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Speedee Deserves a Break Today

The burger chef sign at McDonald's for 50 years, and the eatery, will be preserved.

August 19, 2003|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The wink on Speedee's smiling face said it all Monday as the 50th anniversary of the world's oldest McDonald's restaurant was celebrated in Downey.

The 60-foot-high burger chef sign has survived company buyouts, economic slumps and a devastating earthquake to remain standing outside the hamburger stand said to be responsible for the "Golden Arches" known to fast-food fans everywhere.

Hundreds who crowded the corner of Lakewood Boulevard and Florence Avenue heard promises that the prototype "Speedee McDonald's" hamburger stand will be permanently preserved -- even though it lacks a drive-through window, air-conditioned indoor seating and a Ronald McDonald's Playland.

"This McDonald's will always remain open and part of American history, McDonald's history and Downey history," pledged Jeff Schwartz, McDonald's regional manager for Southern California.

McDonald's officials were in a different mood in 1993 at the hamburger stand's 40th anniversary. The place was losing a reported $50,000 a year, and the company had announced plans to shut it down and demolish the red-and-white tiled building with its distinctive yellow-neon arches.

Downey leaders, nostalgic customers and Los Angeles-area preservationists protested. Former Mayor Joyce Lawrence wrote a "McPoem" that began: "We deserve a break today. Do not take our youth away! Here we met for shakes and fries, While Downey grew 'neath sunny skies."

The company closed the franchised restaurant in 1994, claiming that the Northridge earthquake had damaged it. Schwartz recounted Monday how he decided to reopen it later that year and run it as a company-owned outlet until 1998, when it was sold to current operator Ron Piazza.

A covered eating area that includes a small McDonald's museum and souvenir shop is now operated next to the hamburger stand. Exhibits explain how this was the model for McDonald's restaurants built in the U.S. between 1953 and 1968 and how Speedee was the company symbol during much of that time.

An original Downey customer, 69-year-old Jack Huie, showed up in his 1956 Ford Victoria for Monday's anniversary. The retired South Gate trucker recalled how McDonald's drew customers from the area's then-popular Clock Drive-Ins

"We'd fill our cars up with 19.9-cent-a-gallon gasoline and come here for 15-cent burgers that were half the price of Clock's. And you didn't have car hops you had to tip, either," Huie said.

A time capsule containing the written wishes of 150 children from the Lakewood YMCA was buried beneath the Speedee sign at the ceremony's end. It will be opened on the hamburger stand's 100th anniversary, officials said.

At least some of the kids' wishes will probably come true.

Wrote Brittany Lujan, 4: "My wish is to be grown up."

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