Category Archives: drive-ins

It was a dilly

Dilly-Wagon drive-ins, which looked like oversize prairie schooners, were certainly eye-catching enough in the 1960s but their main attraction was the “It’s a Dilly” sauce served on burgers and hot dogs. People still remember it longingly. I wish somebody would describe it. Was it a mayonnaise-based sauce with dill in it like that used with fish? What made it hot?

The sauce was created by Charles Weinstein who experimented with it in his Potsdam NY kitchen after an illness prevented him from continuing with his former business, selling apparel. The sauce, which was guaranteed to “perk up … just about any meat or meat dish,” was also sold in food stores, with three degrees of hotness, Pleasing, Extra, and Triple “for those who like a sauce that sizzles.”

In February of 1961 Charles applied for a patent for the design of his drive-in structure [see illustrations]. In the early 1960s local and regional drive-ins were still popular, not yet squeezed out by national fast-food franchises. Why he chose a Conestoga wagon style is unknown, but as was true of all roadside businesses, being able to catch the eye of passing motorists was critical.

Later in 1961 an advertisement appeared in the South Burlington High School yearbook for a Dilly-Wagon drive-in at 1907 Williston Road. That same year Charles ran an ad in the Oneonta NY paper saying that the drive-ins cost only $12,750, could be opened in three short weeks, and were ideal for a college town. By August there were Dilly Wagons not only in Burlington but in Rutland VT and in Potsdam NY, and he was hoping to place more in the Lake George area.

Strangely, by summer 1962 the price of a Dilly Wagon had inexplicably jumped up to $20,000, according to a franchise advertisement that appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

Exactly how many Dilly-Wagons were franchised, and where, is unknown. I’ve been able to locate one in New Hartford NY and one as far away as Sheboygan WI. The Wisconsin Dilly-Wagon, purchased in 1963, was run in conjunction with a Dairy Queen stand. There was also a Dilly Bar operated by Charles Weinstein and a partner on Curry Road in Schenectady NY (pictured, 1966). Curiously, this operation, which was not in the form of a covered wagon, specialized not just in burgers and hot dogs but also Chinese egg rolls, Southern fried chicken, and “dilly root beer,” whatever that might be.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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Wayne McAllister’s drive-ins in the round

Architects who design restaurants often have labored in anonymity, and that goes ten-fold for those whose work involved drive-in restaurants. In the beginning drive-ins were simple shacks plastered with signs, as were other buildings of the early automobile age. Like the chicken coups converted to motor courts and the farmers’ fields rigged out for overnight camping, they served as temporary fixes for seat-of-the-pants entrepreneurs looking to make a quick buck from the passing traffic.

The couple of dozen Los Angeles drive-ins Wayne McAllister designed in the 1930s – the Wich Stand, Simon’s, Robert’s, Herbert’s, Melody Lane — were likewise ephemeral, tumbling into ruins with rising real estate values. Yet, despite the ephemerality of the form, he was one of the few designers who managed to develop a functional and aesthetically satisfying style for an inexpensive roadside building type.

This post is based mostly upon Chris Nichols’ The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister, a book that traces McAllister’s career and conveys his genius at transforming crude vernacular building forms into sophisticated expressions of car culture.

Born in San Diego, Wayne McAllister and his wife Corinne, then both 20, took on a major project in 1927 with the Moorish Moderne design of Agua Caliente, a Prohibition-era Tijuana gambling mecca. Wayne was a self-taught high school dropout whose first job was designing houses, a task he was able to execute handily. According to his own account, he regularly completed a new design each day. In the course of a roughly 30-year architectural career, his work focused on the design and remodeling of hotels and restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Among his Las Vegas hotel projects were El Rancho Vegas, the Desert Inn, and the Sands Hotel, while a partial list of his LA restaurants includes Café Caliente, Mike Lyman’s, Richlor’s, Lawry’s, Clifton’s, and Bob’s Big Boy. From 1956 to 1961 he was an architect for the Marriott Corporation.

Although he is best known for the Sands, his circular drive-ins are considered significant in architectural history. Alan Hess, author of Googie, noted that thanks to Wayne McAllister, “Commercial vernacular design developed a respectable architecture that stands on its own right, not simply as a second-rate version of high art design.” It is interesting that even a lofty modern architect like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe developed a drive-in restaurant design, in 1945 (it was never built).

Wayne’s circular drive-ins typically had 20-foot pylons on the roof on which the drive-in’s name was spelled out, with horizontal louvers partially concealing neon tubes that made the signs glow. While his early designs had no doors – the businesses stayed open 24/7 and evidently had no need of heating or air-conditioning – this element was eventually modified. For a time his styles were influential, but after World War II when drive-ins expanded throughout the country, round buildings with overspread roofs were scrapped for rectangular structures from which long canopies stretched outward.

Noir crime novelist Raymond Chandler referred to Los Angeles’ drive-ins “gay as circuses” in The Little Sister (1949), leading Alan Hess to remark: “In almost anyone’s mental map of Los Angeles, the drive-ins of the thirties had become indelible landmarks.” Their images remain no less powerful today.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011

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(In)famous in its day: the Nixon’s chain

nixonsDriveIn338Since the 35th anniversary of Richard M. Nixon’s 1974 resignation from the presidency was commemorated this past weekend, it’s as good a time as any to focus on his brother Donald’s brief career as a restaurateur in Southern California. In the short span of five years in the 1950s, Don managed to go out of business while doing some serious damage to brother Richard’s political fortunes.

He got into several pickles but the biggest issue concerned a 1956 loan of $205,000 he received from Howard Hughes’s tool company to rescue his failing restaurants. Richard Nixon was VP in the Eisenhower administration at the time. Although Don denied that his brother had any involvement in soliciting the loan, critics were not convinced and persisted in raising questions about several decisions the government made that were beneficial to defense contractor Hughes. The toxic issue dogged Nixon in his unsuccessful 1960 presidential campaign against John Kennedy and again in his failed 1962 California gubernatorial run.

nixonburgerREVThe chain of five Nixon’s restaurants began modestly in 1943 when the Nixon family’s grocery store, established in 1922 by father Francis Nixon in Whittier, added a coffee shop. Although Don was involved in running the coffee shop, his first real business venture took place in 1952 when he opened a drive-in on East Whittier Blvd. (shown above). Two years later he opened Nixon’s Family Restaurant, also on East Whittier, home of the “Nixon Burger” whose unfortunate, opportunistic name would be used to taunt Richard Nixon during his two terms as President. Next Don opened a drive-in near Disneyland, in Anaheim, and a restaurant and bakery in Fullerton. In 1957, despite the Hughes loan and proceeds from the sale of Nixon’s Market to a supermarket chain, Don Nixon put all five restaurants up for sale to settle the chain’s debts.

The Nixon’s at 822 E. Whittier became a Whirly’s Drive-in, which itself went out of business in 1962 or early 1963. The Anaheim Nixon’s, at Harbor Blvd. and Katella Ave., was taken over by the Harris chain of Portland OR in 1958 after it was remodeled to include a cocktail lounge. Cocktails had been prohibited in the Nixon’s restaurants judging from a 1954 ad which proclaimed, “Since children are most welcome at Nixon’s – liquor is never served.”

In subsequent years as President, from 1969 to 1974, Richard Nixon kept close tabs on Don. At one point he had the Secret Service wiretap his phone. Richard also found Don a job that he hoped would keep him out of trouble. In 1970 staunch Republican J. Willard Marriott, founder of the Hot Shoppes and CEO of the Marriott Corporation, agreed to do the President a favor. Marriott appointed Don vice president in charge of franchises and acquisitions on the West Coast. Marriott officials denied that Don had any influence in helping the company win government contracts.

© Jan Whitaker, 2009

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