Note: Our son Rick Fleming of Ashburn, VA passed along this article to us. It summarizes in a few short paragraphs the memories and feelings about the 1940s and 1950s that we are attempting to recount in our “We Remember Blog”. We hope that you enjoy it.
Pat & Frank Fleming
The passing of Howard Johnson’s America
“The Closing of a Classic & the End of an Era!”
By Andrew Cohen
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Tuesday, March 31, 2015
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. Once upon a time, their orange roofs, wrought-iron weather vanes and green leather banquettes were emblems of a nation. These truly were, as their advertisements declared, “Landmarks for Hungry Americans.”As Americans took to their automobiles in the post-war world, they had to eat. And more than anywhere, they ate at Howard Johnson’s.
HoJo’s, as it became known, was the most successful of the early chain restaurants in the United States. Eventually there were some 1,000 of them, nearly ubiquitous and nearly uniform, on the highways and commercial drags of a country on the move. There were also Howard Johnson’s “motor lodges.”
Now the restaurants are all but gone. Today the Howard Johnson’s in Lake Placid, a resort town in the Adirondacks of upstate New York that twice hosted the Olympics, will close after 57 years in business. Only two Howard Johnson’s restaurants will remain: in Bangor, Maine, and Lake George, N.Y. The owners here in Lake Placid had been running their Howard Johnson’s since 1958, but were getting on. Their children were not interested. The new owners, local folks, will open “a high-end roadside diner.”
But it’s not the closing of a restaurant that stings here. It is that something warm, comforting and familiar is passe. The orange roof was the forerunner of the Golden Arches. McDonald’s and its fast-food cousins would soon dominate the road, challenged later by Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday’s and other full-service establishments. But none means quite the same to a generation that grew up with Howard Johnson’s. For them, the end of a commercial icon is the end of something personal.
It was the baby boomers — born between 1946 and 1964 — who recall Howard Johnson’s with particular nostalgia today. They devoured the hot dogs sliced and cooked in butter and the grilled hamburgers and fries while their parents had the fried clams and beef short ribs. There was New England clam chowder, cheese steaks and the New York Strip. Or, liver and onions with bacon and mashed potato, or beef and sausage meatloaf. And the fish fry, on Fridays.
“It’s bright and cheerful,” says Don Draper of “Mad Men” as he sits at a groaning table in a Howard Johnson’s in 1966. “Kids have candy. A bar for Mom and Dad.”The food was simple, but so were tastes, and much of roadside food seemed to taste better then. Besides, if you were a kid, it was desert that mattered most anyway. The ark and covenant of Howard Johnson’s, the siren call across the generations, was ice cream. There were famously 28 flavors. The Republics of Chocolate and Vanilla were enhanced by Macaroon, Maple Walnut, Frozen Pudding, Pineapple, Cherry Burgundy and Fruit Salad (which could not have been for kids). To be 8 years old at Howard Johnson’s, at dessert, was to face one of life’s existential decisions — an imperishable moment caught by Norman Rockwell in one of his illustrations set in a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant.
When you left the restaurant, you imagined a smiling waitress, in a hairnet, at the door saying: “We’ll eat again!”
So, for a generation, half of which is now pushing 60, the end of Howard Johnson’s is another piece of the past broken off and broken up. It is one of life’s moorings come undone — no different from every other generation watching cherished things disappear — but hard, nonetheless. For us,
- it was wood fires in fireplaces, crackling and hissing, not today’s artificial gas contraptions that produce flames at the flick of a switch.
- It was a telephone conversation, not a text message, when the call was clear and continuous.
- It was airplanes that made flying glamorous.
- We remember when appliances lasted decades and two sweaters were enough.
- We remember when public language was lucid and clean, free of euphemism and profanity.
- We remember when people used honorifics rather than first names, when politicians spoke in sentences rather than sound bites.
- We remember when people voted and politics, as President John F. Kennedy put it, was “an honorable profession.”
- We remember when people dressed smartly because elegance was a grace note of life. In their 20s, Peter, Paul and Mary looked resplendent performing in concert; today, in their 70s, Peter and Paul no longer care what they wear.
- We remember when guests did not walk through hotel lobbies in bathrobes and sweatpants stayed in the gym. Dignity trumped comfort.
It seems all around us we see the erosion of manners, dress and language, a genteel collapse of standards. Call it the decline of everything. It was different at Howard Johnson’s. It was a different time, yes,
- though no Shangri-La. Cold War, lily-white America was segregated, somnolent and violent.
- There was asbestos in schools, bomb shelters in basements, litter on roads, lead in paint and gasoline.
- Cars had no seat belts and cigarettes had no warnings.
Of course, we forget that, and whatever else was unpleasant about the period.
What we remember — what we will always remember — was Howard Johnson’s America.
We remember what we were, what we had and what we have lost along the way.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, professor and author. His latest book is “Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.”
A Personal Note – We fondly remember Howard Johnson’s in our personal lives, When we were dating we often went to a Howard Johnson’s after a movie or for an afternoon snack. When we lived in Pennsylvania, we frequently took the family for dinner at a local Ho Jos. Even when we moved to Virginia where we had no near by Howard Johnson’s, we regularly enjoyed their frozen chicken croquettes at home.
Pat & Frank