Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MELS DRIVE-IN: SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT


Where are all the customer's cars?  Probably at McDonalds. By the time this pic was taken eateries like McDonalds were heavy competition for Mels and similar restaurants.  Circa early-1970s.
  
Welcome back to Kip Pullman's American Graffiti Blog where we get the truth on all things Graffiti related.  Contributing writer, Charlie Lecach recently sent me a newly acquired newspaper picture of the first Mel's drive-in right before it was demolished. This inspired me to make another attempt to put to rest an often printed historical inaccuracy. This one in particular is, of course, about The Mels Drive-in featured in the 1973 classic, American Graffiti. Let's discuss the lie first, then we'll clarify with the truth afterwords. The popular fabrication goes something like this: The Mels drive-in featured in the film had been closed down for some time and was about to be demolished in 1972 but was reopened briefly just for the production of the film and then razed by the time the movie hit the theaters. Pardon my language but, BULLSHIT! This folklore has been repeated so many times as though it were a well-established fact. I believe Michael Karl Witzel's popular 1994 book, The American Drive-in is partly to blame and may possibly be the original source from which this rumor is based. In it, he says,
"As colorful marquees were scheduled for removal, it appeared to many local enthusiasts that Mel's success story was about to end. [sic] The original Mels burger spot came to [Director, George Lucas's] attention and was leased prior to its demolition. Crews descended on the site and soon it was lights...camera...action...all over again. Mels was back in business, immortalized in 35mm."
 Then  Witzel erroneously states,
"As the bulldozers razed the last remnants of the historic drive-in and trucks carted off the debris, American Graffiti opened in theaters."
In the author's defense, he may have been speaking metaphorically about the ending of an era, blah, blah, blah. The whole thing has a nice poetic ring to it.  The problem is however, that many have taken these words literally and rephrased them and turned them into "fact."  Do a quick Google or BING web engine search and you'll find similar statements all over the web.   Even the Mels Drive-in website has quoted Witzel's book in their history section. Oy Vey!

The restaurant shines beautifully at night in American Graffiti.


Donna Wehr  c. 1972
But, as the saying goes; A lie no matter how many times you repeat it is still a lie. As I've explained here before on my blog: The truth is that in 1972 when the location manager for American Graffiti, Nancy Giebink was scouting for a drive-in building to be used in the film the Mels Drive-in restaurant located at 140 South Van Ness Ave.in San Francisco, CA was very much open for business.  This has been substantiated by Dennis Kay, the former director of operations for Fosters West, the owner of Mels in the early-1970s. Kay was responsible for making the arrangements for filming. Kay recalled, “We only closed for business on the nights of filming and re-opened the next day. Weeks after filming was completed, they called and said some film had been lost on the cutting room floor, so we had one more night of filming.”  American Graffiti was first released in August 1973 and Kay remembers the restaurant continued to remain open for several more years after the film's initial release.  For more on this see Part 2 of my article, Mels Drive-in The True Story.

Mackenzie Phillips on-location in the Mels' parking lot c. July 1972

The, now legendary, eatery first opened it's doors for business on December 23, 1947 and remained open and standing for almost 29 years before it was finally demolished sometime in the Fall of 1976.  In other words, The Mels drive-in featured in Graffiti was not razed until four years after filming was complete and three years after the film was first released in theaters. It was not demolished right after filming took place. Ya know, it's amazing the way historical trivialities such as these can get distorted.  If historians can't even get small details like these right, it kind of makes you wonder about the reporting accuracy of big things like the United States astronauts going to the moon. Who knows,  maybe the Apollo missions were really just weekend benders in Las Vegas.

This Kodak Instamatic camera photo appears to give credence to the fact that the patronage of a business that reportedly once was so busy it required 5 policemen directing traffic had really thinned out by the mid-1970s.. BTW: The parked CHP car appears to be a 1974 or '75 Dodge Monaco.  (Thanks Thom Soncrat & Jay Sparks!)

Oh, I almost forgot, I mentioned the photo of Mels that Mr. Lecach shared with me at the beginning of the post which inspired me to write this...well, here it is:

Caption on back of photo reads: 
SAN FRANCISCO NOV. 16 -- NOW ITS A PARKING LOT
Mels Drive-In in San Francisco which served 3,000 meals a day during the 1950s and '60s, is pictured shortly before it was turned into a parking lot. The change mirrors a national trend away from curbside dining. AP Wire photo. 1976

And here, 10 years later (1986) is the Milner coupe in the former Mels Drive-in parking lot


✶ FINE ✶

Matchbook cover   c. 1972
The buggy design on this book of matches also appeared on the drive-in's menus and can be spotted on the talk boxes in American Graffiti.
______________________________
NOTES: 
  • American Graffiti Filming Locations (June - August, 1972). Petaluma California's Salute to American Graffiti.   http://www.americangraffiti.net/movie_locations.html
  • Old, Traditional Drive-in Yields to Fast-Food Site. Lawrence Journal World. Nov 17, 1976.  http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=slcyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=KuYFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5701%2C2649580 
  • Witzel, Michael Karl. The American Drive-In: History and Folklore of the Drive-in Restaurant in American Car Culture.  Motorbooks International; 1st Edition September 1994.

4 comments:

  1. Kip I hate to be a dissenter, but...when I worked in the research library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences I remember reading in the clippings file for "American Graffiti" a newspaper article from early '73 which reported that the drive-in had been torn down.

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  2. @ B Holden: Dissent away, but Show me the clipping!

    -Kip

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  3. A friend found it by accident while looking for a gas station and took me by the restaurant knowing I was a big fan of the movie. I still have the picture. This was back in 1975.

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  4. Hey Kip................being the president of a state's Edsel club, what info can you provide on the present condition/whereabouts of the 58 Edsel Corsair driven by Cindy Williams in the film? I've heard two versions over the years: one that it still exits in someones hands, although no current owner lets this be known if it is true. Second, that the car has since been lost to the ages and is unknown today. Can you give any info on this car at all? Would positively love to hear!!!!!!! Thanks.

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