Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Howard Johnson (1955)

Ah, HoJo's! I remember seeing the orange roof of Howard Johnson's from the backseat of my dad's Ford as we were bound for somewhere else. For some reason I always imagined that Howard Johnson's was a hotel, that there was a restaurant in the front and rooms somewhere in the back. Don't know why, nobody ever told me there were, it was just one of those things I assumed because we never went there. It wasn't until I started doing research for this blog post that I found I was right in my childhood assumption. Wikipedia describes HoJo as "a chain of hotels, motels, and restaurants located primarily throughout the United States and Canada..." Funny how instincts work sometimes.

Wollaston, Massachusetts resident Howard Johnson started the business back in 1925 with $2000 and an eye toward improving the profitability of the soda fountain he owned. He started by creating a new, high butter fat ice cream recipe which he parlayed into a line of 28 flavors, his trademark. Johnson started out selling ice cream, fries, and hot dogs from stands up and down the Massachusetts shoreline and eventually opened his first true restaurant in Quincy Square's Granite Trust Building in 1929. Apparently this establishment wasn't the highway-side, orange roof, that you might think of nowadays. A History of Howard Johnson's: How a Massachusetts Soda Fountain Became an American Icon describes it as "an elegantly appointed restaurant that served traditional New England fare throughout the day, with daily specials that attracted business people at lunchtime, diners in the evening as well as families." HoJo's might have stayed a Massachusetts thing if not for a famous playwright and a clique of prudish Bostonians with political pull.

The same year the Quincy HoJo opened, the mayor of Boston and the New England Ward and Watch Society banned Eugene O'Neill's Strange Interlude from being produced in Boston. The Theater Guild moved the production to the Quincy Theater directly opposite the restaurant. If O'Neill's play is known for anything, it is it's remarkable length of five hours, so long as to include a scheduled dinner break during which theatergoers walked over to Howard Johnson's for $1 dinner plate specials.

With the success of his Quincy venture and word of mouth being provided by influential Boston patrons, Johnson soon became one of the first businessmen to successfully franchise his name. Thus, Howard Johnson became daddy to the modern chain restaurant. Sometime after 1929 came the characteristic orange roof with its dormer and cupola.

The ad reminds me of some of the hotel postcards you see at antique stores from time to time. Fifties-era conformists finding their way inside or departing after tanking-up on fried clams, finned cars parked in the lot, an indeterminate landscape seemingly devoid of evidence of human habitation stretching off to the horizon. Yes, you're on the road and you've arrived at HoJo's, god knows what else is out there so you better enjoy hospitality while you can. In '55 when this ad ran in Life Magazine there were only 500 Howard Johnson's nationwide, by the mid-seventies there'd be over a thousand.

I like the "grilled-in-butter frankfurter", okay I actually just like the fact they call it a "frankfurter" instead of a hot dog. It makes me thing Howard had a thing about the term "hot dog". I also like the bullet bra ice cream scoop. Ice cream (among other things) shouldn't come in a shape that could put an eye out. It's just wrong.

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