I was born on a hot July afternoon 1981 in Downey, Ca. Not quite the 90210 area code but my childhood is full of nostalgic memories of places long forgotten. A suburb full of the working middle class, to my child-like mind its a bright and shiny memory that has weathered the years with much more grace than the city itself has.
I remember walking to school and walking past construction zones where busses were being driven off unfinished freeway bridges. I remember going to get my parents at the restaurant where they would park their truck (it was one of the only places easily accessible for them and convenient for family dinner too) that has been used in dozens of movies. I never thought there was anything special about it - at least not until my sister gave news of its impromtu (and illegal) demolition. It was just Johnie's.
The restaurant, my second home, my favorite childhood memory. An old coffee shop and drive-in diner built in Googie style architecture that would bring flashes of the 1950's cruisers, sock hops and doo wops to mind. The Fat Boy on the neon sign holding his serving tray wearing his little white paper cooks hat.
Installed in 1969, just after the restaurant had been renamed, Fat Boy stood proudly atop the neon fixtures displaying his famous Harvey's Chubby (the original double decker cheeseburger). Granted by the tine I was graced with his remarkable presence, only about half of the neon signage still lit up, on most days. Not unless there was a movie filming.
In my memory, there was a movie filming every time we went. The lights so bright, so colorful the passage of time can not dull. For films they would even bring the carhops back in their skates. And we went a lot. I hated going in the daytime and missing the bright lights even when they were half burnt out by the mid 80's.
We moved in the mid 90's out of Downey and not many reasons for me to be grateful for being uprooted, it did spare me the trauma of what became of my beloved second home. In 1999, Fat Boy and his burger lit Firestone Boulevard for one last movie. Ironically the same year my mother passed away.
Johnie's closed its doors and shut the restaurant operation down in 2001 for reasons unknown and in 2002 it was converted into a used car dealership but the restaurant was still there Fat Boy and all. In 2006 the dealership's lease was terminated. A new tenant signed a 99 year lease and despite having been denied permit, illegally demolished much of the dining area and car hops stalls.
After many years of attempting to purchase it and being turned down by Harvey (the original owner), Bob's Big Boy (Johnie's competition) entered into a long term lease. With the help of the Downey Historical Society and Downey's Redevelopment society the restaurant was the building was restored and rebranded as a Bob's Big Boy Broiler.
Fat Boy is still displaying his world famous cheeseburger but his neon no longer lights the sky, he now greets guests as the drive into the parking lot. But still he stands guard and proudly gives diner patrons and cruise clubs a quiet reminder of the diner's rich history. I grew up in this place and while I haven't been back since 1995 and it breaks my heart that's its not Johnie's anymore, any cruise club member or tourist wanting checkout movie filming locations in Downey should check this place out.