Back to the mid-1930s. Disney’s success in the restaurant field did not
go unnoticed by his many animation competitors. One of the first to take action was Max Fleischer, the mustachioed
New York animation impresario who was simultaneously mulling over the prospect of joining Disney in the production
of full-length animated cartoons. Fleischer’s interest in the restaurant business makes sense when one considers
that his family had run a thriving weinerschnitzel stand in its native Austria. In January, 1937, Fleischer’s Famous
Foods opened its doors in Times Square. One of the lesser-known Fleischer brothers, Angus, served as general manager;
an even more obscure brother, Tito, was head chef.
While we have no reason to believe that the establishment’s food and service were extraordinary, Mintz invested considerable time and money in fabricating costumes of Scrappy and his pals: his brother Oopy, his girlfriend Margie, and his dog, Yippy. At first, the Chowateria’s employees donned these outfits, but it soon became clear that the practice didn’t make sense. In the heavy, oversized costumes, it proved impossible to perform such tasks as operating the cash register or preparing even the restaurant’s limited menu (hamburgers, chili con carne, milk shakes, and 11,000 varieties of pie). Aware of the problem but unwilling to concede that the expensive costumes had been a mistake, Mintz ordered a new policy: from then on, each customer was required to don a costume upon entering the premises. This practice proved enormously unpopular, and the restaurant quickly shuttered its doors, only months after it opened.
One historical footnote concerning Scrappy’s: a young Yorba Lindan named Richard “Milhous” Nixon was among its staffers. The disgraced-former-president-to-be prepared hand-dipped milkshakes, in the role of Margie.
On the east coast, Paul Terry, eyeing the popularity of Fleischer’s Famous Foods, planned his own eatery. This was a surprise, for Terry was a notoriously conservative man. (Terry-Toons added sound only in 1943, produced its first color film in 1956, and was the only major cartoon studio to be staffed by indentured servants.)
Terry’s entry into the restaurant field was surprisingly innovative. The Terry-Mat, opened in Brooklyn in 1938, was one of the first fully automated restaurants in the country. Constructed entirely of pre-fabricated Bakelite, the interior of the building was devoid of decoration except for a single framed picture of Terry’s characters of the time (Kiko the Kangaroo, Puddy the Pup, and Thelma Toad). A series of pneumatic tubes connected the building to Terry’s animation facilities, serving to carry food from the studio commissary to the restaurant and cash proceeds back to the studio vaults. Sanitation was a watchword — promptly at closing time each night, the entire restaurant was piped full of boiling soapsuds (a practice guaranteed to startle lollygagging diners).
The Terry-Mat’s prices were low and its clientele undiscriminating; it was an immediate hit. Success led to expansion, and there were soon five more Terry-Mats, in Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, Tuscon, and Düsseldorf, Germany. As popular with the hoity-toity as the teeming masses, the restaurants became part of popular culture. Irving Berlin commemorated them in song (“The Terry-Mat (is the Only Mat for Me and that Old Hometown Sweetheart of Mine)”), and Frank Capra set portions of no less than two films at Terry-Mats (Mr Deeds Returns from Washington and the wartime documentary Why We Squabble).
Terry, delighted with the situation, promoted his restaurants zealously. Indeed, studio documents indicate that he came to think of his company’s animated films primarily as advertising vehicles for the Terry-Mats. From 1940 onwards, Terry mandated that every character in every scene be drawn brandishing one of the restaurants’ trademark meat sandwiches in at least one hand. (This was a considerable technical challenge in the many cartoons that featured fifty, sixty, or more mice tormenting studio star Farmer Alfalfa.)
Soon, every Terry-Toon concluded with a scene in which the characters exhorted moviegoers to dine at a Terry-Mat. The requests, at first genteel and good-natured, gradually became surly, then frightening. In the 1944 cartoon The Wicked Cat, Mighty Mouse spends three-quarters of the running time pacing nervously, mumbling references to his ex-wife, issuing incoherent demands, and threatening the audience in increasingly intemparate language.
In retrospect, it is perhaps not entirely startling that this strategy eventually backfired. The first signs of a problem came when parents of frightened children complained to theater proprietors, but soon, grown women and men would flee theaters in terror when the Terry-Toons logo appeared on screen. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was rumored, screened a Sourpuss cartoon shortly before his passing in 1945.
Needless to say, Terry’s distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, was none too pleased by this situation. The company, which never shared in the sizable profits from the Terry-Mats, sued Terry shortly after a January, 1946 theater riot in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Terry grudgingly reduced, then eliminated, references to the Terry-Mat in his films. But the damage had been done. Business at the Terry-Mats dwindled rapidly; at the end of the year, Paul Terry quietly closed all of the locations save the Düsseldorf one, which continued to operate until late 1978, when it was demolished to make room for a Tastee-Freez.
Paul Terry took the failure of the Terry-Mats badly. Embittered, financially strapped, and in failing health, he retreated to his Hoboken estate. Except for a 1959 publicity tour to promote his best-selling memoirs and a well-remembered visit to Expo 67 in Montreal, he was never seen in public again.