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Big Boy Bowing Out : Original Glendale Diner Serves Its Last Burger After 51 Years

October 17, 1989|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The original Bob's Big Boy restaurant, which opened 51 years ago in Glendale as a 10-seat diner and, among other items of cultural significance, is credited with introducing double-deck hamburgers to Southern California, served its last Big Boy Combo on Monday and is now awaiting demolition.

It will be replaced by a mini-mall.

"I feel perfectly lousy about it," said Robert C. Wian, 75, who half a century ago sold his car for $350 to buy a tiny diner on Colorado Boulevard. A few years later, he converted it into a drive-in restaurant, offering cheeseburgers, French fries and shakes "so thick you can eat them with a spoon."

The formula was a success, of course. Wian eventually expanded his business into a national restaurant chain and, along the way, inspired numerous imitations. In 1967, he sold the chain to the Marriott Corp and, citing lackluster sales, it decided six months ago to sell the original Glendale property to a shopping center developer.

"There is a lot of sentiment tied up in that place," Wian said. "But it's difficult to stand in the way of progress."

The imminent demise came as sad news to those Southern Californians who revere drive-ins and double-deck cheeseburgers as part of the region's cultural heritage, and packs of people converged on the restaurant Sunday and Monday to pay their respects.

Ben Trigg was there on Sunday, just as he had been there when Bob's opened in 1938, a hungry 7-year-old whose mother rewarded him with a hamburger and chocolate shake after clarinet lessons. And just as he had been there in 1951, when it was the "hottest place in town" after Glendale High football games. And just as he has been nearly every day since.

"I hate to see it go," said the 57-year-old Trigg. "I've eaten thousands of hamburgers here. I've come here all my life."

"Hey, I grew up at this place," said Rodney Herrick, 41. "I used to come here in my battleship-gray Plymouth, order a Coke and fries and wait for girls. Hard to believe it's closing down. This place is a landmark."

When Bill Zabala, 42, heard that the place was closing he decided to take his family in "for the history value of it. I wanted them to see it before it's torn down."

And so on. The mourning took on the form of ritual, as customers slipped into the brown vinyl upholstered booths and ordered their last Big Boy Combo--a double cheeseburger, fries and a small salad drenched in blue cheese or thousand island dressing.

"Bob's Big Boy made hamburgers popular," said Leon Gotlieb, a professional restaurant consultant. "The restaurants are a part of Americana we will never forget."

Wian, who was interviewed by telephone, said that he started his famous double-burger "as a joke," slapping the sandwich together for a friend who asked for something new to eat.

"The whole idea just took off," Wian said. "And in those days people were skeptical of hamburger meat, so we ground it ourselves."

It was also happenstance that created the chain's cherished mascot, the chubby boy in checkered suspenders. The character was sketched on a napkin by a customer drawing a picture of a boy that Wian had hired to clean counters.

As tribute to its past, the Glendale restaurant has a mini-museum near the front counter with Bob's first spatula and menu enshrined in a glass case. In 1938, a burger and milkshake "so thick you can eat it with a spoon" cost 60 cents.

Wian has asked that the museum artifacts be shipped to his Newport Beach house.

The loss of the original Bob's is only the beginning of the end of Wian's burger empire.

Richard Sneed, a Marriott spokesman, said the hotel and restaurant corporation has conducted market surveys showing that "people want a contemporary atmosphere and trendy food items at moderate prices."

By 1991, all of the remaining Bob's Big Boys will be converted into Allie's, named for Alice Marriott, the mother of Marriott chairman and president J.W. Marriott Jr.

Instead of double-deck burgers, fries and brownie hot fudge sundaes, the menu will offer fajitas , pasta salad and sourdough.

For George Balzer, 68, of Silverlake, such changes no doubt won't sit well. One of the longtime regulars partaking of a last supper Monday, Balzer already was complaining about how the closing of his "favorite Bob's" was going to force him to expand his culinary interests.

Today, he will eat lunch at the Bob's Big Boy in Burbank.

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