opening up a route filled with what many regarded as the most impressive views on the entire Pacific Coast.

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Today young people drive into the “haunted” canyon at night determined to be frightened to death. Gazing out car windows they eagerly tell each other tales they’ve heard of satanic rituals, murders, and human sacrifice, hoping that behind that fence are unspeakable horrors they might be lucky enough to witness. Even the Singing Kettle tea room, perhaps because remnants of its entrance are visible from the road, has become enmeshed in dark fantasies.

Why am I laughing?

Because it strikes me as funny that a tea room from the 1920s and 1930s could be associated with horror and paranormal events. Or even that people would find its existence mysterious, wondering why it was ever there or what it really was.

I suppose that given enough time and imagination mysterious auras can envelop any mundane place, even a deserted mall or a parking garage. But still, finding a tea room scary is like being frightened by a club sandwich.

I have experienced a somewhat similar attitude before. I gave a talk on tea rooms of New York City when my book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn came out in 2002. Afterwards a man in the audience came up and asked me why I didn’t mention the darker aspects of tea rooms. He was certain that a lot of them had been speakeasies and houses of prostitution.

Really? If that had indeed been the case, why would I not have mentioned it? It would be a good story. I’ve found no evidence of prostitution in tea rooms. Only rarely were tea room proprietors found selling liquor during Prohibition. A few places in Greenwich Village were raided in the early 1920s, and here and there the mob would open a joint and call it a tea room, though that was purely a ruse. I feel certain it was impossible to order a diet plate or a Waldorf salad in a mob tea room.

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The dining area of the Singing Kettle tea room was up the hill from the pergola entrance shown on the black and white postcard above. As can be seen from a bird’s-eye view of the property, terraced stairs with fountains and shrubbery led up to the main tea room which today appears to be a residence. The view while dining would have been spectacular.

The tea room was frequented by students and staff from Whittier College, the Whittier Chamber of Commerce, and women’s clubs. It was a popular place for business meetings, card parties, wedding receptions, and bridal showers. Weddings were held in the inner courtyard of its entrance pergola.

singingkettlehartwhittierheights1927I have not been able to discover the identity of the Singing Kettle’s proprietor. The area was filled with citrus and avocado groves and it’s possible that it was run by the wife of a grower. It’s even possible that major Southern California agricultural land developer, Edwin G. Hart, was involved in the business. That might explain why he promoted the tea room in a 1927 advertisement for his new residential development, Whittier Heights. (When he developed Vista CA he built an inn where prospective customers could stay.)

The Singing Kettle was in business from 1927 until at least 1936, but probably not much longer. It surely would not have survived gasoline rationing during WWII.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

With many thanks to the reader who told me about the Singing Kettle.

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Famous in its day: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin

auntfannyscabinouthouse

Famous, but also infamous in its day because of how it portrayed the South before the Civil War and Emancipation as a world of smiling slaves who loved serving the kindly white people who held them captive.

Beyond its costumed mammy servers and the Black children who boisterously recited the menu, sang, danced, and proclaimed the South would rise again, the proprietors of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin restaurant in Smyrna GA created a legend regarding its name and building which appropriated and falsified the life story of a living woman.

According to an oft-told tale, the restaurant’s core building was a relic of the Civil War era and the home of a former slave, Fanny Williams, who spent her last years sitting on the restaurant’s front porch telling of the war and its aftermath. At her death in 1949 legend had it that she was very old, her age ranging from somewhere in the 90s to much older. She was “about 112 years old” when she died, restaurant owner George Poole told a reporter in 1982.

Indeed there was a real Afro-American woman named Fanny Williams. However it was revealed after the restaurant closed in the 1990s that she was born after the Civil War and had never lived in the cabin, which itself dated from the 1890s. Poole’s estimate of her 112 years had been preposterous – only a few dozen people worldwide were known to have attained that age — but newspapers had been much inclined to lax reporting when it came to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. Far from an ancient rural yokel, she was about 81 when she died, a city dweller in Atlanta, and active in raising funds for her church there. How willingly or why she adopted the ex-slave persona is unknown.

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Fanny Williams was a servant to a wealthy Atlanta family named Campbell. She was in service to socialite Isoline Campbell McKenna in 1941 when McKenna opened a tea room-style eating place on family property near their summer home. She named it Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, hosting ladies’ luncheons, bridge clubs, and bridal showers. She leased the business in 1947, selling it to lessees Harvey Hester [pictured above instructing his employees] and Marjorie Bowman in 1954. They elaborated the Aunt Fanny legend, enacted in what are known as “Blacks in Blackface” scenes where cheerful servers sang, danced, and even joined patrons in singing “Dixie,” the anthem of the ante-bellum South. The restaurant’s third owner, George “Pongo” Poole, continued the tradition into the 1980s, although when a cabaret tax was demanded, dancing by the Black boys stopped. However, they continued to carry yoke-style wooden menu boards around their necks while they shouted out the menu offerings [child waiter shown below in 1949 before the menu boards were used].

The restaurant drew Georgians from Smyrna and Atlanta, as well as visitors from all over the country and the world. It was a tour bus stop, and a favorite of President Jimmy Carter and conventioneers such as members of the American Bar Association. Those who complained about the roles played by Black servers and the implicit celebration of slavery were characterized by proprietors as “Northern liberals,” though there is evidence that some Southerners and Westerners were also critical.

auntfannyscabin1949lifewoodburysoapadvIt became standard procedure when reporting on the restaurant to quote Poole about how his staff loved working there and was part of a big happy family. When interviewed, Black women servers would invariably attest to their love of the job and how they never felt insulted. To what extent this was a genuine expression on their parts is unknown.

What is known is that many of the elements that characterized the restaurant had been subjects of contention for a long time. A 1964 survey by Wayne State University researchers showed that most Black respondents found terms such as Sambo, Aunt Jemima, auntie, mammy, spook, and darkie offensive. Many white people, especially in the South, did not understand this, and thought that calling an elderly Black man or woman Uncle or Aunt/ie was a mark of respect. As for “mammy,” despite the affection many Southerners felt for the Black women who had cared for them when they were children, it had been rejected by many Americans long before the 1960s. In the 1920s the National Organization of Colored Women’s Clubs mobilized massive opposition to a Washington, D.C. memorial to mammies proposed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “One generation held the black mammy in abject slavery; the next would erect a monument to her fidelity,” said the club women’s official statement in 1923.

Georgia Senator Julian Bond said in the 1980s that he had little attraction to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin but could imagine that younger Blacks might find it “cute.” A journalist with the Atlanta Constitution who visited the restaurant in 1984 reported that he saw numerous Black patrons.

So, what’s the story? Did the degree of tolerance or even liking that some Black people expressed for Aunt Fanny’s Cabin mean that it held no offense to people of color? Did it mean that those who complained were thin-skinned trouble makers with an elevated sense of their own dignity who couldn’t take a joke? Did it mean, as a 1982 Washington Post story argued, that the years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were part of a post-racial age in which slavery, forced segregation, and lynching had largely ended and any remaining blatant prejudice was due simply to a few “obnoxious rednecks”?

mammy1959milwaukeeI think not.

I cannot be absolutely certain that there has never been a Black-owned restaurant that celebrated plantations, “pickaninnies,” and “mammies” of the Old South, but all the mammy restaurants I know of, mostly in business from the 1930s to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, were white-owned. And dressing Black women servers in mammy get-ups was so commonplace back then that at times I’ve wondered if wearing that costume was a waitressing job requirement for dark-skinned women.

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After the death of owner George Poole, Aunt Fanny’s Cabin struggled and subsequent owners could not revive it. It closed for the last time in 1994, sometimes recalled as partly a victim of “political correctness.” Based on the understanding that the original portion of the restaurant’s building had been a slave cabin, the city of Smyrna proposed to move it downtown to be used as a visitors’ center. After a historic structures report revealed it dated from the 1890s, the city decided to go ahead with the project on the grounds that the restaurant had itself been a significant part of the city’s history.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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Faces on the wall

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People love seeing celebrities in a restaurant. Trouble is, celebrities can’t sit around in restaurants all the time. Solution: put a photograph or a cartoon of them on the wall, suggesting that they are regulars, liable to walk in at any moment.

In the United States the custom developed first in urban theater districts, in places visited frequently by publicity-seeking performers after the show.

Sardi’s in New York City [shown above] is still famous for its walls of caricatures of stars of the moment and of the past. Sardi’s tradition began in 1927, reportedly inspired by the custom in Parisian cafes. But Vincent Sardi could have found precedents in the United States too.

An early instance was Chicago’s Chapin & Gore’s of the 1870s. Located in the vicinity of McVicker’s Theatre, it was a place where “exceedingly well dressed, fast-looking men” hung out with women suspected of questionable character (a suspicion that applied to any woman without a male escort). Not only did actors make it onto Chapin & Gore’s wall but also the city’s mayor, newspaper publishers, and leading industrialists. Another room displayed what temperance advocates described as “indecent and obscene” caricatures of European notables, which a court ordered removed in 1878.

Another 19th-century precedent, dating back to at least the early 1890s, was Otto Moser’s café in Cleveland, still in business today but not at its original location. Once within walking distance of seven theaters, its walls were lined with playbills and autographed photos of performers.

caricaturesblueribbonIn New York City, as early as 1910 Joel’s Bohemian Refreshery adorned its walls with cartoons and photographs of entertainers, some drawn by Carlo de Fornaro. The café was not only popular with Broadway performers but also with Mexican rebels and others opposed to the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, aided by de Fornaro’s pen and brush. The Blue Ribbon, opened near Times Square in 1914 and closed in 1975, was also decorated with caricatures and photographs.

caricaturesbrownderbynvineChallenging Sardi’s for nationally-known wall fame was Hollywood’s Brown Derby restaurant, which opened in 1929 and closed in 1985. Lore has it that caricatures of movie star patrons from the nearby studios began to go on the walls after a Polish artist agreed to exchange his artwork for meals. He achieved fame as “Vitch,” later mailing his sketches from London where he had a career as a pantomimist. Like Sardi’s, the Brown Derby employed many a sketch artist over the decades, however few restaurant artists stayed on the job as long as the Detroit London Chop House’s Hy Vogel [“Prince” Mike Romanoff shown below].caricaturesromanoff2

Today, a repro Brown Derby lives on, so to speak, on the grounds of Disney Studios, complete with caricatures (of course). Which reminds me of the inquiring reporter exploring a number of Dallas restaurants adorned with celebrity photos. He asked the manager of a national chain restaurant in 1982 whether it was really true that Cary Grant had eaten there, in Dallas. Not exactly, admitted the restaurant’s publicity director, but the actor had been to one of the chain’s other units. Somewhere.

It’s rather surprising that Cary Grant’s picture was even on a restaurant wall in 1982 since he made his last movie in 1966. Given that fame doesn’t last long, those who manage picture walls tend to rearrange them from time to time. What to do with outdated celebrities, stars no one has heard of? In the 1970s Sardi’s moved old-timers to “memory lane” on the second floor, while the owner of Miller’s Coffee Shop in Little Rock AR admitted at the restaurant’s closing in 1970 that a few years earlier many of its caricatures had been given away or simply papered over.

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An equally sad fate has befallen regular patrons of Palm steak houses. The tradition of drawing and painting caricatures of famous and faithful customers directly on the walls began at the original Palm on 45th street in New York City [shown above] during the Depression. Later, it continued at locations around the country, but in recent years many of the images have been destroyed due to remodeling and closures.

When you think about it, restaurants’ fortunes are as shaky as those of celebrities.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

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