Walter Lantz’s entry into the animation eatery race, meanwhile, was a
quiet — but enduring — success. Lantz’s Woodpecker Ranch opened for business in Toluca Lake, California in August
of 1942; low-key, informal, and tastefully decorated by Lantz’s wife Gracie, it was a favorite casual dining spot
of Southern Californians for nearly forty years. Lantz’s menu was nothing short of ingenious: the ranch featured
carefully-prepared versions of nearly all the creatures Lantz made famous in his cartoons. Wood-Grilled Woodpecker
was its signature dish; and Lantz’s was also well-known for its Homing Pigeon au Vin, Penguin Tartare, and Walrus
Mignon. For decades, it was one of only three restaurants outside of mainland China to serve panda, which Lantz
supplied from the petting zoo/slaughterhouse that was a popular tourist attraction at his cartoon studio. Lantz’s
Woodpecker Ranch closed only after it was fire-bombed by Greenpeace in 1979.
Most animation fans are probably aware that Leon Schlesinger did not take an particularly active creative role
in the production of his cartoon studio’s famous Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes. The situation was similar when
the portly animation tycoon entered the restaurant business in 1939. “I wanna open a restaurant to promote my cartoons,”
he declared to Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Carl “W” Stalling, and a few other senior employees
at the studio. “Come up with something cheap, fellas.”
|Walt’s Your Sign?
For years, the menus at Walt Lantz’s Woodpecker Ranch featured
the Lantz Zodiac, an ultimately unsuccessful belief system that Lantz patterned after the Chinese Zodiac and believed
in with religious fervor. Determined by one‘s shoe size, the zodiac’s signs included the Bear, Homing Pigeon, Penguin,
Pig, Rabbit, Woodpecker, and Bushy-Mustached Little Inspector Guy. (Wally Walrus (c) Universal.)
The Schlesinger staffers went to work, and the studio soon opened Berrie Medleys, one of the first vegetarian restaurants
in the greater Hollywood area. Benefiting from a health-food fad that swept the movie community in the early 1940s,
the restaurant was immensely popular. A delighted Schlesinger soon ate most of his meals there, taking a corner
table and teasingly lording over Avery, Clampett, Freleng, Jones, Robert McKimson, Norm McCabe, and other studio
employees who worked shifts as waiters, busboys, and coat-check attendants.
Operating a restaurant while simultaneously producing a full slate of animated cartoons was taxing for Schesinger’s
staff. Jones and Clampett argued fiercely over a tip left by Marlene Dietrich, a spat that lasted for decades.
Tex Avery left the studio for MGM when Schlesinger proved unwilling to let him tinker with the restaurant’s uninspired
selection of salad dressings.
Despite such behind-the-scenes drama, the restaurant continued to prosper. But when Schlesinger sold his studio
to Warner Bros., that company in 1944, that company concluded that the restaurant was outside its primary line
of business. Warner sold Berrie Medleys to another corporation, which added selected varieties of red meat to the
menu and redubbed the establishment the Brown Derby, a reference to the fact that it was shaped like an enormous
hat. Shortly thereafter, it laid off all of the Warner cartoonists, who returned to their cartoon-studio duties.
||There You Eat Again
Leon Schlesinger and Ronald “the Gipper” Reagan (garbed for a
costume ball) share a booth at Berrie Medleys in 1943. The ill-toupeéd cartoon magnate and the future governor
of California were fast friends who often vacationed together when their wives were otherwise engaged.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the last major animation studio to dip its corporate toe into the iswimming pool of the
restaurant industry. Studio founders Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising had been reluctant to make the plunge, despite
the fact that they’d enjoyed success in the grocery business with their 24-store “Bosko’s Superette” chain.
Producer Fred Quimby, however, was another story entirely. Quimby, a man legendary throughout the industry for
his utter lack of interest in animation, was intrigued by the possibilities of the restaurant field; he envisioned
a dining establishment that would display the same high quality and plush feel that MGM’s movies were famous for.
His enthusiasm proved infectious, and soon the whole cartoon studio’s staff joined in. Bill Hanna planned the menu
while Joe Barbera fussed over linen patterns and stemware choices; Tex Avery, who had just come over from Warner’s,
arrived with his enviable recipe file and extensive contacts with Southern California butchers and produce wholesalers.
Opening in early 1943 on Rodeo Drive, the studio’s restaurant was simply called MGM. (Word around town variously
had it that the acronym stood for Mostly Good Meatloaf or Many Gelatin Molds.) Quimby had outdone himself: MGM
was perhaps the swankiest bistro of its time. Diners sat at thrones produced by the same company that built them
for the Royal Family of Great Britain, and just about everything from the cutlery to the toothpicks to the towering
statues of Tom and Jerry was made of 18K gold. The shag carpets in the restrooms were so deep that children and
midgets weren’t allowed to enter without an accompanying tall person. To circumvent wartime meat shortages, Quimby
bred cattle aboard an airplane that slowly circled the restaurant, parachuting them down as needed.
|“Zesty, Aren‘t They?”
Famed animator Tex “Fred” Avery offers a heaping platter of his
latest club sandwich creations to MGM starlets (from left) Yvonne D’Irigible, Rita Hayworth lookalike Lizbeth Lesterbridge,
and Lolly Madison. The notoriously close-mouthed Avery took the secret of his mayonnaise dressing’s extra zing
to his grave.
It was all terribly impressive, but there was just one problem — nobody was there to be impressed by it. The market
for animation-themed restaurants was saturated. Jack Benny, Charles Lindbergh, and Greta Garbo, for instance, were
already habitués of Walt’s, while Bette Davis, Mickey Rooney, and Father Coughlin favored Berrie Medleys.
Major Bowes and Gene Autry were regulars at the Woodpecker Ranch, and several lesser-known stars were oft-seen
at Van Beuren’s Snackville (a restaurant not discussed in this article because nothing is known about it). Similarly,
east-coast celebrities such as Eddie Cantor and the Lunts tended to dine at Popeye’s Burger Palace (formerly Fleischer’s
Famous Foods) or the Terry-Mat. Non-celebrity eaters quite naturally gravitated to where their favorite stars ate.
As a result, MGM was deserted for weeks, with a distraught Quimby weeping piteously at a table, surrounding by
rotting food, while employees ranging from Scott Bradley to Irv Spence attempted, in vain, to console the morose
Eventually, someone — reports differ as to whether it was Preston Blair or Michael Lah — came up with an ingenious
solution to the dilemma. MGM became perhaps the first restaurant in history that paid people to eat there. The
menu remained the same, but the prices indicated were what the restaurant paid you — fees ranged from fifteen cents
for downing a bowl of split pea soup to five dollars and twenty cents if you consumed the 72-ounce sirloin. Naturally,
all this was done circumspectly, without Quimby’s knowledge.
It worked. The restaurant’s business picked up rapidly, especially with MGM contract players, whom the studio bussed
out in droves from its production facilities. A much-relieved Fred Quimby came out of his funk, and all was well.
There was just one catch: this was, by its very nature, an expensive process. The more popular the eatery became,
the more it shelled out in dining fees. Because the arrangement had to be kept secret from Quimby — it would devastate
his fragile psyche — the only way to finance it was to shuffle funds from cartoon budgets.
This necessitated cutbacks that were minor at first, but increasingly noticeable as time wore on. Soon, Tex Avery
was forced to reuse animation of “Little Red” in more than one cartoon, and Hanna and Barbera accepted under-the-table
funds from the French government in return for producing a tedious series of Tom and Jerry cartoons with a “musketeer”
theme. The artwork in all the studio’s cartoons became flatter, fewer drawings were used, and lower-caliber gags
and stories became the norm. In 1954, Tex Avery was laid off altogether, taking both his animation skills and powdermilk
biscuit recipe to the Walter Lantz studio.
Fred Quimby retired a happy man in 1955, but the system was about to collapse. So much money was being diverted
to the restaurant that the cartoon studio — in actuality, wildly profitable — looked like a money-loser. In 1957,
MGM closed it.
With no animation budget to support it, MGM the restaurant could no longer pay its guests. The result was nothing
short of an all-star riot — Boris Karloff took an axe to the furniture, while Don Knotts smashed windows and Katharine
Hepburn and Spencer Tracy vandalized the ladies’ and men’s rooms, respectively. MGM officials, who’d been thinking
of closing the restaurant anyway, took this as a ominous sign. MGM was never to reopen — and the era of the great
animation restaurants drew to a close.
On to the last part