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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Giant doughnuts in the sky are still around

Their numbers have fallen and the shops below don't necessarily sell doughnuts, but the outsize confections haven't disappeared.

August 30, 2009|Steve Harvey

In the coming disaster movie "2012," tragedy strikes Randy's Donuts in Inglewood when its giant rooftop doughnut becomes unhinged and is last seen bouncing down the street in the direction of star John Cusack's limo.

The incident is just digital magic, of course. In real life, Randy's -- once a member of the now-defunct Big Donut chain -- is very much intact, as 405 Freeway drivers know well.

But over the last half-century, half a dozen former Big Donuts have disappeared, gobbled up by developers.

If it's any consolation to worshipers of these giant confections, however, there are three other leftovers in Greater L.A. Also still standing are smaller rooftop doughnuts -- former members of the Angel Food Donuts chain -- in the Long Beach area, not to mention a distant cousin in La Puente.

Some of the survivors have seen fit to change with the times.

A big doughnut on 7th Street in Long Beach sits atop a stand converted into the Daily Grind Espresso Bar (can you dunk in espresso?). It has faux pink frosting, even though pink doughnuts aren't served there.

You have to admire the coffee shop for retaining the big "O" since it attracts neighborhood pigeons.

"I saw one crash into the doughnut, feathers flying and everything," said Bob Burt, who walks in the area.

Another big doughnut facing an identity crisis sits atop a shop that now calls itself Bellflower Bagels in the city of that name (Bellflower, not Bagels).

"I think bagels are healthier," said a manager who gave his name only as Sam. Randy's, meanwhile, peacefully coexists with health fitness trends, even consenting to a villainous role in a magazine ad for the Jennie Craig weight-loss clinics.

"I knew it wasn't going to be flattering," co-owner Larry Weintraub said at the time. But "it gives us more exposure." The ad didn't reduce business, he said; in fact, several customers brought along copies to show him while buying the high-caloric specialties of the house.

The 51-year-old Donut Hole in La Puente also sports some interesting pop architecture. Customers drive through the hole of two giant half doughnuts to get to the take-out window. Local lore has it that a ride through is good luck for honeymooners.

Randy's, built in 1952, is the most famous relic of the Big Donut chain, founded by Russ Wendell, a former doughnut machine salesman. But it was not the first.

That distinction belongs to a stand about five miles to the southeast at Century Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, which opened in 1950 with "the fanfare of a Hollywood premiere," wrote Jim Heimann in "California Crazy and Beyond," a book about wacky architecture.

"Clowns, jugglers and magicians performed, free coffee and donuts were handed out and a trapeze artist swung from the middle of the donut hole."

It's still open -- now called Kindle's Donuts -- but it sits in obscurity in the neighborhood. No movie fame for it. No plaque even identifies it as the first of its kind.

A couple of years ago, roadsidepeek.com pointed out that the top of Kindle's beige doughnut was a dark brown. "Not sure why the top looks like it's already been dipped in coffee," the website said. Subsequently washed, the doughnut looks fresh these days.

Randy's dwelt in comparative obscurity until the owners got a big break -- the opening of the adjacent San Diego Freeway. Suddenly the Manchester Boulevard business had a prominent place in the landscape of Southern California. Being near the airport doesn't hurt either.

One of the odd things about Randy's is that it's owned by guys named Ron and Larry, the brothers Weintraub. Randy was actually the son of the previous owner. When the Weintraubs bought the place in 1978, they elected not to change the name.

"We like keeping things as original as possible," said Ron.

Occasionally a customer will ask about Randy, and Ron will joke, "He's buried under the big doughnut." Randy Eskow, a cousin of the brothers, is actually very much alive.

Ron Weintraub attributes the stand's success first to its location and then to the publicity surrounding some of its early films, such as "Earth Girls Are Easy," (1989), in which the doughnut is pierced by a flying station wagon carrying surfboards.

"Once you get a little notoriety, you get people coming from all over to see us, even from other countries," he said. "You get on the cable networks, you get the libraries that list us for location shooting. It just builds and builds."

Randy's 22-foot-tall plain-cake doughnut has been especially busy lately. Not only does it take a tumble in "2012," it will also be the focus of a dramatic moment in "Iron Man 2," due out next year.

In the latter, Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., is on the roof, sitting in the doughnut, while he chews one of the shop's treats. Then a character below (Samuel L. Jackson) calls to him:

"Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to exit the doughnut."

Maybe Stark should have tried the Donut Hole instead.

--

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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