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The Snack Pack : At the Orange-O, Owner Serves Up Plenty of Sports Talk to His Regulars

July 15, 1993|ROBIN GREENE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

GLENDALE — There's a place you can go in Glendale where, it seems, everyone knows your name.

But the owner of the establishment is definitely no Sam Malone. And the drink of choice is not brewed from grain and hops, but is a concoction made with freshly squeezed orange juice.

No matter, because the easy ambience at Gerry Sill's Orange-O snack shop and its regular cast of customers make comparisons to a late, great television sitcom inevitable.

"We've always kind of kidded that we're the West Coast 'Cheers,' but we don't serve alcohol," said Jean Alan, a longtime patron of the snack bar in the Glendale Plaza Shopping Center.

What makes the comparison to the TV show all the more fitting is Orange-O's longevity. For 33 years, Gerry--as everyone calls him--has been serving up "mongrel dogs," "pickle pooches," and his big burger special to a loyal clientele.

Anyone not familiar with Orange-O and Gerry might wonder why the snack shop on North Glendale Avenue, in the shadow of the 134 Freeway, is so enduring.

At first glance, it's a hole-in-the-wall, with an aging counter, red stools, and dust-covered sports pennants hanging high on the walls. And there's none of the razzmatazz of a fast-food chain restaurant at Gerry's.

What you find is an old-fashioned neighborhood hangout for people of all ages--grown-up sports fans, kids hanging out after school, mothers and their youngsters--all dropping by for a snack and a chat.

"Gerry is an institution in Glendale," said Marilynne Ellis, co-owner of the nearby Shear Art beauty salon. "I began taking my son, who is 32, to Gerry's when I had to lift him up (to the counter)."

"Glendale has changed a ton," said Bill Ayers, 31, who has been stopping by for 17 years. "It used to be like a typical middle-American city. Gerry was a focal point and he is still a big tie for a lot of people to the way things used to be."

Unlike the conceited bar owner on "Cheers," who would undoubtedly have loved to be called an "institution," the self-effacing Sill finds the whole idea "embarrassing." He hates any out-of-the-ordinary attention and admits to being shy. But he's a good listener and a good talker, as long as he is not the subject.

In fact, you can spend a lot of time with Gerry and the things you learn about him can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

With some effort, you can get him to admit that he's "58, or 59," never been married, grew up in Minnesota and holds an accounting degree from the University of Minnesota. In 1960, he gave up working on ledgers and moved to California to help his older brother run the Orange Julius outlet that eventually became Orange-O.

You can glean a bit more about Gerry by talking to customers, many of whom have known him for decades. They tell you how he supports Little League baseball, how he loves children and how he is a good friend. They rave about his athletic ability and his sports knowledge. And then they warn you that Gerry will deny everything they said about him.

"Gerry's an excellent golfer," said longtime Glendale resident Ben Palaski. "If you ask him, he'll say he's a hacker."

Adds Brad Brown, 35, an Orange-O aficionado for 25 years:

"Gerry's a sports encyclopedia. He knows a lot about sports. You wouldn't know it by looking at him, but he's a . . . great basketball player."

A trim man usually found in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, Gerry does have the look of someone who has spent a lot of time playing sports, despite his graying hair and thick glasses.

Ask him to talk about sports and the shy demeanor will disappear.

"I can't go a day without reading the sports section," he said.

Indeed, sports--of any kind--are the real attraction for many of Gerry's customers.

"I told Gerry the other day, '. . . Nobody comes here for the food,' " said Ayers, a title insurance salesman for Gateway Title in Burbank. "He agreed!"

Mind you, there's no big-screen TV showing ESPN around the clock at the Orange-O, although there is a bedraggled ESPN banner hanging on the wall.

What you find are a lot of people mulling over the sports pages, discussing scores, arguing about whatever it is fans argue about.

"Gerry runs the closest thing to a sports bar that you can find," said Ray Perkins, the other owner of Shear Art.

What Gerry also runs is a fantasy baseball league for 12 teams of men and women. Many of the players have been playing "Proball" since Gerry introduced the game to them 15 years ago.

Three mornings a week, Gerry begins his summer days at an old wooden desk in the back room of his stand, taking calls from league members who give him the day's roster of their dream team. Some of the "players" are now scattered over the country; others travel frequently on their jobs, or are on vacation. But they all religiously make their calls from wherever.

The next day, after all the major league teams have played their games, Gerry culls statistics from the newspapers and--based on a point system--determines which fantasy team was the most successful that day.

As the players will admit, no one is in it for money. And, listening to a group congregated at the Orange-O on a recent Sunday, one has the sense of real community. They tease each other mercilessly, brag about "Proball" successes and rave and rant over the accomplishments, or lack thereof of fellow players.

"Don't be soppy about it," warns Jean Alan, a registered nurse and Gerry's "Proball" partner for 14 years. "But we're not just a few people who share a game. We're a community that cares, in the good times and the bad."

And, as in all communities, there have been some bad times. Alan lost her husband to cancer six years ago and says playing "Proball" helped her through her grief.

"It is a healthy thing to be consumed by," she said, laughing.

Retired contractor Burt Kellar, at 73 the group's elder statesman, summed up the importance of the game, the people who play it and, especially, the Orange-O in Glendale:

"I don't know what the hell I'd do without it."

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