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Space and Time, Neon and Asteroids

His Futuristic Designs Defined a Style in L.A. Eateries and on the Las Vegas Strip. At Long Last, a Celebration of Wayne McAllister.

November 08, 1998|ED LEIBOWITZ | Ed Leibowitz is a frequent contributor to the So SoCal section of the magazine

The Las Vegas Strip was an empty canvas when architect Wayne McAllister began sketching the outlines of the El Rancho hotel. In April of 1941, a full five years before Bugsy Siegel completed his Flamingo, McAllister's fanciful dude ranch opened its rustic doors to greet the Strip's first suckers. With its chuck-wagon murals, rambling bungalows and cowpoke casino, McAllister's El Rancho was the first of its kind in a city that has already demolished 10 times as many theme hotels as most countries will ever build.

After the El Rancho, McAllister continued filling in the Vegas Strip, drawing up the first plans for the Desert Inn and designing the Sands, the swingers' oasis where Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. boozed and schmoozed and threw tantrums and even managed to hit a few high notes in all their Rat Pack splendor. The architect's singular casino style must have especially resonated with gamblers from L.A., long familiar with McAllister's imprint on their city. In the 1930s, McAllister's designs had begun to define an L.A. style: neon-saturated drive-in restaurants, asteroidal coffee shops, circular kitchens and streamlined monoliths. The look was widely imitated, enduring to this day, and it's currently being celebrated with an exhibition at the Pacific Design Center, sponsored by the Los Angeles Conservancy's Modern Committee, that runs until Nov. 19.

The El Rancho has been burnt to embers, the Sands dynamited into dust, but their irrepressible creator survives. From his ground-floor office in Alhambra, still working as he nears his 91st birthday, McAllister sells copiers and tract housing. Seated comfortably behind his desk, surrounded by crumbling mustard-colored walls, he chuckles at the fanfare. "As far as I was concerned, I just ran a modest office and did modest work," he says, his eyes glowing brighter behind their blocky bifocals. "It didn't deserve any special publicity or attention at the time. And suddenly, 30 or 40 years later, why, it's recognized as being something special." Not that McAllister's ready to offer any radical reevaluation of his importance. "I think it's being overdone by now," he laughs.

So tepid was McAllister's view of his work that he abandoned his firm in 1956 for a vice president's spot with Marriott Corp. in Washington, D.C. Returning to California five years later, he left architecture entirely for a small-scale entrepreneurialism that continues to drive him.

His career is as remarkable as it is strangely casual. In 1924, a vocational counselor in San Diego advised the 17-year-old with artistic proclivities and a rakish profile to pursue architecture or acting. McAllister studied design in a night school program, where he met his wife, Corinne. He dropped out of high school when a "cowboy architect" for whom he'd been toiling as an apprentice offered him a full-time job. The cowboy promptly absconded with a few thousand dollars of clients' funds, and the teenaged McAllister found himself the firm's sole proprietor. In 1927, at 20, he and Corinne began work on Agua Caliente, the Tijuana resort at which Jean Harlow, Clark Gable and Gloria Swanson would tango, drink and gamble on the horses far from the puritanical stocks of Prohibition. No sooner was FDR elected than McAllister helped bring booze back to Los Angeles, designing the Biltmore Bowl supper club, the Town House's Zebra Room and Mike Lyman's hot spot at Hollywood and Vine. McAllister's revolutionary 24-hour carhop restaurants of the '30s--his Simon's and Herbert's and Van de Kamp's drive-ins--still haunt the rain-slicked streets of a hundred classic Hollywood melodramas. His Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake--saved from demolition by the Los Angeles Conservancy and now a California State Point of Historical Interest--is a crescent of concrete and glass that so swallows its stretch of Riverside Drive there's no telling whether you're inside or out.

McAllister plotted out Lawry's and Richlor's and Stears For Steaks along La Cienega's fabled restaurant row and expanded Atwater Village's Tam O' Shanter and the Los Feliz Brown Derby. He even served as a consultant to Stanley Meston when the onetime McAllister protege was figuring out how to pierce the roof of the first McDonald's franchise restaurant with a couple of golden arches.

McAllister contemplates his oeuvre with stingy modesty. "You're not building monuments," he says. "You never think, 'Gee, I hope this becomes a national monument.' " The drive-through restaurants he designed, he says, are "a pebble in the lake, a spit in the ocean"--and he had no delusions that any of them would endure, let alone be revered.

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