Larry Cultrera From Lunch Carts to Mega-Restaurants: The Evolution of the American Diner
Starting with the shooting of one fateful photograph of a diner on November 29, 1980, Larry Cultrera has logged thousands of miles and shot thousands of diner photographs in the last 41 plus years. He considers himself an archivist/photographer of the American Roadside, specializing in documenting the American Diner through his photographs. In October of 2007, he started writing the Diner Hotline Weblog which is a continuation of a column he penned for the SCA’s Journal Magazine for over 18 years previously.
Join Larry, who has photographed and kept a running log of just under 900 of these truly unique American restaurants, as he covers the various styles and designs that diners have had through history.
October 31st came and went and it was not until yesterday, November 2nd that I realized that I failed to acknowledge the anniversary of the creation of this blog. The reason that it slipped my mind was that Denise & I took my usual long weekend and attended a special event in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the wedding of my oldest nephew Christopher Cultrera and his lovely wife Kayla.
So, October 31, 2007 marks the very first blog post from Diner Hotline but that was not the true beginning. Some people may know that Diner Hotline started as a hard copy column I penned for the Society for Commercial Archeology. I wrote the first brief column, minus photos in December of 1988 and it was published in the Spring 1989 edition of the SCA News Journal. After a few years, the column was moved to the SCA Journal Magazine. I retired the column in August of 2007. But even then I knew I was not finished with Diner Hotline. In fact Brian Butko of the SCA convinced me it was time to take Diner Hotline into the 21st Century and onto the internet.
So, I continue to write the blog, although sporadically. I try to be more regular with the posts but as I have learned, I am getting more particular how and what I write. I start to write a post and I reach a point that I get distracted and the process sometimes stalls. Case in point, I have a post I started over a month ago and have yet to finish it. I will revisit it soon, to complete the piece and have others in my mind to eventually write. So, be patient and you will be rewarded with some future posts that I hope you will enjoy.
Back on June 17, 2008 when this blog was less than a year old, I wrote a post called Interesting places I have photographed… https://dinerhotline.wordpress.com/2008/06/17/interesting-roadside-places-i-have-photographed/. Now in July of 2021, I want to revisit this subject – to expand, update and utilize the pretty much completed digital archive I now have at my disposal. After spending the better part of four years scanning (and in some cases, re-scanning) all the 35mm prints and slides for all my Diner photos (dating from my first diner photograph, the By-Pass Diner – November 29, 1980 until switching totally to digital cameras in the summer of 2008) as well as scanning most if not all of my roadside related photos, I am now back to hopefully writing my blog on a more regular basis!
This newly completed archive of scanned photos are now up to my personal standards as to how my photos should look. This means that to the best of my ability and 25 years of using Adobe Photoshop, that regardless of the lighting conditions of how each photo was shot, I have tweaked and enhanced all these photos to be as close to what I had intended them to be when I initially set up the shots back in the day. The differences will be noticeable if you compare some of the photos in that earlier blog post to this one because I am more than likely going to use some of those images again here.
I want to explain my decision to revisit this subject about unique or unusual buildings instead of something more Dinercentric. Being a long-time member of the Society for Commercial Archeology, my interest’s run the gamut from my first love of Diners to Drive-In Restaurants, Hot Dog Stands, and selective old-time fast food places. But the unusual shaped buildings, (termed Programatic Architecture) hold a special place as well. This interest might also go back to my childhood when I noticed restaurants in the local area shaped like a Clipper Ship or Take-Out cardboard Fried Clam Box. So when I had decided to start taking photographs of Diners, it was a very small step to including other commercial roadside architecture as subject matter.
In fact, as I have written before, the impetus to start the documentation of Diners, etc. with my own photos were the first three Diner books that were published just prior to me starting on this 40 plus year project, (Diners by John Baeder, 1978 – American Diner by Richard J.S. Gutman & Elliott Kaufman, 1979 – and Diners of the Northeast by Donald Kaplan & Allyson Bellink, 1980). In fact there were other Roadside Related books starting to be published that got my attention as well. I recall purchasing two of these books, the first of many, more than likely by 1982. The End of the Road by John Margolies and Vanishing Roadside America by Warren H. Anderson, both published in 1981.
Other books that came to my attention as well as into my personal library include; White Towers by Paul Hirshorn and Steven Izenour – published in 1979, California Crazy by Jim Heimann and Rip Georges – published in 1980, Main Street to Miracle Mile by Chester H. Liebs – published in 1985 and Orange Roofs, Golden Arches by Philip Langdon – published in 1986.
But the book that became an inspiration for me to expand my photography to include the unusual and unique roadside commercial buildings was titled The Well-Built Elephant by J.J.C. Andrews. I bought it as soon as it was published in 1984 and was completely intrigued by it!
In his book, Mr. Andrews mentioned something about his growing up in my home state of Massachusetts, but did not really go into any details about his early life and very general info on how he came to pursue his own hobby of documenting these places. He did mention about being a tour manager for recording artists such as David Bowie and how late one night while riding on a tour bus between gigs, he saw a restaurant shaped like a hamburger somewhere. He knew he could not stop the bus and photograph it but was determined to get back there at his earliest convenience and document it. Unfortunately, when he did get back to that location, he found it had been demolished prior to his return! This led him to make an effort to document as many of these places as he could. This eventually gave birth to an exhibit of his photos and the publication of his book.
When I was planning this blog post I started doing a little research to find out more about Mr. Andrews. I knew I had read somewhere previously that he passed away at a young age and was surprised to find that he died within a year or two of the publication of his book. My research led me to a podcast featuring Tony Defries, who was the person behind the Mainman group of companies, the “first of its kind” rights management organization formed by entrepreneur and impresario Defries in 1972. This company supported and helped to develop the careers of various artists including David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Mick Ronson, Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter, Mick Ralphs, Dana Gillespie, Amanda Lear, Wayne/Jayne County, John Cougar Mellencamp and many others. This was the company that Jamie Andrews (as he was known by friends and colleagues) worked for from the mid-1970s until his death approximately ten years later. In this podcast, Mister Defries speaks mainly of Jamie Andrews and his involvement in Mainman as well mentioning the Well-Built Elephant book project. You can hear the podcast here… https://mainmanlabel.com/episode-31/ .
One of the recording artists that Mainman handled was Cidny Bullens (formerly Cindy Bullens) who also grew up in Massachusetts. I am friends with Cidny thru Facebook and asked him about Jamie, trying to find out where he grew up. Cid seemed to recall Andover or North Andover but acknowledged that he could be wrong on that fact. He did have these thoughts on Jamie though… Hi Larry-Oh to see Jamie’s name brings back such good memories. Jamie was a dear friend from the late 70’s when I signed with Mainman to his untimely death. He was a sweet man and a wonderful photographer. After Cidny’s response, I decided to dig a little deeper and did a Google search on Jamie’s mother’s name Dora Andrews and found mention of Lawrence, Massachusetts, so Cidny was pretty close on his recollection as Lawrence borders both Andover and North Andover.
Anyway, after being a little long winded here, I will get to the meat of this blog post. By showcasing my own photos of these unusual buildings as a tribute to Jamie Andrews and his Well-Built Elephant book…
Lucy The Elephant – Margate, New Jersey
In honor of the photo on the cover of Jamie Andrews’ book, I decided to go with one of my photos of Lucy the Elephant located south of Atlantic City in Margate New Jersey….. my photo is at a slightly different angle than his photo but the mid-November light was perfect for mine.
The Big Duck – Flanders, New York
I chose one of my later photos of The Big Duck which was taken at a different location than when I first found it in the 1980s. This was one of two photos I shot on the one and only road trip to Long Island with my wife Denise. I love this shot as Denise is posing at the front door to the building….
Hood Milk Bottle – Museum Wharf, Boston, Massachusetts
This is actually one of my newest photos. The bottle had just gone through a restoration and an updating. It really looks beautiful…
The Milk Bottle Restaurant – Raynham, Massachusetts
This was very similar to the current Hood’s Milk Bottle. These two as well as Frates Restaurant in New Bedford were built for the Sankey Dairy who sold Ice Cream out of them. The Raynham location has been enlarged over the years and is a great little restaurant.
Frates Restaurant – New Bedford, Massachusetts
Frates Restaurant had also been expanded and is currently operating as G & S Pizza, just minus the awnings around the bottle.
DuFresne’s Dairy Bar – Granby, Massachusetts
I stumbled upon DuFresne’s Dairy Bar in mid-afternoon on a Sunday coming back into Massachusetts from Connecticut. The Milk Bottle and Can were attached to a regular building with a hip roof, just behind the two mimetic structures in this shot where the large awning is sticking out. Currently operating as the Earlee Mug Restaurant.
Salvador’s Dairy Ice Cream Stand – South Dartmouth, Massachusetts
Here’s another place I stumbled upon on another Sunday morning road trip. I firmly believe that I had just purchased The Well-Built Elephant book not long before and had actually seen Jamie Andrews photo of it. But as I recall, I was not actually looking for this place. We more than likely left New Bedford after having breakfast at the Orchid Diner and headed west on U.S. Route 6. I surmise we took a left hand turn and just drove south from Route 6 and eventually found our way to this fantastic Ice Cream place. This is one of three photos I shot in 1984. I actually just took a ride last month to revisit this place and found out the business closed within the last two years, below is a photo from that trip…
Gulf Hill Dairy Ice Cream Stand – South Dartmouth, Massachusetts
On that same Sunday morning last month when we drove down to the South Coast of Massachusetts to revisit Salvador’s Dairy, our other destination was this other fantastic place within a few miles in the same town. I have to say the park-like area where this stand is located is one of the prettiest places I know in that area. It borders on Buzzards Bay.
Bayrd’s Indian Trading Post – Wakefield, Massachusetts
Bayrd’s Indian Trading post was a unique little family business, operated by actual Native Americans. The property was sold for redevelopment and the building was gone by the end of the 1980s.
The Gallon Measure Gas Station – Buchanan, New York
Here’s another place that I knew about from The Well-Built Elephant book. Located north of New York City in the little town of Buchanan. This place was built to resemble an old Gallon Measure oil can.
The Ship Restaurant – Lynnfield, Massachusetts
The Ship Restaurant started out as a place called Ship’s Haven and looked like a Steamship. In the early 1960s the building was enlarged and rebuilt to look like this. The restaurant closed a few years ago and was demolished to make way for a new strip mall.
Sailor Tom’s House – Reading, Massachusetts
Sailor Tom’s house was the final remnant of a unique roadside restaurant complex that closed in the late 1950s. Sailor Tom was in actuality Joseph Lafayette Thompson who built a small Seafood Grill on Route 28. The small building was expanded to become a large restaurant and the center of a 36 acre complex with a miniature New England Fishing Village and a former P.T. Boat as a gift shop. Thompson built his house on a rise just behind the complex. The house was torn down within the last 15 years or so for a new upscale housing development.
The Clam Box – Ipswich, Massachusetts
The Clam Box has been in business under various operators since 1935. It was originally just the box shaped building with the flaps. It has been expanded over the years to have an enclosed ordering area as well as a side dining room. It is ultimately our favorite place to get fried clams, etc.
Prince Pizzeria – Saugus, Massachusetts
Though technically not a different shaped building, Prince Pizzeria is noteworthy for the Leaning Tower that is part of the structure. The restaurant was originally part of the Prince Spaghetti House chain operated by Prince Spaghetti Company of Lowell, Massachusetts. There were other Spaghetti Houses I knew about in Somerville, Massachusetts and Quincy, Massachusetts. The chain ceased to exist by the early 1960s and this one was taken over by a former Prince employee, Arthur Castraberti and is still operated by his family today. This is the only one left.
The Leaning Tower Restaurant – Quincy, Massachusetts
The Leaning Tower looks pretty close to the way it was built in the 1950s when it was part of the Prince Spaghetti House chain. This was right next door to the original Dunkin’ Donuts shop (a little of that building can be seen at the left). This was gone by the 1990s.
Twisty Treat Ice Cream Stand – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
I came across this one evening prior to eating supper at the Mayfair Diner in Northeast Philadelphia. The light was not perfect but this was the best image.
This coming Saturday, October 31, 2020 will mark 13 years since I started this blog. Granted I have not been very regular with my posts this year, but there is nothing “very regular” about this year anyway!
Truth be told, I am still working on my multi-year project – scanning of my diner photos/slides. I have completed scanning all the 35mm slides that I shot between March 1983 thru to mid-2008. For the last two years I have been slogging thru the scanning and cleaning up of the 35mm prints I shot between November, 1980 and March, 1983. The prints take longer as the clean-up/enhancing is fairly time consuming as I am extremely particular on how the photos should look.
To mark this anniversary, I want to look back to the origins of Diner Hotline and how it eventually morphed into this blog. Diner Hotline started way back in the early to mid-1980s (long before the internet) as an unofficial way to communicate info and issues concerning American Diners. Basically I would phone Dick Gutman, John Baeder, David Hebb or other interested people (usually a select group of like-minded members of the Society for Commercial Archeology) to let them know some tidbit of info on the goings on in the diner community. I would usually start off the greeting by saying… “Diner Hotline, Diner Hotline” and then proceed to impart the news I had to tell the particular individual that I had called.
In November of 1988, the Society for Commercial Archeology had a yearly gathering hosted by The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It was a memorable event with hundreds of people from all over the country in attendance. A few weeks after I attended the event, I had phoned the then President of the SCA, Michael B. “Mike” Jackson. I happened to mention some now forgotten diner news and he suggested that I should write a piece for the SCA NewsJournal. He even went as far as saying it should be a regular column! My first reaction was to almost decline as in my mind, I was not a writer. But as we continued talking, I started to warm up to the idea and basically said yes, I would give it a shot. I do recall telling Mike that I already had a name for the column – Diner Hotline.
So, in December of 1988, I wrote the first brief installment of Diner Hotline. It appeared in the Spring, 1989 issue of the SCA NewsJournal.
I continued to write Diner Hotline, which became the first ever regular column for any of the SCA publications. Within a few years, the SCA Board of Directors decided the NewsJournal was not being produced as frequently as they would have liked. After all, it sort of started as a newsletter that had actually outgrown the format and it was taking longer for all the different pieces of the puzzle to come together and be published. It was decided to revamp the concept and split the publication into a newsletter called The SCA News which would be published four times a year. They would also create a new publication, a magazine called the SCA Journal which would be published twice a year. The Board offered me the option as to which publication to contribute Diner Hotline to. I opted for the Journal as I would only have two deadlines.
I wrote all but one Diner Hotline from that first Spring, 1989 Issue of the NewsJournal until the Fall, 2007 Issue of the Journal when I officially retired the column.
So, not long after I retired the Diner Hotline column I was convinced by long-time friend Brian Butko to create this blog. He suggested the WordPress platform to use for this new endeavor. I checked it out and made my first tentative post into blogging on October 31, 2007. Here is the link to that short piece… https://dinerhotline.wordpress.com/2007/10/31/
But the biggest thing that happened was being contacted by The History Press in early 2011 about the possibility of me authoring a book for them on Diners. It was initially proposed as a book on Diners of New England. But I was familiar with the books that The History Press put out and I informed the editor that you could not do justice to the region with a book that only had just under 200 pages. So it was suggested that I do one on Massachusetts Diners. I agreed that would be more doable and put together an outline which was accepted. This led to me writing my first book for them entitled Classic Diners of Massachusetts (October, 2011) and ultimately my second book, New Hampshire Diners: Classic Granite State Eateries (October, 2014).
After these books came out, I continued to write the blog but the frequency of posts have dwindled. But I promise that I will continue to keep the blog alive and make more posts. The next one will be in a month to mark a huge milestone – 40 years of photographing diners!
1st pet peeve – Writers and or reporters referring to Diners as Greasy Spoons
Back on March 25, 2020, Jeremy Ebersole – a current Vice President of the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA) who makes frequent contributions/posts to the SCA Facebook page posted a photo album to that page entitled “Greasy Spoons from sea to shining sea”. Now I had no problem with the photos per se, but I have always bristled at the term “Greasy Spoon”. In fact being a member of the SCA myself since 1981, I was somewhat shocked to see the term used by someone affiliated with the world’s premier organization that deals with documenting and preserving the businesses and sociological aspects of the American Roadside. Especially since the origins of this blog came out of the first ever regular column (Diner Hotline) that was featured in SCA publications.
Because I personally believe the use of this term in regards to Diners is derogatory… shortly after reading the post by Jeremy Eborsole, I decided to hold an informal poll and ask a few people I know and respect, what their feelings are on the use of the term “Greasy Spoon” in reference to diners?
Glenn Wells, diner aficionado, Roadsidefans.com
Glenn Wells: I agree. I think the term is used more by people who dislike diners to put them down, rather than embraced by people who like diners. As you saw I was VERY surprised to see SCA use that term the way they did Also found something I wrote around 2001 on my web site (not updated for a long time) under Diner FAQs: Some people refer to a diner as a “hash house” or a “greasy spoon.” Does this mean the food is bad? Let’s be honest for a minute. If every diner from the beginning of time had been spotlessly clean and served delicious food, such terms never would have entered the vocabulary. Some diners DO serve food deserving of the epithets that some people hurl at ALL diners. But diners are hardly alone in serving sub-par food. Even some very high priced restaurants can turn out some meals that are less than satisfactory. Then, of course, there are the fast food chains, where the fare is more consistent from location to location, but that does not mean that it is good.
Richard J.S. Gutman, preeminent Diner Scholar
Richard J.S. Gutman: I hate the phrase! Glad you are doing this. I can’t believe that the SCA used it recently…several times.
Ron Dylewski, diner aficionado, writer, designer, commercial director and editor
Ron Dylewski: We often hear people refer to classic diners as “greasy spoons.” To many this might seem like an innocuous term, even a term of endearment. It is perhaps a more visual nickname than simply, diner. It can appear more evocative, denoting a certain je ne sais quoi or an ineffable quality that can’t be captured by simply saying “diner”. But none of that matters. The phrase is pejorative and should be stricken from any journalistic or scholarly writing, unless the phrase is called out for what it is; a slur. Similar names, such as grease pit, hash house and beanery are similarly used to denigrate diners. Writers are often encouraged to spice up their writing by using these terms. It just seems to add flavor to their prose, but in this case the flavor is all off. It actually distracts from the reality of what diners are and were. Now, don’t get me wrong. Not every diner is spic and span and not every one serves wonderful home-cooked meals. But that’s a decisionthat a writer would have to make on a case-by-case basis, not as a blanket statement about all diners.
Bill Katsifis, owner/operator of the East Shore Diner, Harrisburg, PA
East Shore Diner, photo by Larry Cultrera, January 1, 1985
Bill Katsifis, East Shore Diner: I do think the term greasy spoon is a degrading adjective. Makes it feel dirty. Yes, Greasy spoon, makes a diner/restaurant sound like a less than desirable place to eat. Thanks for the diner work you do….
Alexis Lekkas, owner/operator of Alexis Diner, Troy, NY
Alexis Diner, photo by Larry Cultrera, August 8, 2002
Alexis Lekkas, Alexis Diner: I agree with you. Only greasy spoon diners consider that a compliment and there are not many of them. By the way I am still in business even with all the Covid-19 issues…
Alex Panko, former owner of Peter Pank Diner
Larry Cultrera, Alex Panko and Les Cooper. Alex Panko is the former owner of the Peter Pank Diner, Sayersville, NJ
Peter Pank Diner, photo courtesy of Alex Panko
Alex Panko, former owner of Peter Pank Diner: Hey Larry I am with, you, greasy spoon is derogatory. But I would always make a joke and made the people who referred to the diner in that way look stupid if they said that to me. LOL !!!!
Maria Pagelos Wall, co-owner of the Village Diner, Milford, PA
Village Diner, photo from Larry Cultrera, November 27, 1981
Maria Pagelos Wall, Village Diner: I don’t like it. To me, it makes it sound like a place is dirty with low quality food.
Michael Engle, diner aficionado/author
Michael Engle: I think for anyone who has put the time, passion, energy, and back breaking labor into running their diner or restaurant, that is the last thing they want to hear. There are a number of people who are so far removed from the food industry. Many of these same people, especially the ones who find a diner “cute,” like they would a puppy, these are the people who are perfectly fine with the term. They don’t mean any harm by the term. And these people are validated by the few restaurant owners who adore the term.
Brian Butko, diner aficionado/author
Brian Butko: I agree, we’ve always avoided that term. I recall old diner industry mags discussing the term, and always talking about how diners should help themselves by paying attention to details, paving parking lots, lifting the industry, acting like “real restaurants,” that could be a fun angle.
Jeremy Ebersole, current Vice President of the Society for Commercial Archeology
Jeremy Ebersole: Thanks so much for letting me know, Larry. I certainly didn’t mean to offend. I’ve used the term my whole life and never thought of it as derogatory, and that photo album has been up for years without any negative feedback. However, I certainly do not want to offend or imply that the SCA does not hold diners in the highest esteem. I love diners with every fiber of my being and just had no idea that term was contentious. I’ve been going back through all the old SCA publications and reading them. They’re just so great, and I always really enjoy your column! Please let me know when your blog is published and I will make sure we promote it on the SCA Facebook page! P.S.: Jeremy changed the title of the post to “Awesome eateries from sea to shining sea”.
2nd pet peeve – Writers and or reporters mentioning railroad cars/trolley cars when writing about Diners
Another thing happened recently which tends to cause me to freak out. In fact it is something that I have been calling out newspaper reporters on for the better part of 40 years. Around the beginning of June, 2020, reports came out of Maine about the resurrection of the Farmington Diner of Farmington, Maine.
A number of years ago (2008), Rachel Jackson decided to embark on a risky adventure and save the Farmington Diner when the land it was on was sold to a national pharmacy chain. She had the diner transported to property she owned a few miles away where it has sat in storage since. Within the last couple of years, Ms. Jackson actually bought another old diner that had operated in Pennsylvania and Connecticut under various names. Her plan was to use parts of each to restore (the one out of Connecticut) and return it to operation under the Farmington Diner name.
The reporter , Donna M. Perry of the Sun Journal wrote the first recent report I read on the Farmington Diner, kept referring to both diners as railroad cars. I immediately sent off an email to this reporter:
I just read the piece you wrote on the Farmington Diner. Thanks for the update as I was wondering what was happening up there. I write a blog on diners (www.dinerhotline.com) and have written 2 books for The History Press, (Classic Diners of Massachusetts, 2011) (New Hampshire Diners, Classic Granite State Eateries, 2014). I have been conducting a personal research project on diners since 1980. I have photographed approximately 870 plus diners since November 29th of that year. I just want to point out that writers/journalists like yourself have periodically perpetuated a common misconception that diners are rail cars or trolleys. That is far from accurate. Diners are custom built buildings, usually built by a Diner manufacturer and shipped to a specific (or more than one) location. The diners in question are both Mountain View Diners, manufactured in Singac, New Jersey.
Donna Perry responded to my email and told me she had used railcar diner in her piece because Rachel Jackson thought that it was a commonly used generic term. Perry went on to say that she would amend her online piece to just say diner.
The second report I read was from Maureen Milliken of Maine Business News (www.mainebiz.biz) and I was very happy to see that Ms. Milliken, a seasoned reporter had done her homework. Her piece was well researched and mentioned Mountain View Diners. Not only that, she found a blog post I wrote from 2010 on The Silver Diner of Waterbury CT being closed and in jeopardy, (this became the second diner rescued by Rachel Jackson). The link to my bog post is here… https://dinerhotline.wordpress.com/tag/the-new-lafayette-diner/ So I immediately wrote Maureen Milliken and thanked her for referring to my blog as well as doing her diligent research.
Just to give a quick primer, here are exterior and interior views of an old Dining Car from the Boston & Maine Railroad…
That being said, let me say that there were and are still examples of diners that had been created from converted train and trolley cars. Here are a few examples…
an old Postcard of Leona Hillier’s Dinette from my collection. This is a converted railroad car…
The Club Car Restaurant, a converted railroad car, located in Nantucket, Massachusetts
exterior view of Sisson’s Diner, a converted trolley located in South Middleboro, Massachusetts
interior view of Sisson’s Diner, a converted trolley located in South Middleboro, Massachusetts
exterior view of Bill Gates’ Diner, a converted trolley formerly located in Bolton Landing, New York
interior view of Bill Gates’ Diner, a converted trolley formerly located in Bolton Landing, New York
The following photos are examples of factory-built diners that had the railroad car resemblance in their details…
Chadwick Square Diner, Worcester, Massachusetts
The Sparky Diner, formerly of Pittsfield, Massachusetts
The Capitol Diner, Lynn, Massachusetts
Casey’s Diner, Natick, Massachusetts (looking like a caboose)
I am sure a fair portion of people who read this blog are aware that Diner Hotline had started out as the first ever regular column that appeared in two of the publications made available to the members of the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA). It first showed up in 1989 in the original News Journal which was a newsletter for the organization. Later on in 1991, the publication was split into a newsletter called the SCA News and a magazine called the SCA Journal. I was given a choice as to where I wanted Diner Hotline to appear and chose the Journal. The column ran until September of 2007. Shortly thereafter, I was influenced by my good friend Brian Butko to think about morphing the Hotline into a blog.
So on October 31, 2007 the Diner Hotline Weblog made it’s debut with a short post. Over the years I have kept true to my mission of posting about “Diners, Drive-ins and other Roadside Stuff”, making it a little more diversified than the original Diner Hotline column.
Although the frequency of posts has diminished greatly over the last 6 years or more, I am committed to keeping this alive with the occasional post as the spirit moves me. I am currently expanding the digital library of photos I have shot over the last 39 years. I have completed the 35mm slide scanning and currently am working on the 3 plus years of 35mm prints I had shot prior to switching to slide film. The scanning and cleaning of the prints has proved to be hugely time-consuming but I am very pleased with the results thus far.
I hope that people will continue to check in here from time to time and like what I have to say. Also, I do have some Facebook pages that I post photos, etc to, including “Diner Hotline”, “Got Diners”, “Classic Diners of Massachusetts”, New Hampshire Diners, Classic Granite State Eateries” and of course my personal Facebook page “Larry Cultrera”….
Michael Paul Smith with a diorama set up of Elgin Park
courtesy of Michael Paul Smith archives
I was saddened to hear the news that Michael Paul Smith had passed away on November 19, 2018. I will go into a little more detail below, but as an intro; Smith , who described himself as a recluse, became well known world-wide for his unbelievably detailed forced perspective digital photos of diorama scenes utilizing his rather large collection of 1/24 scale die-cast car & truck models along with scratch-built model buildings combined with actual outdoor scenes.
For those who do not know of Michael Paul Smith, he lived for many years on the edge of downtown Winchester, Massachusetts in the third floor of a large Victorian house. He had a pleasant soft-spoken personality and described himself as a recluse, although he did not actually avoid making contact with other people, he just kept to himself for the most part. He grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the small town of Sewickley.
According to his Bio, his family moved to Massachusetts where he graduated from high school and eventually ended up studying at the Worcester Art Museum as well as UMass Amherst. Michael had bounced around “employment-wise” in the early years after college, trying out various professions including working for a cabinet maker, a short-lived (one day) stint as a mail carrier, a bartender, and an art director for an advertising agency. He also started a wallpaper and painting business and in another career move, made models for an architectural firm.
Smith was an avid modeller from an early age and the skills he developed over his life helped him to become one of the most widely known artists using a small point and shoot digital camera to create forced perspective photographs that truly fooled his many fans world-wide. The seeds of this began in the 1990s when he started collecting super detailed die-cast car and truck models produced by companies like Danbury Mint and Franklin Mint, as well as others.
Smith’s fondness for classic automobile design from the 1920s thru the 50s inspired him to eventually start an over two decade-long endeavor of utilizing his skills (learned from building architectural models) to create 1/24th scale buildings to be used as a set-up for photographing his die cast models of cars and trucks. His first dioramas were mostly shot inside. He eventually moved his dioramas outside and used actual street backdrops to line-up his model buildings and cars in naturally lighted situations where the viewer was hard pressed to see where the diorama ended and the real background started…
The photos were eventually posted on a Flickr page he developed that he dubbed “Elgin Park” https://www.flickr.com/photos/24796741@N05/ . Elgin Park was a fictionalized (and certainly idealized) place based on his boyhood hometown of Sewickley, PA. After some publicity from a British website, Smith’s viewership of his Flickr page mushroomed and went viral with millions of hits almost over night. I myself saw some of these a number of years ago through postings on Facebook and other places. I was totally amazed at the photographs and skill it took to create these images. Here are some of my favorites….
The Flickr page eventually led to 2 books Smith co-authored with his friend Gail K. Ellison. The first was Elgin Park, An Ideal American town published in 2011…
This first book was in a way an extension of his Flickr page with loads of photos of the dioramas. He did not go into too much detail as to his process that created the images.
This book was followed by Elgin Park, The 1/24th-scale creation of a fictitious mid 20th century American town published in 2015…
The second book was physically quite large and possibly the most expensive book I ever purchased. After hearing of Michael’s passing, I dug out both this and the first book from my personal library to prepare to write this blog post. This second book went into extreme detail to describe the process involved in creating his scenes. All the little tricks of the trade (so to speak) to create scratch-built model buildings, back drops and miscellaneous detailed equipment/pieces to enhance the individual scenes were spelled out. There were also select comments from his legion of world-wide on-line fans as well as his responses to them.
It was not until I read a Boston Globe article about Michael Paul Smith and his Elgin Park project close after the time that the second book was published that I realized we had met back in 1995. I have been associated with the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA), becoming a member in 1981, I had attended many of the organizations events held in the northeast since that time. In late 1988, I had started contributing by authoring the first-ever regular column in the SCA’s News Journal (later to be known as the Journal magazine). I named it Diner Hotline (surprise) and wrote for the Journal for over 18 years before retiring the column and starting this blog.
The last event the SCA held in the Boston area (and in fact, New England) occurred on June 23-24, 1995, dubbed the “New England Diner Weekend”, this event was organized locally by myself and Richard J. S. Gutman on the Massachusetts part and Daniel Zilka on the Rhode Island part, along with national assistance by SCA’ers Tania Werbizky, Pete Phillips and Mike Bennett. The event centered on visiting two major exhibits celebrating the American Diner, the first exhibit was at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts curated by Richard Gutman and named after his landmark book, “American Diner Then & Now”.
The second was a smaller exhibit at the Rhode Island Historical Society which noted the Ocean State’s place in diner history as the birthplace of the horse-drawn lunch wagon. Starting in Lexington at a Friday night reception and continuing the next day with a bus tour going from Lexington to Worcester, Mass. and then on to Providence, RI. The weather cooperated and it was a huge success. We had a large attendance including many locals from Massachusetts and New England as well as people from around the country. Michael Paul Smith was one of those attending.
During the event, I had brought along a handful of photos to show interested people of a diner-related personal project I had started around January of 1995. This project was a completely new thing for me, a scratch-built model of the Star Lite Diner, Worcester Lunch Car No. 817 which was located in my hometown of Medford, Massachusetts from 1948 to 1968. I had some H.O. scale plastic models of diners in my collection, some built primarily as they came, others I had “kit-bashed” to look different. This new model was the first attempt at doing something on this scale (so to speak). The Star Lite was a diner that I actually patronized as a kid and was hugely disappointed when they closed for their usual vacation in the summer of 1968 and never reopened. The diner was reportedly moved to a salvage yard and never survived.
The model was not built to any particular scale such as 1/24, etc. I just used graph paper to draw a representational plan that was in perspective and looked right to me. The model ended up being approximately 30 inches long. At the time of the SCA event in June of 95, the exterior had been completed. I had accomplished this level of completion in a few short weeks and took the photos which were processed in February of 95.
My large, scratch-built model of the Star Lite Diner from the group of photos I brought along to the SCA New England Diner Weekend to show interested people. By the way it is sitting on an actual Worcester Lunch Car table….
Second view of the scratch-built model of the Star Lite Diner
Third view of the scratch-built model of the Star Lite Diner
Fourth view of the scratch-built model of the Star Lite Diner
As I said, Michael and I met sometime during the New England Diner weekend, in fact it may have been at the stop we made to the Modern Diner in Pawtucket, RI. I showed him the photos of my Star Lite Diner model and he immediately was enthusiastic about what I had accomplished. I do recall he asked about the scale of it and told him I did not use any particular scale. We quickly found out that we lived about 7 minutes or so (by car) from each other. I was living on Osborne Road in Medford, about 2 blocks from the town line with Winchester. He lived about a mile and a half from there near the center of town. We made arrangements for me to visit with him soon after and I brought the model with me. We visited at his home for an hour or so and he was impressed with my diner model and how improvised it was with little or no materials other than balsa and bass wood and other items I used to create it. Now don’t get me wrong, I think I did pretty well for this attempt to build the model but my expertise was nowhere in the same ballpark as Michael’s modelling experience. Be that as it may, little did I know that this chance encounter may have actually led to Michael’s near future project of creating Elgin Park….
During that early visit, Michael dragged out a paper bag filled with advertising match books when he found out I collected those. In that whole bag, there was one match book from Duffs Diner & Dining Room in Winchester, VA. It was a very odd size, overly large (4.25″ long x 3.35″ wide, closed) but a real beauty. He donated it to my collection…
Front view of Duff’s Diner Matchbook
Back view of Duff’s Diner Matchbook
Inside view of Duff’s Diner Matchbook with only a small amount of matches
After we visited that day in 1995 we did not keep in touch and I certainly had no clue that this whole “Elgin Park” project would evolve within the next few years. Fast Forward 20 plus years later after I discovered that it was he who had been behind all those wonderful diorama photos, I decided to contact him through his Flickr page and he responded. I asked if he remembered me and he said, yes, of course. So we made arrangements for myself and my wife Denise to visit him on Sunday, June 26, 2016. I brought a copy of each of my Diner books which I signed for him as well as my copy of his 2015 Elgin Park book (for him to sign for me).
He also gave me a copy of his first Elgin Park book from 2011, which he signed as well. I noticed when he signed my copy of the 2015 Elgin Park book, he also left an inscription that totally floored me and took me by surprise…
After seeing the inscription, it dawned on me that he considered our 1995 meeting pivotal in his process of going down the road he would travel to end up creating Elgin Park and thus, become internationally known for this endeavor. I was floored by this knowledge as well as humbled. I certainly do not give myself any credit for what Michael accomplished as it was all him and his talent as well as ability to create these lasting images which legions of fans world-wide have enjoyed for years.
Well, another year has rolled around. October 31st marks the 11th year this blog has been up and running. Granted, I have not posted much for most of this year as I have been feverishly scanning the photo archives, 35mm slides and prints (this scanning process started in earnest in the last year and a half). I started shooting 35mm photos in the summer of 1980 and documented the first diner on November 29, 1980. The slides are all scanned (diner & non-diner shots) effectively covering a span of 35 years, (I switched from 35mm print film to slide film circa March of 1983).
Most Diner Hotline readers know, but for those who do not, my obsession with diners started when I was very young. I had been very observant as a child, whenever we were going on errands around town or just little road trips in and around the Bay State, I always noticed places along the roadside. Diners seem to always catch my eye and in the late 1950s into the early 1960s, there were still plenty of them here in New England. The seed of knowledge was planted when I was approximately 5 or 6 years old when I asked my dad about this building we used to pass on Mystic Avenue in South Medford near the Somerville town line.
It was a blue colored building with a rounded roof that featured “Old English” lettering on it that said Star (left side of the center entrance) and Lite (to the right of the entrance). My question to my dad was, is that a railroad car? He answered no, it is a restaurant called a diner. He went on to explain that diners were built in factories and were designed to resemble railroad cars. The Star Lite Diner was a 1948 vintage Worcester Lunch Car and a huge amount of the diners in our area looked similar to the Star Lite as Worcester Lunch Car Company was the local diner builder.
There is only one photo that exists of the Star Lite Diner
the above is my colorized version. Note: the trim along the
roof and overhang should actually be yellow…
So basically my obsession was intact very early and I have memories of eating at quite a few diners when I was a kid including the Star Lite, Bobbie’s Diner and Carroll’s Colonial Diner, all in my hometown of Medford as well as others in the area. In fact I hung out at Carroll’s for a few years after graduating from high school in 1979. The diner was a large “L” shaped structure with huge windows and an additional dining room addition that was open 24-7 through the 1970s.
After purchasing my first “new” vehicle (as opposed to a used vehicle), a 1979 Chevy van, I was able to increase the area of my own little road trips without the worry of a vehicle breakdown. I started going on Sunday morning road trips with my good friend Steve Repucci which always started at a diner, originally Genia’s Diner in North Woburn, Mass. We eventually decided to start visiting other diners that we either knew about or just drove in search of a diner thus determining the direction to drive in.
The late 1970s saw the publication of two watershed books on Diners. The first was the 1978 Diners by artist John Baeder. This featured paintings and sketches in color and black & white along with some wonderful text in John Baeder’s distinctive style of story telling.
The second book was American Diner by Richard Gutman and Elliot Kaufman (in collaboration with David Slovic) published in 1979. This became the first book ever to delve into the history of diners.
In 1980, another book was published called Diners of The Northeast by Donald Kaplan and Alan Bellink. This was a guide to a selection of diners in New Jersey, New York and New England. This was actually the first book that I bought and it became the catalyst that sparked my interest in diners to a fever pitch.
The diner obsession lead to my photographing over 860 diners in almost 38 years. I became a member of the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA) in 1981 which eventually lead to me contributing to the SCA publications in the form of the first ever regular column called Diner Hotline (1989-2007). I retired the SCA Diner Hotline column in 2007 and began the Diner Hotline weblog as stated on October 31, 2007. The blog also lead to the publishing of my own two books, Classic Diners of Massachusetts (2011) and New Hampshire Diners, Classic Granite State Eateries (2014).
I hope to be increasing the amount of blog posts soon as the digital archive of my photos and slides are now closer to completion.
October 31, 2015 is of course Halloween, but also the date marks the 8th anniversary of the creation of this blog! As some of my readers know, Diner Hotline started as the first regular column to ever appear in the publications of the Society for Commercial Archeology (SCA). It was suggested to me by Mike Jackson (then president of the SCA) in the Fall of 1988 during a phone conversation that I could possibly write a piece to appear in the SCA News Journal. The News Journal was the organization’s only regular publication at the time that was a combination newsletter/magazine.
When he suggested to me about writing a column, I first thought… I am not a writer, but then again I read a lot and could probably relate personal tales associated with diners and happen to have had some good info and sources at my disposal to possibly attempt something like this. I also thought that it was an opportunity to be one of the few “non-academic voices” (basically the average everyday roadside enthusiast) contributing to the publication. I even recall saying to Mike… I already have a name for the column, “Diner Hotline”, which had been a sort of inside joke between myself, David Hebb , Dick Gutman and John Baeder. I had been known to call any and all of these guys on the phone when I had some juicy tid-bits of news and other information about a diner. As soon as they answered the phone, I would preface by saying “DINER HOTLINE, DINER HOTLINE” and then impart the info!
Thus, Diner Hotline became a reality and the first short piece appeared in the Spring 1989 edition (Volume 10, Number 1) of the SCA News Journal continuing through to when the publication separated into two different entities, the SCA News (a newsletter) and the SCA Journal (a full fledged magazine) The News was published more frequently while the Journal was twice a year. I opted for Diner Hotline to continue in the Journal (only two deadlines a year). My Hotline contributions went though a whole host of Journal editors over the years and continued until the Fall 2007 edition of the SCA Journal when I retired the column.
Shortly after I retired the column (almost immediately actually) my good friend Brian Butko mentioned to me in passing that I should start a blog! So I asked him some questions about how to go about doing this and by the last day of October of 2007, the blog was born!
So I want to mention that coming up really soon, I will be reviewing the new book about my pal John Baeder (John Baeder’s Road Well Taken). Written by Jay Williams, it is an extremely heavy book (figuratively as well as literally). It is filled with many of his paintings (diner and non-diner) and delves into John’s psyche and how all the influences in his life lead him to become one of the internationally renowned artists of our time.
Also, I have another Author event coming up on Friday evening, November 6th at Gibson’s Bookstore (Concord’s indie bookstore since 1898) in downtown Concord, NH. Starting at 5:30pm with a small slide presentation followed by a book signing for my New Hampshire Diners: Classic Granite State Eateries. Gibson’s Bookstore is located at 45 South Main St, Concord, NH 03301
Classic Diners of Massachusetts Slide Presentation
January 23rd in Medford, Mass.
I will be doing a slide presentation based on my Classic Diners of Massachusetts book at the Medford Public Library on January 23, 2012. The presentation will be similar to the one I did for the Somerville Public Library with some modifications. These will include some images of diners from Medford’s past.
Here is the blurb the Library posted on their website….
Classic Diners of Massachusetts A Lecture by Larry Cultrera
Monday, January 23 at 7:00 p.m.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the birthplace of “night lunch wagon” manufacturing industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These horse-drawn food carts eventually evolved into classic American diners. For many years, diner builders like the Worcester Lunch Car Company and J.B. Judkins Company operated in the Bay State, although few new diners opened for business after 1960. This left the state with a high concentration of some of the best-preserved diners built during the early to mid-twentieth century, including the Capitol Diner in Lynn, the Route 66 Diner in Springfield and Buddy’s Diner in Somerville.
Medford native Larry Cultrera is a diner historian and the author of the Diner Hotline blog. His new book Classic Diners of Massachusetts has just been released by the History Press.The Library is located at 111 High Street (Route 60) on-street parking as well as a small parking lot behind the building is available.
Rosebud Diner of Somerville, Mass. changing owners soon
Rosebud Diner postcard designed by Larry Cultrera
I got a phone call on January 1st from old friend Arthur Krim, a founding member of the Society for Commercial Archeology. It seems he was contacted by Kristi Chase of the Somerville Historical Comission who was concerned about the future of the Rosebud Diner. Arthur asked me if I had any knowledge of the possible sale of the diner, I told him that I had not heard anything. I last saw Bill Nichols (whose family owns the diner) back in November at my “Author Event” held at the Somerville Public Library and nothing was mentioned then. Arthur informed me that Kristi had heard from someone who stated he was in the process of purchasing the Rosebud and wanted to change or alter the neon sign on the roof. I told Arthur that I would look into the situation.
I called Bill Nichols shortly after talking with Arthur and asked him what was happening. He said everything was fine and that he knew nothing about any changes concerning the diner. So I thought, well maybe this was just a rumor. The next day I called Kristi Chase and she in turn reitierated what she told Arthur and the news sounded credible. Because the diner is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Historical Commission needs to be informed on possible changes to listed properties. Well I called Bill back and told him what was said. Needless to say he was surprised and a little upset, it seems his dad was selling the diner and had not yet informed him.
I again contacted Bill this past week after he had spoken with his dad who told him that someone had approached him with an offer to by the building/business. Bill says he is not sure of the actual timeline but estimates the change in ownership will happen possibly within the next month or month and half. I am sad for this change and hope that nothing drastic happens to this long-time landmark in my life.
Glenn Wells’s RoadsideFans website migrates to WordPress
Good friend, colleague and occasional road trip buddy Glenn Wells received a nice Christmas present from his stepson Ray Milstrey, an updated website/blog. Ray also created the old RoadsideFans website, but now that the site has migrated to WordPress, it will become interactive. Here is what Glenn says about the move……
The new RoadsideFans.com is a WordPress blog, and if that seems familiar, it’s because several other roadside-related web sites already use WordPress – Diner Hotline, Retro Roadmap, Diner Hunter, and Lincoln Highway News among them. As with the others, visitors to RoadsideFans will now have a chance to leave comments – simply click the arrow at the top right and scroll down to the bottom of the posting. There will probably be more new features yet to come as I become more familiar with WordPress.
You will find several features from the old web site on the new RoadsideFans.com. By clicking FEATURES on the bar above, you can access the Howard Johnson’s, barbecue chicken, and Taconic Parkway features from the old web site. However, the Online Diner Tours and some other photo features from the old site have been retired. Most of these were a decade or more old, and many of the places no longer exist or have changed names. I am considering uploading the pictures to a Flickr account to maintain the historical record.
I want to congratulate Glenn on the updated website and wish him good luck. I know I have enjoyed using wordpress for Diner Hotline! You can find a link to RoadsideFans in my blogroll as well as here…. http://www.roadsidefans.com/