Amusement Parks, Disney, food, Pop Culture

Disney Eats McDonald’s. PART II

Disney and Ray Kroc Part II
Ray Kroc & Walt Disney.

Original publish date:  January 23, 2020

Last week, In part I of this article, I discussed the relationship between two titans of Pop Culture whose brand has flourished worldwide to unprecedented levels: Walt Disney and Ray Kroc of McDonald’s. It is amazing to think that both men served in the same ambulance company at the tail end of World War I. Even more amazing to think that authors Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos were products of that same ambulance service. The similarities between the four men end with the close of the Great War, but Disney and Kroc would remain linked for nearly a century.
While Walt Disney was flying around the country in one of his three private airplanes searching for Disney World, meeting with executives for the 1964 New York Worlds Fair, planning movies or sporting events aboard Mickey Mouse One, he’d sometimes get a little hungry. Whenever “Uncle Walt” got that Winnie the Pooh “rumbly in the tumbly” feeling, Disney would reportedly ask, usually from the co-pilot seat: “Where are we?” The pilot would invariably reply,”We’re over Tulsa, Walt.” Or Indianapolis. Or Cleveland. Or wherever. To which Disney would cryptically reply. “Do you think there’s one down there?”

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Ray Kroc’s First McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois. 1955

On cue, the pilot would hand his boss a booklet listing the location of every single McDonald’s in the continental United States. If there was a McDonald’s down below in whatever city the Disney corporate plane was flying over, Walt would order the pilot to land. Once safely on the ground, Disney would call for a cab and the entire party would pile in and head out for the nearest McDonald’s to get a bite to eat. This is made all the more ironic when you consider that, as detailed in part I of this article, Ray Kroc’s pitch to place his first McDonald’s restaurant inside Walt Disney’s Disneyland was rejected in 1955. Whether Ray Kroc knew that his old war-buddy was hooked on his hamburgers is unknown, but I’d bet he’d have gotten a kick out of it were it so.

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McDonald’s menu in the 1960s.

Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966. That same year, McDonald’s stock split for the very first time: 3 for 2. The year after Walt’s death, Disney stock split 2 to 1. Disney studios’ success continued that year with the groundbreaking of the Disney World theme park and addition of the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. The next few years continued the Disney shine with the Love Bug, debut of the Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and grand opening of Disney World in Orlando. McDonald’s over that same period flourished with the introduction of the Big Mac, Quarter Pounder and television ad campaigns that boosted their brand like never before.
Fast forward to the early 1980s, McDonald’s was winning the fast food wars, having driven away most of the competition. Meanwhile, Walt Disney Productions was reeling from low theme park attendance and a string of box office flops (remember Popeye, Condorman and Return to Oz?). Suddenly Disney found itself under attack by corporate raiders like Ivan Boesky and Saul Steinberg and then nearly sold out to Coca-Cola in 1982. Disney was scrambling for someone who could come to the Magic Kingdom’s rescue. So who did Disney’s senior management approach? Uncle Walt’s old ambulance corps buddy, Ray Kroc and the McDonald’s Corporation.
z 27-Ray-Kroc-Quotes-On-Success-Wealth-AchievementBy this time, Ray Kroc was relegated to the sidelines serving in a largely ceremonial role as McDonald’s “senior chairman”. Kroc had given up day-to-day operations of McDonald’s in 1974. Ironically, the same year he bought the San Diego Padres baseball team. The Padres were scheduled to move to Washington, D.C., after the 1973 season. Legend claims that the idea to buy the team formulated in Kroc’s mind while he was reading a newspaper on his private jet. Kroc, a life-long baseball fan who was once foiled in an attempt to buy his hometown Chicago Cubs, turned to his wife Joan and said: “I think I want to buy the San Diego Padres.” Her response: “Why would you want to buy a monastery?” Five years later, frustrated with the team’s performance and league restrictions, Kroc turned the team over to his son-in-law, Ballard Smith. “There’s more future in hamburgers than baseball,” Kroc said. Ray Kroc died on January 14, 1984 and the San Diego Padres won the N.L. pennant that same year (They lost in the World Series to the Detroit Tiger 4 games to 1).
z kroc padresBy the 1980s, Disney was a corporation that seemed to be creatively exhausted. The entertainment giant was seriously out of touch with what consumers wanted to buy, what moviegoers wanted to see. McDonald’s had introduced their wildly popular “Happy Meal” nationwide in 1979. Disney saw an opportunity for revival by proposing the idea of adding Disney toys and merchandising to Happy Meals. In 1987, the first Disney Happy Meal debuted, offering toys and prizes from familiar characters like Cinderella, The Sword In The Stone, Mickey Mouse, Aladdin, Simba, Finding Nemo, Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, The Lion King and other classics. For a time, changing food habits, mismanagement and failure to recognize trends, placed the Disney corporation in an exposed position. Rumors circulated that the Mouse was on the brink of being swallowed up by Mickey D’s.
The relationship came to a head when McDonald’s suggested that Disney offer discounted VHS copies of classic Disney films in their restaurants. Also, as time passed, Disney wanted to emphasize healthier eating and they became concerned about McDonald’s being tied so closely to childhood obesity. The McDonald’s-Disney agreement officially expired on January 1, 2007. Over that time, as the Disney company grew into the corporate giant it is today, McDonald’s realized their mistake. For the next several years, McDonald’s tried to reestablish the relationship, with limited success.
For awhile, McDonald’s found a presence in the food and beverage locations at the Disney theme parks. One was the McDonald’s Fry Cart that opened in Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland in 1999. Since it IS Disney after all, the imagneers fitted the location with a back story. It went like this: “With the rush of prospectors passing through Frontierland in search of gold, lots of folks in town started looking for ways to cash in on all the excitement. Back in 1853, ol’ McDonald (who had a farm, ei-ei-o), a potato farmer, decided to set up his cook wagon on the hill under the big oak tree, just off the main trail.”

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McDonald’s French Fry Cart at Disneyland.

The story continues, “Business was booming for a couple of good years, right up until the great flood of 1855. Legend has it that men disturbed the spirits of the mountain by removing gold from Big Thunder, causing all sorts of havoc from earthquakes and avalanches to storms and floods. In fact, the nearby river rose so much, the water reached right up to McDonald’s wagon on the hill. The wagon survived, but when the water receded, the wagon started to go with it. It slid down the hill, crashed through a fence (and sharp-eyed guests could see the poorly repaired fence near the cart), and got lodged in the mud down below. This didn’t stop ol’ man McDonald, though. He just laid down some planks so folks wouldn’t get their boots muddy, and he has kept right on selling his delicious French fried potatoes to this day.”
McDonald even came up with a catch phrase and posted it on the front of the wagon: “There’s gold in them thar fries!” There was also a sign placed nearby that pictured the familiar Golden Arches and proclaimed, “Same location since ’53.” The “53” was scratched out and painted over with a “55.” The McDonald’s Frontierland Fry Cart closed in late 2008. There were McDonald’s restaurants at Disney’s Animal Kingdom as well. The Boneyard, Restaurantosaurus and the “Petrifries” french fries stand which came with it’s own backstory as well. That backstory is not as interesting though as it involves a former fishing lodge where the first dinosaur fossil was found in 1947 by an unnamed amateur fossil hunter and it was hard to decipher. The Dino Institute featured a small lab, a clubhouse for student volunteers and a commissary to round out the McDonald’s connection. Although the McDonald’s french fries served there were popular with visitors, at least the few who could find it, the venue also closed.
z disney-mcdonalds-2018-03Additionally, there once was a McDonald’s at downtown Disney (before it became Disney Springs). At the Magic Kingdom, visitors could munch on french fries at the Village Fire Shoppe. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, McDonald’s sponsored Fairfax Fries at the Sunset Ranch March. Fairfax is a reference to the street where the famous Los Angeles Farmers Market (the inspiration for the Sunset Ranch Market) is located. At Epcot, on the World Showcase promenade, is the Refreshment Port where sometimes international cast members from Canada would bring Canadian Smarties (similar to M&Ms) for the food and beverage location to make a Smarties McFlurry. The exclusive contract with Disney did not allow McDonald’s to tie in with blockbuster movies such as the Star Wars franchise even though movie studios would have preferred the tie in since McDonald’s had a higher profile and market share.
There are many Disney fans and park visitors who have fond memories of eating McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets or an Egg McMuffin during a fun day at a Disney theme park. After all, could it get any better than to receive a Disney prize in your Disney Happy Meal while on Disney property? Today, the only McDonald’s presence on Disney property is the restaurant at Disney’s All-Star sport complex hotel. Although it was briefly closed on Halloween of 2019 for renovation, it is scheduled to reopen in March of 2020. However, it is unlikely that we’ll ever see another “Hotdog-osaurus” or a “Dino-Sized Double Cheeseburger” any time soon.

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McDonald’s at Disney’s All-Star Sports Complex.

While Disney netted more than $100 million dollars during the partnership, McDonald’s netted more than $1 billion dollars even while promoting Disney’s box office bombs. It was not unusual for a McDonald’s promotion for a film to exceed Disney’s budget for advertising the very same film. Disney got the royalties and increased advertising exposure and McDonald’s sold the food. Seems like a match made in heaven. Yeah, well, Burt Reynolds & Lonnie Anderson / Brad Pitt & Jennifer Aniston / Lee Majors & Farrah Fawcett didn’t work out either.
Both Disneyland and McDonald’s have become worldwide icons of America. Walt Disney and Ray Kroc are ranked # 9 and 10 on Baylor Univeristy’s list of Greatest American Entrepreneurs and/or Businesspeople behind Henry Ford (1), Bill Gates (2), John D. Rockefeller (3), Andrew Carnegie (4), Thomas Edison (5), Sam Walton (6), J.P. Morgan (7), G.M.’s Alfred Sloan (8). McDonald’s now operates more than 35,000 restaurants in 118 countries, serving 68 million people every day. A new branch opens every 14.5 hours, more than 75 hamburgers are sold every second and 68 million people eat something from McDonald’s each day-that’s 1% of the world’s population. McDonald’s’ estimates that one in eight American workers has been employed by the company at one stage of their careers. McDonald’s is the world’s largest distributor of toys, with the Happy Meal included in 20% of all sales.
Conversely, there are 12 Disney theme parks worldwide, welcoming 157 million visitors annually and serving a half-million guests every day. Disney has 201,000 employees, 100,000 of whom work at the two resorts in the USA. Every year, Disney World alone serves 10 million hamburgers, 6 million hot dogs, 9 million pounds of French fries, 300,000 pounds of popcorn, and 1.6 million turkey drumsticks along with 13 million bottles of water and 75 million Coca-Colas to wash them down. According to one study, Walt Disney’s logo is the fifth most recognizable logo in the world behind Starbucks (4), McDonald’s (3), Coca-Cola (2) and Nike (1).
z disney awardsDuring his lifetime, Walt Disney received 59 Academy Award nominations, including 22 awards: both totals are records. Walt Disney’s net worth was equal to roughly $1 billion at the time of his death in 1966 (after adjusting for inflation). At the time of his death, Disney’s various assets were worth $100-$150 million in 1966 dollars which is the same as $750 million-$1.1 billion today. By the time of Kroc’s death in 1984, his net worth was $600 million. That’s the same as $1.4 billion after adjusting for inflation. One can only imagine how the pop culture landscape might have changed back in 1955 if those two former ambulance corps buddies had formed a partnership. But wait, would that make it Mickey D’s Mouse?

Amusement Parks, Disney, food, Pop Culture, Travel

Disney Eats McDonald’s. PART I

Disney and Ray Kroc Part I
Ray Kroc & Walt Disney-World War I Ambulance Corps.

Original publish date:  January 16, 2020

There has been a lot of hubbub going around lately about the latest Star Wars movie “The Rise of Skywalker” from Walt Disney studios and the new Star Wars themed lands in Disneyland and Disneyworld’s Hollywood Studios known as “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.” Disney purchased Star Wars parent company, Lucasfilms, for $4.05 billion in cash and stock on Oct. 30, 2012 and recouped their investment in just a few short years. The four Disney Star Wars movies alone grossed more than $4.8 billion at the box office. That figure doesn’t even count any monies generated by the franchise in merchandising or at the theme parks, which opened in 2019.
What would you think if I were to tell you that the Disney / Star Wars merger was not the first “big idea” to land on the house of the mouse doorstep? There was another big idea that was nearly floated out of Anaheim over fifty years ago. And this one came from “Uncle Walt” himself. Well, to paraphrase Winnie the Pooh, Walt Disney’s rumbly tummy anyway. Believe it or not, there was a time when Disneyland and McDonald’s nearly partnered up.

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Disney Star Wars.

This was not a proposal made by a couple of opportunistic bandwagon jumpers, there was history behind this love affair. Walt Disney and Ray Kroc first met in a Connecticut Army camp in 1918 while both were teenaged dreamers known only to their families. Both men were born near Chicago, Illinois less than a year apart. Walter Elias Disney in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood on December 5, 1901 and Ray Albert Kroc in Oak Park, Illinois, on October 5, 1902.
In mid-1918, Walt Disney dropped out of high school at 16 and attempted to join the United States Army to fight against the Huns, but he was rejected because he was too young. Undeterred, Disney forged the date on his birth certificate and joined the Red Cross in September 1918 as an ambulance driver. Ironically, Walt began his ambulance corps training at a burned down amusement park near the University of Chicago where he was taught by mechanics from the Yellow Cab Company how to repair motors and drive cars over rough terrain.
Likewise, Ray Kroc dropped out of school, lied about his age and joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver at the age of 15. Disney was shipped to France, arriving in November, after the armistice. The only action Disney participated in was drawing cartoons on the side of ambulances. As for Kroc, the war ended shortly after he enlisted. In his 1977 autobiography “Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s”, Ray Kroc said this about his old war buddy, “In my company, which assembled in Connecticut for training, was another fellow who had lied about his age to get in. He was regarded as a strange duck, because whenever we had time off and went out on the town to chase girls, he stayed in camp drawing pictures. His name was Walt Disney.”

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Ray Kroc: Soldier.

While training to be a driver in Ambulance Company A, Disney and Kroc became friends. Ironically, at the same time, a couple of young idealistic writers, also from Chicago, were serving in the ambulance corps; Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. These four men shared not only an occupation but a desire to revolutionize American writing, entertainment and pop culture. However, this article ain’t that deep and talking about Hemingway and Dos Passos is above my pay grade. This article is about pop culture at it’s finest.
After Ray and Walt returned to the US, independently, they both headed out to Southern California seeking fame and fortune. Disney as an animator, even though the cartoon industry was headquartered in New York City, and Kroc as a businessman, even though California was still a relative unknown in the business world. Disney struggled for a time but finally caught on in 1928 with a cartoon about a mouse called “Steamboat Willie”—the first cartoon with synchronized sound. For Kroc, it would take a little bit longer for his ship to come in: 26 years to be specific.

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Walt Disney: Soldier.

Disney’s story is well known, but Kroc’s story might be worth a revisit. Kroc was working as a traveling salesman for the Mixmaster Corporation when he met two brothers who were tearing it up in San Bernardino. Richard and Maurice “Mac” McDonald, who curiously shared the same middle name (James), developed a restaurant using what they called the “Speedee Service System.” The new restaurant proved a rousing success, especially with teenagers, and the brothers were soon making $40,000 a year, big money back then.

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The McDonald’s Brothers.

By 1953, the brothers had set their sights on franchising with a goal of making $1 million before they turned 50. Their first step was to buy eight shiny new milkshakes machines. Curious why one business would need eight machines, Ray visited the McDonalds’, took one glance at the brothers’ method of cooking hamburgers “assembly-line-style” to get the food out to the customers more quickly and he immediately saw dollar signs. In 1954, the McDonald brothers partnered with Ray Kroc. Around this same time (April 1954) Walt Disney unveiled his plans for a bold new concept in family fun parks he planned to call Disneyland.

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Walt Disney & Mickey Mouse-Opening Day at Disneyland July 17, 1955.

As soon as Ray Kroc heard the news about this new mega-fun park, he knew that hungry teenagers would flock to it by the carload. Kroc knew that he’d finally found the perfect place to build his first McDonald’s franchise. In late 1954, Ray sent a letter to his old ambulance corps buddy, it read, in part, “Dear Walt…I look over the Company A picture we had taken in Sound Beach, Conn. many times and recall a lot of pleasant memories.” Then Kroc cut to the chase, “I have very recently taken over the national franchise of the McDonald’s system. I would like to inquire if there may be an opportunity for a McDonald’s in your Disneyland Development.”
Walt responded cordially to the former Red Cross ambulance driver’s note by saying that he would be handing the proposal over to the Disneyland executive in charge of concessions. Walt explained that he was “currently confining his activities to the creative side” while the Disney Company “raced to complete the theme park on time.” The Disney Archives has a copy of Kroc’s letter and Walt’s response. Kroc claimed he never received a response from the vice president in charge of concessions.
z AuntJemimasPancakeHouse2From there, well, nobody knows. For the answer, you need look no further than the fact that there are no McDonald’s at Disney. It should be noted that there were SOME franchise restaurants in Disneyland during those first first years. They included the Aunt Jemima pancake and waffle house in Frontierland and the Chicken of the Sea Pirate Ship in Fantasyland.
z chickenoftheseaTo his dying day, Ray Kroc insisted that the reason the “world’s first McDonald’s” was not featured inside Disneyland at the park’s July 17, 1955 grand opening was because the head of concessions had tried to force Ray to raise the price of his french fries by a nickle (from 10 cents to 15 cents) for the Disneyland crowd. Kroc, the man in charge of McDonald’s franchising, believed that he was being charged a franchise fee by virtue of Walt Disney Productions tacking on a concessionaire’s fee. Kroc, the consummate businessman, said he wasn’t about to give away 1/3 of his profits while gouging his customers. Great story, but by the time Disneyland debuted, Kroc had only opened one McDonald’s franchise (in Des Plaines, Illinois on April 15, 1955). So he had no loyal customers to offend…yet. Well, no customers within 2,000 miles anyway.
z McD des plainesIt is more likely to say that while the executives in charge of Disneyland’s concessions were undoubtedly intrigued by Ray’s “fast food” proposal, “war buddy” or not, Kroc just didn’t have enough experience in the restaurant business to take that gamble. So, despite how Kroc spun the tale to reporters from the 1950s forward, while there was some discussion of putting a McDonald’s inside the theme park, the project never really made it past the talking stage. But Ray Kroc would never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.
Ray Kroc eventually bought the brothers out in 1961, a year after Walt Disney received TWO stars on the Hollywood walk of fame: one for movies, the other for television. All business partnership questions aside, the parallels between the two men continued. Both men were vehement conservative Republicans. Disney famously wore a Barry Goldwater for President pin to the White House in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Presidential medal of Freedom to the animator. Kroc donated $255,000 to Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972, and was accused by some, including N.J. Senator Harrison Williams, of trying to influence Nixon to veto a minimum wage bill making its way through Congress (which was a $ 1.60 per hour by the way).
Both men were brilliant businessmen. Both were always looking to the future. Both would be categorized as “control freaks” today. And both men were among the first to market their product specifically to children. But there was one major difference. While Kroc had a legendary temper and was famous for holding a grudge, Disney retained a childlike innocence and truly enjoyed people. While it is true that the Golden Arches never made it onto Main Street USA, they still found a place in Walt Disney’s heart. Or maybe it is more accurate to say, his stomach.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Walt Disney , the ultimate imagineer, was one of the first businessmen in America to utilize a personal airplane for business and travel. Actually, he had three. Although Walt never got a pilot’s license, he frequently sat in the co-pilot’s seat. Lillian Disney disapproved strongly of her husband’s desire to fly. Once, after Walt announced from the cockpit: “This is your captain speaking”, Lillian jumped from her seat and stormed towards the cabin. Walt quickly backed off by saying: “No, not the captain. This is the commander in chief of the whole damned outfit!”
Walt’s first plane was an eight­ passenger Beechcraft Queen Air Model 80, which Walt bought in February of 1963 and used until 1965. The twin engine turboprop, nicknamed “The Queen” by Disney, had a top speed of 247 mph, a list price of $135,000 and a large circular logo of the “Mickey Mouse Club” near the nose. Legend states that it was this plane that Walt used to fly over central Florida to pick the spot for his Disney World complex nine months after purchase.

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Walt’s Grumman Gulfstream G-159 Tail Number N732G.

In March of 1964, the small cabin of the Queen Air necessitated an upgrade to a used Grumman Gulfstream G-159 one, tail number N732G. This new tan and brown plane was a significant upgrade with a cruising speed of 350 mph at 30,000 feet. It was a smooth ride to the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, while Walt was busy working on his “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and “It’s a Small World” projects. At one time it was the most highly utilized Gulfstream I in the country.
In July of 1965, Walt purchased a Beechcraft King Air Model 90, which he used from 1965­ to 1967. The Beechcraft could carry 10 passengers, including a flight crew of two. It was powered by a pair of Pratt and Whitney PT-6 Turboprop engines, capable of cruising at 270 mph at 23,000 feet. Fully equipped, its list price was $320,000. Perhaps most importantly, this new plane carried the tail number N234MM. The King Air was fast and quiet, but the Gulfstream could get in and out of smaller airports much easier. So by 1967, the Gulfstream eventually ended up with the N234MM tail number and the forever designation as “Walt’s Plane”.

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Walt’s Beechcraft King Air Model 90-Tail number N234MM.

Disney pilots originally used “two-three-four-Metro-Metro” as their radio call sign but it soon morphed into “two-three-four-Mickey-Mouse” which was not a standard ICAO Aircraft call. Soon the FAA enroute controllers were also calling it “Mickey Mouse.” According to friends, Walt took delight in every aspect of flying. He loaded the luggage, served the drinks and supervised the galley. Even those with a passing knowledge of McDonald’s Ray Kroc’s personality realize it would find it hard to imagine the Golden Arches CEO doing any of that. z Gulfstream_WDA_BA_Altimeter
Walt’s “problem” was that he always liked to fly as low as possible, to study the landscape. Perhaps by decree of Lillian (or the insurance company) Walt ended up with his own personal seat in the back equipped with an altimeter and air speed indicator on the wall and a telephone direct to the pilot. During the 1960s, as Walt Disney was flying around the country overseeing World’s Fair attractions, selecting movie sets, participating in lawn bowling events (yes, he was a world class lawn-bowler) and planning more self-titled mega-theme parks, he would often land his plane to search for… a McDonald’s hamburger.

NEXT WEEK: Part II of Disney East McDonald’s

Christmas, food, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

Roselyn Bakeries Rosie’s Gingerbread House.

Original publish date:  December 10, 2012

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Painting by Dale Blaney.

For many Indianapolis residents, Christmas in the Circle City is defined by one thing: The World’s Largest Christmas Tree. Every year since 1962, the dedicated electrical workers of IBEW 481 have dutifully transformed the Soldiers and Sailors monument into a glistening, magical pyramid of lights that even the most skeptical Scrooge among us proudly calls the world’s largest Christmas tree. This year marks the 56th anniversary of that monumental Christmas tree.
Monument_Circle_ChristmasAlthough I never fail to take my annual trip around Monument Circle at Christmastime to gaze in wonder at the fantastic fir tree fantasy, my personal memories of Christmas on the Circle revolve around a little shack that used to rest at its base facing the Indiana Statehouse. You may think of the L.S. Ayres Cherub, Santa’s mailbox, the 26 larger-than-life toy soldiers and sailors surrounding the Circle, the 26 red & white striped peppermint sticks, the 52 garland strands or the 4,784 colored lights strung from the top of the Monument to its base, but I think of the Roselyn Bakery Christmas Hut.
For a quarter century beginning in 1974, every year on the night after Thanksgiving Indianapolis based Roselyn Bakeries set up a special “Christmas Hut” to celebrate the lighting of the “World’s Largest Christmas Tree” on Monument Circle. The best part? Many lucky visitors received free Christmas cookies made from a “secret” Roselyn recipe. Surely those cookies were made by Roselyn’s mascot “Rosie” herself inside that tiny little shed, right?
Rosi_Roselyn_logo_shdwDecorated with Gingerbread man shutters and candy cane pillars, coated in what looked like white icing, the Christmas hut was set up on the West side of the Circle where it remained for 25 years from 1974 to 1999. It was estimated that some 1.2 million Gingerbread man cookies were handed out from within that festive little house over those years. Just like the bakery itself, that little hut was an institution. 636389898040860440-roselyn-1
Roselyn Bakery was founded in 1943 with its first storefront located at 22nd and Meridian Streets. Within the decade Roselyn bakeries could be found all over the city. You might remember those old city buses with the early Roselyn Bakery cartoon chef logo known as “Mr. Henry.” By the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, there were over 30 Roselyn locations all over central Indiana. When they closed up shop in 1999, Roselyn had some 40 locations offering over 700 different items. I’m still amazed by the memory of those Grandmotherly looking counter ladies wrapping up those cookie and cake boxes with that menacing looking string-tie machine that made that frightening bullwhip sound: “Whoosh-snap!”
Roselyn cookbook coverFor me, Roselyn will always be identified for buttermilk jumbles, toffee cookies, alligator & sweetheart coffee cakes, yeast donuts and the darling little girl cartoon mascot known as “Rosie”. A blonde haired, blue eyed perpetually smiling little naive whose popularity forced the Roselyn Christmas Hut to undergo a name change to “Rosie’s Gingerbread House.” If memory serves, for a time there was even a living, breathing life-sized “Rosie” mascot dressed in a horribly oversized paper mache’ head and wearing a red velvet dress. Every so often, she would wobble awkwardly out of the Gingerbread hut to personally pass out cookies to the eager, but slightly befuddled, kiddies on the Circle. As I recall, she didn’t speak, but to a 12-year-old cartoon addicted boy like me, her skirt was short and her cookies were hot.
Today, nearly two decades after that Roselyn Christmas house disappeared, the lighting of the Circle is called the “Festival of Lights” attended by a crowd of over a 100,000 people with another 50,000 viewers watching the event live on TV from home. In 2011, Travelocity called the Circle of Lights one of the top five “must-see Christmas trees” in the country. To quote the old Virginia Slims cigarettes slogan from Rosie’s days, “You’ve come buttertoffeecookies-5a long way baby.”
The “Christmas in the round” idea was born in 1945 at the close of World War II and intended as a celebration of peace at a monument built to honor fallen soldiers. Renowned Indianapolis architect Edward D. Pierre (IPS schools # 7 & 78, Indiana State Library and Historic Bureau) first suggested decorating and lighting the Monument as a glowing symbol of peace. Until 1961, decor was confined to the lower parts of the Monument. The next year, the “World’s Largest Christmas Tree” was born. That simple program with a few speakers in 1962 has evolved into an intricate hour-long television show today. As for Roselyn, the cakes, donuts and cookies can be found in several of the grocery store chains around town. But its not quite the same. The bakery chain’s only remaining evidence on our streets are the many Roselyn Bakery “Frankensigns” that dot the city in front of those familiar low rise buildings that once sold Rosie’s sugar-coated sweets.
package-fallholidaypartytray-1-1-300x300Eight mayors and ten governors have served our city and state over the past 50 years. I can’t say that I miss any of them, but I do miss those Gingerbread cookies. If you do too, you can make them yourself. Here’s the recipe for Roselyn Bakeries famous Gingerbread Men cookies: 1 1/4 teaspoon allspice, 2 3/4 teaspoons baking soda, 5 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 teaspoon ground ginger, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, 3/4 cup Crisco shortening, 3/4 cup granulated sugar, 6 tablespoons whole eggs, 1 1/4 cup extra fine coconut (Make sure that the coconut you use is very fine, almost like coarse sugar-you may have to grind store bought coconut flake down), 1 1/4 cup honey, 5 cups all-purpose flour. Preheat oven to 360 degrees F. Combine allspice, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, salt, shortening, and sugar into a large mixing bowl. Cream together. Scrape down bowl. Add beaten eggs and mix thoroughly.Sweetheart Scrape down bowl. Add coconut and honey and mix well. Scrape down bowl. Add flour and mix well. On a lightly floured surface, with a floured rolling pin, roll dough 1/8 inch thick. With a 5 inch long cutter, cut out men. Re-roll trimmings and cut more cookies. With spatula, place 1/2 inch apart on cookie sheets. Bake at 360 degrees for 8 minutes or until browned, then, with spatula, remove cookies to racks to cool. Decorate as desired. Makes 3 dozen cookies. Now if I could only locate a slightly used Christmas shack.

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food, Indianapolis, Music, Pop Culture

Merrill’s Hi-Decker in Indianapolis.

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WIBC radio booth atop Merrill’s Hi-Decker.

Original publish date:  August 6, 2015

Summertime is closing fast and the Indiana State Fair has come and gone for another year. So I figured I’d break out one last gasp of summertime from 38th and Fall Creek that might jog a memory or two for you. Back when Elvis was blonde, the Tee Pee stood tall and Ike was in charge there was a place called Merrill’s Hi- Decker restaurant located right across the street from the Fairgrounds (officially 1155 East 38th Street). The Hi- Decker took over a restaurant known as “The Parkmoor” in 1956 as a curbside drive-in hamburger stand restaurant whose most famous whose most famous “deckhand” never sold as much as one burger or milkshake.

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WIBC Disc Jockey Dick Summer.

His name was Dick Summer and he manned the coolest DJ booth in Indianapolis in the late 1950s. His glass booth sat on the roof of Merrill’s High Decker. The restaurant was shaped like a stack of records anyway, so the addition of the rectangular booth with the circular roof made the High Decker one of the city’s hottest spots when Summer was in session. The booth was brightly lit with neon lights featuring the “WIBC 1070 On Your Dial” marque sign ablaze like a Rock-N-Roll sun. Indianapolis radio station WIBC was the No. 1 station among teens.
All the “flattop cats” and “dungaree dolls” spent their weekends buzzing Merrill’s and other drive-ins like Laughners at Irvington Plaza on Washington Street, Jack ‘n Jill’s on North Shadeland, Knobby’s at Shadeland & 38th Street and the Blue Ribbon on 10th Street. The Northside Tepee across the street from Merrill’s was Shortridge and Broad Ripple territory and the southside Tepee was for Sacred Heart and Southport. Spencer’s North Pole at Lafayette Road and 16th was for Washington and Ben Davis high schools. And who can forget Al Green’s at Washington and Shadeland and their freebie drive-in movies for restaurant patrons (The joke was that the service was so slow, they had to do something to keep people from leaving). But none of them had Dick Summer.

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WIBC Disc Jockey Dick Summer.

Summer, a wildly handsome young Disc Jockey from Brooklyn New York, had a perfectly quaffed pompadour and an act to matched. He had a show called “Summertime, live from the Skyline Studio”. Summer would play the newest rock-and-roll hits from his WIBC radio booth on high. His show included a nightly segment after the 10 PM News he called “make it or break it.” He would spin new “Hot Wax” 45 rpm releases, many from local bands, and ask the cheeseburger chompin’ patrons parked in their cars below to vote on them. Patrons would vote by sounding their car horns. The results would decide whether the record would be played on future shows or if he should break it. Car horns could be clearly heard over the air. If the “No’s” won, Summer would break the record over his microphone. If more people honked for “Make It” that record was played every hour for the next week.
Every Saturday night Summer did a live broadcast featuring a different local band which set up right out on the parking lot. Any time recording artists and bands came to town, Summer interviewed them out in the Merrill’s parking lot. Part of these interviews included an opportunity for the people eating at the restaurant to walk over and ask questions of their own. One of the things fans remember best was the midnight story feature. Every midnight Summer read a short story, most often something by Edgar Allan Poe.
Summer, now retired, recalled a funny story from those years, “The manager of the restaurant was a young guy who was very much into guns. One night as I was doing “Make It Or Break It” he decided that he REALLY didn’t like the record I was playing, so he pulled out his hand gun and shot me. Seriously. I watched him, standing probably 20 feet away, reach into his belt, pull his gun, aim, and squeeze the trigger. The blast was huge, and I thought I was dead. It was a blank. He hit the ground laughing. So the next night I wedged a pound of Limburger cheese right on the engine block of his car. He got the first laugh, but mine lasted longer.”
z merrill'sAnother Summer gimmick was to slowly bite into a juicy hamburger before he kicked off every commercial during his show. Doesn’t sound like much now, but apparently back in the day it drove customers crazy. Not to mention it sold a lot of hamburgers. The only way into the glass booth studio was up a fire escape ladder leading up to the roof, and then into the tiny studio via a trap door in the floor. Legend claims that George Lucas used Summer’s “Skyline Studio” as the inspiration for Wolfman Jack’s studio in his movie American Graffiti. You’d have to rent the movie and see for yourself because Merrill’s Hi-Decker and the radio booth are long gone now.
Even though Summer’s gig kept the Hi-Decker in the black in the Ike Era up into the John F. Kennedy Camelot Era. But Summer eventually left WIBC and went to WIL-AM, in St. Louis. WIBC kept rolling along nicely, but the Indy radio scene really took the blow hard. The British Invasion pretty much sealed the fate of local radio hijinx. And Merrills was in big trouble. Within a short time after Summer’s departure, the Hi-Decker had to make a deal with an auto dealer up the street to park his used cars in the drive-in parking lot on the weekends to look like it was still doing a bang-up business. It was a far cry from the days of two block long traffic jams of tail-fin and fuzzy dice cars waiting to cruise the Hi-Decker.
Recently Summer waxed poetic about his time in Indy and parts elsewhere as a young DJ: “It is truly hard being an aging young person. Hide and seek, ringalevio, kick the can, double dutch, punch ball, stick ball, box ball, stoop ball, doctor-lawyer-indian chief thoughts keep popping up in my head while I’m trying to be serious doing my day job. Pay checks are poor substitutes for wax lips, candy drops on rolls of paper and chocolate cigarettes. Kid-hood had stresses like “are you going to be the LAST guy picked to play on the stickball team?” (Guys will understand.) Adult-hood has stresses that involve having to override your body’s basic desire to choke the living crap out of some idiot who desperately deserves it…and would probably never even be the last person ever picked for any stickball team. The most wonderful part of the kind of radio I did was as long as I was on the air, it was never too late to have a happy childhood. I don’t ever want to get too old or too angry to do goofy stuff. That’s why I always listen carefully to what my Rice Krispies tell me when I pour milk over them at breakfast…Radio seems awfully grown up now. Talk shows are angry, computers spit out carefully researched music lists, and there’s no time to broadcast local kid bands live from a drive-in while the guy on the air munches his juicy hamburger.”

food, Pop Culture

Willard Scott Retired (and why you should care).

Willard Scott McDonaldsOriginal publish date:  September 11, 2015

Ten days before Christmas Willard Scott announced his retirement after a 65 year career. Yes, SIXTY-FIVE years! To be perfectly honest, I thought he retired decades ago but that probably says more about me than it does the indefatigable Mr. Scott. So, what’s the big deal about a TV weatherman retiring you ask? Well, not only was Willard Scott the weatherman for The Today Show for 35 years, he was Bozo the clown from 1959 to 1962 and he created the very first Ronald McDonald in 1963.
Scott was born in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 7, 1934. He began his career as a 16-year-old, working in 1950 as an NBC page at WRC-AM, NBC’s owned-and-operated radio station in Washington, D.C. Scott attended American University, where he met Ed Walker at the school’s radio station. From 1955 to 1972, Scott and Walker formed the Joy Boys show on WRC-AM Radio. For nearly two decades, the Joy Boys were DC’s version of the Bob & Tom show. From Ike to JFK to LBJ to Nixon, everyone listened to the Joy Boys. Scott spent his spare time balancing his night-time radio career with a daytime job as the host of WRC children’s television programs playing characters such as Commander Retro and Bozo the Clown.
From August 1959 to August 1962 Scott portrayed Bozo the Clown at WRC. When the TV station dropped the Bozo character, Scott wanted to keep his clown gig going. Willard thought that a clown bearing hamburgers would be irresistible to children. So he morphed his Bozo character into a clown he named Ronald McDonald for two locally owned DC area McDonald’s franchises. In 1963, he appeared in 3 DC area TV commercials using the catch phrase, “Ronald McDonald, the Hamburger-Happy Clown.” Scott’s character wore a a red and yellow striped suit, could magically pull as many as 3 hamburgers at a time out of his belt, and wears a nose made out of a McDonald’s cup. His hat, made of a tray holding a Styrofoam hamburger, a bag of fries and a milkshake, covered a shock of spaghetti-like hair .
Even though Willard Scott’s original Ronald more closely resembled a scarecrow than a clown, Ray Kroc liked the idea. So, in typical “Kroc-style”, he usurped the idea and hired another actor to portray the hamburger clown for his own national commercials. Scott wasn’t selected as spokesclown for the company’s ads because the agency thought Willard was too fat for the role of an “extremely active” Ronald McDonald. In time, Willard Scott’s brainchild would become one of the world’s best-known advertising icons. But Willard never missed a beat.
In 1970, Scott began appearing on WRC-TV as a weekday weatherman. In 1980, NBC asked Willard to become its weatherman for The Today Show. He soon became the archetype of all “wacky” weathermen to follow. Scott routinely did weather reports on the road, interviewing locals at community festivals and landmarks, a forerunner of today’s weather channel programming. NBC executives once insisted that the bald-headed Scott wear a hairpiece. He complied when in New York, but refused when outside of the studio, resulting in a strange dichotomy on the air. His toupee occasionally tilted or fell off on the air, ensuring Scott an eternal place in the TV blooper hall of fame.
In 1989, an internal memo from Today Show co-host Bryant Gumbel was leaked to the media. In the memo, Gumbel said Scott “holds the show hostage to his assortment of whims, wishes, birthdays and bad taste…This guy is killing us and no one’s even trying to rein him in.” The public backlash against Gumbel, battling a difficult and aloof label already, became a media firestorm. The next time they appeared on camera together Scott kissed Gumbel on the cheek to show he’d forgiven him, and also later said he hoped the whole thing would go away. One thing was certain, Willard, like the Ronald McDonald character he created, would change but not go away.
As Willard became the face of NBC Today Show weather, Ronald McDonald became the primary mascot of the McDonald’s fast-food restaurant chain. According to one survey found on stunning-stuff.com, 96% of all schoolchildren in the United States recognize Ronald. The character and costume evolved drastically over the years and continues to be a cornerstone of the McDonald’s corporation marketing campaigns to this day. Ray Kroc’s Ronald ditched the food tray hat and cup nose in favor of a painted white face and a bright red wig. He is dressed in yellow clothes, red and white striped shirt, yellow gloves, and red clown shoes with yellow laces to mirror the official McDonald’s colors.
In television commercials of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Ronald inhabited a fantasy world called McDonaldland where he had adventures with friends Mayor McCheese, the Hamburglar, Grimace, Birdie the Early Bird, and The Fry Kids. In recent years, McDonaldland has been largely phased out, and Ronald is portrayed interacting with families in their everyday lives.
In 1971, Ronald got a major makeover that found him wearing a yellow jumpsuit, red and white striped shirt and legs, yellow gloves, red shoes, red hair, whiteface makeup and a big red smile. The suit had three french fry bags for pockets, all of which read “McDonald’s”. That look would last for more than 40 years with only a few subtle changes to his hair style, sleeve length and pocket design. In 1998 the french fry pockets on Ronald’s jumpsuit were replaced with red seamed pockets, the stripes on the shirt became thicker, and the back of the suit featured the name “Ronald” like a sports jersey (the name would be removed by 2000).
In early 2014, Ronald’s jumpsuit was dropped in favor of a more athletic looking costume of yellow cargo pants, a vest and a red-and-white striped rugby shirt. His classic clown shoes remain part of the official uniform. The new look was designed to more favorably appeal to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Over the decades, Willard’s Hamburger-Happy clown has been played by at least ten different actors, whose names are recalled by only the most fervent of Ronald McDonald fans. Today, many people work full-time making appearances in the Ronald McDonald costume, visiting children in hospitals, attending restaurant grand openings and charity events.
From the late 1980s until the early 1990s, Scott served as spokesperson alongside Pat Summerall for True Value Hardware Stores. In 1992, Scott ironically recorded a TV commercial for McDonald’s arch-rival Burger King. (Take that Ray Kroc!) Scott left his daily gig as The Today Show weatherman in 1996 and was succeeded by Al Roker. Willard continued to substitute for Roker for the next decade until NBC acquired The Weather Channel in 2009. Weather channel meteorologists served as substitutes but Willard continued to appear twice a week on the morning program to wish centenarians a happy birthday. He remains the commercial voice of Smucker’s jellies, which sponsors his birthday tributes on Today.
True, to most, Willard Scott was that annoying weather guy on The Today Show endlessly wishing old folks well on their 100th birthday. In fact, Willard Scott himself once said, “I got more mail than anybody in the history of The Today Show, but half of it was to get me off the air.” But now you know, despite his NFL lineman size, there’s more than meets the eye when you’re talking about Willard Scott. Well, I guess you really can’t judge a book by the cover.

food, Pop Culture

A Gunfight With Colonel Sanders.

Col. Sanders_HarlandOriginal publish date:  September 10, 2015

Colonel Harland Sanders died 35 years ago this week (December 16, 1980) but lately he’s been getting more TV face time than Abe Vigoda, Kirk Douglas and Zsa Zsa Gabor combined (who are all still alive, at least at the time of this writing). The Colonel has proven so popular in fact, that two former Saturday Night Lives are battling over who will portray him in the flesh in Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials. My wife and I love those TV ads; our kids think they are creepy. Colonel Sanders is perhaps the best known recurring fast food namesake our country has ever known. He is also a lot more complicated than he looks.
For example, did you know that Colonel Sanders, founder of KENTUCKY Fried Chicken was born in Indiana? Yep, Sanders was born on September 9, 1890 in a four-room house located 3 miles east of Henryville, Indiana. His father died when Harland was only 5 years old and by the age of seven Sanders was a skilled cook out of necessity. Sanders’ mother remarried in 1902, and the family moved to Greenwood, Indiana. Young Harland didn’t get along very well with his new stepfather. In 1903 he dropped out of seventh grade and soon he was working full time painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. When he was 14 he moved to southern Indiana and worked on a farm for a couple of years. In 1905, he moved in with an uncle in New Albany.
After leaving New Albany in late 1906, he joined the United States Army in Alabama (where another of his uncles lived) and was trained as a teamster / mule minder for a few months. He then became a blacksmith, then ash-pan cleaner, then steam engine stoker for the Northern Alabama Railroad. He married, moved to Jackson Tennessee and went to work as a fireman for the Illinois Central railroad while going to law school at night. He got in a fight with a co-worker and lost his job. The family moved to Little Rock Arkansas and Harland went to work for the Rock Island Railroad while he finished up his law degree. He practiced law in Little Rock for three years before he lost that gig after he got in a fight in the courtroom-with his own client! From there, it was back to Henryville where the Sanders clan moved in with Harland’s mother. Sanders went to work as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
In 1916, the Sanders family moved to Jeffersonville, where Sanders got a job selling life insurance for Prudential. Sanders was eventually fired for insubordination. He moved to Louisville and got a sales job with Mutual Benefit Life of New Jersey. During this time, Sanders was sort of an ad-hoc doctor which contemporaries described as a “Helpful but technically unlicensed” obstetrician, delivering babies with rudimentary supplies like lard and Vaseline. In 1920, Sanders established a ferry boat company on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville. The ferry was an instant success. In around 1922 he took a job as secretary at the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Indiana. He admitted to not being very good at the job, and resigned after less than a year. Sanders cashed in his ferry boat company shares for $22,000 and used the money to establish a company manufacturing acetylene lamps for automobiles. The venture failed after Delco introduced an electric lamp that they sold on credit.
Sanders moved to Winchester, Kentucky, to work as a salesman for the Michelin Tire Company. He lost his job in 1924 due in large part to his fiery temper. In 1924, by chance, he met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky, who asked him to run a service station in Nicholasville. In 1930, the station closed as a result of the Great Depression. That same year, the Shell Oil Company offered Sanders a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky rent free, in return for paying them a percentage of sales.
It was here that Sanders began to serve chicken dishes and other meals such as country ham and steaks to weary travelers. Initially he served the customers in his adjacent living quarters before opening a restaurant. Oh, and if his bio hasn’t grabbed you by now, maybe your ears will prick up when I tell you that it was while working at his Shell station / restaurant combo where Colonel Harland Sanders, American icon, once shot a man.
The stretch of road where Sanders’ first restaurant was located in Corbin, Kentucky was on a nasty stretch of highway known as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The region was full of bootleggers, and there were plenty of gunfights to keep things lively. Sanders kept a gun beneath his cash register and a shotgun near his bed to protect his family and his business. Turns out, Sanders didn’t need to worry about desperadoes, he had enough trouble just dealing with the competition. Sanders had his hands full just keeping an eye on his rival down the street, a man named Matt Stewart. Stewart ran a competing Standard Oil gas station down the road from Sanders, and the two men just didn’t exactly get along.
The ever enterprising Sanders decided to advertise his “Sanders Superior Gas Station” by painting a sign on a nearby railroad wall. Stewart didn’t like this move and promptly painted over Sanders’ sign. Furious, Sanders threatened to shoot off Stewart’s head and proceeded to repaint his billboard. But Matt Stewart was a stubborn fellow, so he grabbed a brush and started slapping paint on Sanders’ new sign.
Sanders was in the middle of a meeting with two Shell officials named Robert Gibson and H.D. Shelburne when the news of Stewart’s whitewash reached him. Determined to put a stop to Stewart’s shenanigans once and for all, the trio grabbed their loaded guns, jumped in a car, and drove off to settle the issue. They found Stewart perched on a ladder, paintbrush in hand. Sanders jumped out of the car and yelled, “Well, you son-of-a—–, I see you done it again.” Stewart jumped down from the ladder, pulled out his pistol and promptly fired five shots, three of which went directly into Robert Gibson’s heart, killing him instantly.
The Colonel said he grabbed the fallen man’s gun and started shooting back (even though he was carrying a pistol of his own). Stewart ducked behind the disputed railroad wall and for a moment appeared to be winning the gunfight. The Colonel went one way and Shelburne the other and the duo soon had Matt Stewart in a crossfire. Shelburne shot Stewart in the hip and Sanders shot him in the shoulder. A local newspaper article described Sanders’ actions as: “he jumped into the breach and under withering fire grabbed his fallen comrade’s gun . . . [and] the future Colonel unloaded with true aim and hurled hot lead into Stewart’s shoulder.” Bleeding and in pain, Stewart shouted, “Don’t shoot, Sanders! You’ve killed me!” The Colonel was a hothead but he was no murderer. The two men backed off and Stewart’s life was spared.
Ironically, Stewart was arrested in the hospital, tried and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Sanders and Shelburne were found not guilty. Sanders felt true remorse for his part in the incident and later went to Stewart’s daughter Ona May, apologized, and offered his help if she ever needed it. Local legend claims that the Colonel took care of Ona May for the rest of her life.
Sanders went back to his Shell station where he continued to serve steak, ham, biscuits, and his special recipe fried chicken to hungry customers. It was not fancy, served family style with bowls of food from which the diners served themselves, but by all accounts, it was “finger lickin’ good.” As the business grew into a motel/cafe, Sanders began wearing a black suit, growing a goatee that he would dye white and calling himself “Colonel.” Soon, he was running a full-fledged restaurant across the street, and his food was so popular that Governor Ruby Laffoon gave Sanders the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel. And the rest is history.
By the time of his death in 1980, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide, with $2 billion of sales annually. As for Matt Stewart, well, after two years behind bars, he was shot to death by a deputy sheriff. No one knows for sure, but rumors has it the deputy was a paid gunman, hired to assassinate Stewart by Robert Gibson’s family. The deputy sheriff was never charged.
For many of this generation, Colonel Sanders is little more than a cartoon of an old guy on a KFC bucket. The real Colonel cussed like a sailor, was an unashamed flirt and an astute businessman with a proven record of eliminating the competition; one way or another. He was nothing like the aw-shucks version that history has handed down to us. He ate fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and biscuits every single day, which added an extra 50 pounds on his 5-foot, 11-inch frame. In short, the Hoosier born Kentucky Colonel lived a life every bit as worthy as his secret recipe.

food, Pop Culture

Tim Hortons.

Tim Horton imageOriginal publish date:  February 15, 2015

So, my fellow donut devotee, you say you’re tired of seeing the object of your desire maligned in the media? Tired of hearing about another donut shop biting the dust? Missing Saps, Roselyn, Krispy Kreme? Did you shed a tear when the bulldozers knocked down the old Crawford’s Bakery at 16th and Capitol last week? Cheer up, you’ve still got Dunkin Donuts to soothe your cravings. And there’s always the new kid on the block from up north, Tim Hortons. But what do we really know about this Canadian upstart dealer of dainty Danish dunker delicacies?
If you’re a hockey fan, you already know where I’m heading. But if you don’t know a hockey puck from a Hostess Ding-Dong, hang on and let me tell you about a man named Miles Gilbert Horton, better known as Tim. Born on January 12, 1930, Horton was one of the greatest Canadian hockey players to ever lace up the blades and take the ice. A defenseman for 24 seasons in the NHL, he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Buffalo Sabres. From 1950 to 1974, Horton was known by his peers as the strongest man in the game.
Horton was named as an NHL first team All-Star in 1964, 1968, and 1969 and as a second team All-Star in 1954, 1963, and 1967. He was on 4 Stanley Cup Championship teams in 1961–62, 1962–63, 1963–64 & 1966–67. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1977, the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame in 1982 and the team retired his uniform number 2 in 1996. Horton was ranked number 43 on The Hockey News list of the 100 Greatest Hockey Players in 1998. Chicago Blackhawks winger Bobby Hull, himself a mountain of a man, declared, “There were defensemen you had to fear because they were vicious and would slam you into the boards from behind. But you respected Tim Horton because he didn’t need that type of intimidation. He used his tremendous strength and talent to keep you in check.” In a fight, Horton’s trademark move was to immobilize players with a crushing bear hug, which considering his tremendous strength, was probably a blessing in disguise.
Playing in his first NHL game on March 26, 1950, Horton remained a Leaf until 1970. Between February 11, 1961, and February 4, 1968, Horton appeared in 486 consecutive regular-season games; an NHL record for consecutive games by a defensemen for the next four decades. Horton was also a successful businessman whose business ventures included a hamburger restaurant and Studebaker auto dealership in Toronto. But today the bruising NHL defenseman is best known as the founder of the Tim Hortons donut chain. He opened his first Donut Shop in Hamilton, Ontario in 1964. By 1967, Tim Hortons had become a multi-million dollar franchise system. But Horton’s first love was hockey.
In spite of his age (42) and advancing nearsightedness, the Buffalo Sabres signed Horton to a contract in 1972. His superior play helped the Sabres to their first ever playoff appearance in 1973. As a reward, the team signed Horton to a contract extension in the off-season. Sabres GM, Punch Imlach, Horton’s former boss at the Toronto Maple Leafs, gave the aging defenseman a brand new 1974 Ford De Tomaso Pantera Italian-made sportscar as an enticement to return to the team for one more season.
Early in the morning of February 21, 1974 Horton was heading home to Buffalo after a game against his former team at Maple Leaf Gardens the night before. Although the Sabres usually traveled together by bus, Horton made the 100 mile trip alone in his Pantera. The day before the game, Horton had taken a puck in the jaw during practice. His face was swollen and bruised, but true to form, he still wanted to play. With his family and many friends in the crowd at the Gardens, he skated for two periods before leaving the game shortly into the third period. The Sabres lost the game 4-2, and despite sitting out the third period and playing with a jaw and ankle injury, Horton was selected one of the game’s three stars. After the game, Horton met up with his business partner, Ron Joyce, at the Donut company office in Oakville.
“Tim was sitting in our office, his coat on, an ice pack wrapped around his jaw, his driver’s gloves on,” Joyce recalled in 1994. “He was sitting in the dark with his feet up on the table, with a vodka and soda in his hand.” Joyce also claimed that his friend didn’t consume enough to get drunk. Around 3 a.m., Horton called his wife, Lori, and his brother, Gerry. Horton and Joyce talked until about 4 a.m., then Tim left. Joyce later claimed that he saw Horton take a handful of painkillers before he drove off in the Pantera.
Mr. Joyce wasn’t the only one to see the Pantera zoom off on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. A little after 4:00 a.m., a motorist alerted police to a sports car driving dangerously at a speed estimated at 110 miles per hour. Thirty minutes later, Ontario Police Officer Mike Gula observed a speeding vehicle traveling Niagara-bound on the QEW. Gula activated his siren and attempted to pursue Horton’s vehicle, but the office later told the media, “I was doing over 100, but I lost sight. I never got close. A few minutes later, I came on the accident scene.”
As Horton passed a curve at Ontario Street while approaching the Lake Street exit in St. Catharines, he lost control and drove into the center grass median. The tire caught a sewer drain and flipped several times before coming to a stop on its roof in the opposite lanes. Not wearing a seat-belt, Horton was ejected 200 feet away from the car. Mr. Horton’s body was found on the grass of the median according to the diagram included with the report. He was pronounced dead at St. Catharines General Hospital. While the EMT’s worked on the body, investigators combed the scene of the accident. Extra police cruisers were brought in to keep passing motorists from stopping to gawk or hunt for souvenirs.
The police report lists items found at the crash scene: six eight-track stereo cassettes, a set of keys, a package of Old Port Cigars, and a black suitcase with “Tim Horton” tooled into the leather. Police found more personal items, too, including a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a wallet and a stack of credit cards, $205 in cash, a gold ring, a Waltham jewel watch and two Buffalo Sabres paychecks totaling $1,792.
The Pantera itself was totaled; its front hood crushed, tie rods snapped and tires deflated. Once valued at over $17,000, the vehicle was now worth about $500 as scrap. There was no official public inquiry, and his autopsy was not made public. Police would not state if Horton was driving drunk. Keep in mind that back in 1974, sadly, the stigma against drunk driving was not the same as it is today. The Canadian Transportation Department later launched an investigation to find out why the right front door opened during the crash, allowing for “ejection of the driver.” But the department never issued a report. It is widely believed that doctors eschewed an inquest in order to leave hockey hero Horton’s legacy untarnished.
Horton left behind a wife and four daughters. Following Horton’s death, Ron Joyce offered Horton’s widow Lori $1 million for her shares in the chain, which back then was 40 stores. Accepting his offer, Mr. Joyce became sole owner. Lori died in 2000 at the age of 68. By 2013, Mr. Joyce had expanded the chain to nearly 4,600 stores in Canada alone. Joyce’s son, Ron Joyce, Jr., is married to Horton’s eldest daughter.
On Feb. 21, 2004, 31 years after Horton’s death, the autopsy was made public (with witness statements redacted). The report revealed that Horton’s blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and that a 40-ounce bottle of Smirnoff Vodka, with its top broken off, was found among the crash debris. Somewhere at the scene, police also found six tablets: two orange and four green. Another green pill was found in Mr. Horton’s pocket. The drugs turned out to Dexedrine and Dexamyl. Traces of Dexamyl were later found in his blood. The autopsy report found no painkillers in Horton’s body. The car was found to be in good working order. There was nothing to suggest Horton was evading police, or that he even knew police were in pursuit.
The first page of the post mortem report notes that the body on the exam table was “the famous hockey player on the team of Buffalo Sabres.” The details of the paperwork contained statistics that read like a hockey card: length: 5’9″; weight: 210 lbs; and “apparent age,” 44. The report notes that Horton was wearing a brown checked topcoat, a yellow sports coat, a yellow shirt, brown boots and brown pants.
On the second page, the report revealed the grim injuries sustained by Horton as he was flung out of the car: “Extensive crush fractures of multiple bones at the vault of the skull and base of skull;” “fracture dislocation (neck);” “multiple fractures left ribs;” “internal bleeding chest,” and “bleeding on surface of brain and meninges (following head injury).” Ironically, though the report notes massive head injuries, the pathologist found no sign of a jaw fracture. Apparently, the puck that hit Mr. Horton and caused him such pain hadn’t broken the bone. But the report did reveal what killed the previously invincible hockey superstar; a broken neck and a crushed skull.
Tim Horton’s death certificate can be reduced to a single handwritten line: “lost control of car at high speed.” Horton was buried at York Cemetery in Toronto. It seemed that Horton had lived his life by the axium, “Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” His death must be viewed in the context of his Era. In 1974, drinking and driving was not subject to the kind of moral condemnation that quite rightly attaches to it today. The drugs found on him and in his system were quite common for athletes back in the day. Most likely the 44-year-old Horton was taking speed to stay competitive in the NHL. After all, he was playing against younger, faster players who weren’t even born his rookie year.
Many wondered why the bruising, muscular Horton would have been taking Dexamyl, a drug most commonly marketed in the 1970s to busy housewives trying to lose weight. It was briefly in vogue with celebrities like author Ayn Rand and pop artist Andy Warhol before its addictive qualities were fully known. The pills, called “purple hearts” on the street, turned up regularly on the party scene back in the day. In a 1977 lawsuit against the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Rough Riders football teams, a player claimed he was fed Dexamyl and other stimulants by team doctors to improve his performance. That case was settled out of court.
Most Tim Hortons customers have no idea that Horton was a bruising blue-liner in the last glory days of the Maple Leafs. If there is any irony in the premature end of Horton’s life on a dark Canadian highway, it is surely that the name of Canada’s most famous drunk driver now adorns hundreds of donut shops where so many late-night drivers stop for coffee to stay awake. But that doesn’t matter much for those seeking crullers, maple dips or an old fashioned. But when you think of it, a double chocolate donut does kind of resemble a hockey puck and might be a fitting tribute to the greatest defenseman to ever wear a Maple Leafs jersey. And you thought Tim Horton was just a donut.