The Des Plaines Theatre, 1476 Miner Street (U.S. Route 14) in Des Plaines, Illinois, opened in 1926 with this beautiful light bulb-lined marquee, just down the street from the Sugar Bowl. In 2019, Onesti Entertainment took over management of the theater and began restoration. As my longtime readers know, I grew up in Des Plaines. I remember when this theater played movies for 50 cents on Tuesday (I must have watched Jurassic Park there a half-dozen times), and I saw my first live concert there. I’m glad it’s finally getting restored after being closed for years.
As I approach my 40th birthday and the birth of my first daughter, I’ve been thinking about how life has changed since I was a kid. What will the world in which she grows up be like?
Growing up in the 1980s and early ‘90s, my family didn’t have a home computer (not until I was in high school). There was no Internet, and if I wanted to play with a neighborhood friend, I just walked over to their house and knocked. There was no texting.
I asked my friends and family how many things they could think of that were commonplace 30-40 years ago that either aren’t around anymore, or wouldn’t be around in the next ten years or so. The list was long. Here are just some of the things I got to see/use/experience that my daughter will not:
My first semester at EIU at the dawn of the new millennium wasn’t quite what I expected.
As a newly minted 18-year-old at Morehouse College in 1947, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “…We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”
That must be why, in the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois, hangs a large portrait of the building’s namesake covering his forehead with one hand in a gesture of either bewilderment or exasperation.
On Orientation Day the summer before my freshman year at Eastern Illinois University, my fellow prefrosh and I nervously and excitedly shuffled into the Martin Luther King Jr. University Union ballroom to watch a video addressing our fears of dorm life and living away from home for the first time. “EIU doesn’t have dorms,” it assured us. “It has residence halls.” The freshman in the video anxiously dreamt of having a nightmare roommate, but when they finally met, they became best friends.
Spurred on by 1950s nostalgia and TV shows like Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives (2007-present), diners made a cultural comeback in the 2000s. These were fixed structures (built on site) with large dining rooms and lots of stainless steel, Art Deco, Populux, and Doo Wop design elements, and neon lights. They were predominantly built by DeRaffele Manufacturing in New Rochelle, New York.
Diners in the 2000s were built to resemble 1950s diners while catering to contemporary tastes. Unlike diners of the past, many chefs crafted their menus around organic or healthy eating. Interior decor often includes vintage records, jukeboxes, pictures of 1950s cars and old diners, and cardboard cutouts of 1950s waitresses.
Gus’s Diner, at 630 N. Westmount Drive in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, is filled with 1950s nostalgia. It has a wonderful stainless steel exterior and has been run by the current owners since 2008. The building was built in 2005, but I haven’t been able to determine the manufacturer.
The 1950s were both the heyday and twilight of classic American diners. As fast-food began to take off and the population grew, entrepreneurs were less likely to invest in establishments with such limited space and seating. Major diner manufacturers went out of business in the 1950s, including The Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in 1952, the Worcester Lunch Car Company in 1957, and Mountain View Diners Company in 1957.
Still, when you think of the classic American diner, the 1950s always come to mind, with countertop jukeboxes and waitresses in pink aprons. In the late 1950s, the term “diner-restaurant” began to be used, as restaurateurs built larger, fixed structures retaining familiar diner elements.
Wolfe’s Diner, 625 N. U.S. Route 15 in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, is a 1952 O’Mahony, one of the last to be produced. Striped, stainless steel exteriors and flat roofs (as opposed to the classic barrel roof) and neon lights are characteristic of diners built in the 1950s. They resemble RVs or mobile homes.
The 1940s saw the end of the Great Depression but the beginning of America’s involvement in World War 2. Diners continued to roll off assembly lines, and after the war ended, expanded from industrial centers of the northeast to suburbs and smaller towns as well. They retained their train car appearance and were almost entirely made from steel, with Art Deco architectural elements.
The Modern Diner at 364 East Avenue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island is a 1940 Sterling Streamliner built by the John B Judkins Company. It was the first diner to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of two Sterling Streamliners still in operation. I love this unique Art Deco design.
In the inter-war period, 1918 to 1941, diners became a staple of American dining. They were larger to accommodate more seating, and began to use less wood. Many retained the same barrel-roof structure as their predecessors. The Great Depression meant people had less money to spend on dining out, so diners became a popular alternative in the pre-fast food era. One Silk City advertisement called it a “Depression-proof business.”
Joseph Fodero, using his experience gained from working with P. J. Tierney Sons and Kullman Industries, opened the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1933, and Les Daniel and Henry Strys, late comers to the diner game, opened Mountain View Diners Company in Singac, New Jersey in 1938.
Tom’s Diner, at 1200 U.S. Route 46 (south of the I-80 interchange) in Ledgewood, New Jersey, is a 1930 Silk City and the second oldest diner in New Jersey. It was used as a location in Cyndi Lauper’s music video for her 1984 hit “Time After Time.” You can see this would have been a beautiful diner when it first opened.