Atari Nerd Chronicles: The Lost Age Of The Pizza Parlor

There is something significant missing on the restaurant landscape these days, at least here in the South Bay near L.A. in California: the classic 70’s/80’s “Pizza Parlor”. This was not just a pizza restaurant, but a community experience unlike anything that exists today in franchise form. “The Pizza Parlor” was not a single restaurant, but instead, a concept of what it meant to eat pizza with your friends and family. There were two main establishments that offered similar experiences in this genre, and here they are in order of importance: Straw Hat Pizza, and Shakey’s Pizza. That is all. Sure, there were some others (Pizza Hut, Round Table, Lamp Post, and Wildflower for instance), but they were either sub-par (Pizza Hut) or not major players (all the others) in our little neighborhood.

The concept of the “Pizza Parlor” went like this: It started with a huge communal room filled with long, wooden tables and benches (no chairs, and no booths please). Most of the lighting was removed or dimmed, and replaced with little candles in red-glass holders. Added to this was a movie screen in the back showing silent films, a mechanical horse ride, a selection of video games and pinball machines off to one side, and a small stage for live performances. Patrons walked-in and stood in-line to order. No wait-staff was allowed. You ordered your pizza at a small counter that allowed just enough of a view of the kitchen activity (i.e. pizza dough being tossed and twirled ) to let you know everything was being made to order. You picked-up your pizza sometime later at a similar window about 10 feet to the right. In-between was some kind of rustic decor: fake bricks, or a wall made of wine barrels and/or beer bottles. No matter what it was, this theme would extend around much of room, the setting the tone of the surroundings and the expectations of the patrons.

Two main items were available at “The Pizza Parlor”: Pizza and beverages. The pizza was pretty much self-explanatory but varied by establishment (more on this later), the beverage situation however, was fairly unique. Adults would order pitchers of beer, and kids would emulate them with glasses of root beer. If the kids were really lucky, they would get a “pitcher” of root beer themselves. Soft drinks were never “all you can drink”, so the “pitcher” was next best thing and it was very special indeed. Getting a “pitcher” of soft drinks was just about the coolest thing that could happen for a kid at one of these places. It was also rare, with only the richest parents willing to shell out the $4.00 required to buy one.

There was something very unique about this beverage situation that you do not find very often these days. You see, in the 70’s and early 80’s, it was fairly common for some adults to get very drunk with their kids in tow. It really did not matter what the occasion might have been (kids birthday party, soccer picnic, softball team dinner), the protocol was generally the same. These places were not Chuck’E’Cheese, where parents avoid the food and chase their kids for 2 hours. The amusements scattered around the place were there for these kids to GO do while the parents did their own thing, and many times this meant drinking until their livers called for an ambulance.

There was a lot of “waiting” in these “Pizza Parlors” and most of it stemmed from the fact that these places actually made their dough and pizzas from scratch and cooked  them in a pizza oven. This could take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes or more depending on the size of the crowd at the “Pizza Parlor”. While waiting for the food, parents ordered more and more beer while socializing at the giant wooden tables. The kids meanwhile, wandered unsupervised through the darkened cavern looking for excitement. They did not have to look very far. The silent movie screen was the most obvious diversion, as it was the largest and the brightest. A loop of silent Laurel And Hardy, The Three Stooges, Tom And Jerry and old newsreels played continuously in the back corner of the room. It provided a kind of hypnotic aura to the place, offering an otherworldly dream-like state for those who stared too long at the flickering screen.

The next most obvious diversion was the mechanical horse. This was not your “in front of Lucky’s Supermarket” kind of mini-horse hopper, but a near full-sized bucking bronco of a kid’s ride. The horse stood at least as tall as any kid, and in some cases a good head above them. You would climb-up into the leather stirrups (usually with help from an older sibling), drop your coin into the giant brown coin-box of the one side, and prepare to lurch into action. The horse would start abruptly, and jolt back and forth wildly. While this was not “Urban Cowboy” mechanical horse by any means, for 4-8 year old kid it was quite a ride. The horse was operated by pennies and pennies alone. This was not some kind of money-making venture for the “The Pizza Parlor” either, as the pennies were available for free from the pick-up counter.

What was not free however, were the video games. “The Pizza Parlor” was one main places kids found new video games in the late 70’s and very early 80’s (before arcades proliferated and games showed-up at the front of every convenience store). The games were placed in a very special spot, right next to the entry-way, visible to the entire room. Their blinking screens punctuated the dimly lit interior, creating excitement in the kids with quarters burning in their pockets, waiting for their parents to to give them a green light to go over and play. Asteroids Deluxe, Missile Command, Gorf, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong and many others all made their local debut appearances at a local “Pizza Parlor”. I distinctly recall a birthday party in 1981 at the local Straw Hat where I discovered a Pac-Man coin-op for the first time. It was a revelation to see a game with cartoon based graphics surrounded by the usual space ship and race car games. However, it was not just the new games that were fascinating, but more interesting were the older games that the establishments had purchased and from which they were still trying to wring every last coin. Electromechanical baseball, Atari’s Qwak gun game, and many every early “space games” (i.e. Kee Games Starship I in the corner of the local Shakey’s) that appeared and failed in the wake of “Star Wars” but before Space Invaders showed them how it was supposed to work. Most of these games were sheer rip-offs, but that was also part of the fun. When you found one that was actually good, it was like discovering buried treasure.

When the pizza finally came, it was always fantastic. Each “Pizza Parlor” had their own unique take on what a the perfect pizza could be, but Straw Hat was usually the kid favorite. Their pizza included  massive “cheese bubbles” over the crust that were as  fun to pop as they were to eat. The pieces were always cut very thin, which made sharing much easier. Shakey’s Pizza was good as well because it had a distinct sauce (by comparison Straw Hat seemed to have very little sauce) and good mix of cheese. However, to be honest, the pizza was really the last act in well-rounded “Pizza Parlor” experience. It was important, but maybe not as important as just being there with all your friends having the time of your life.

Sometimes if you were really lucky, the silent movies would turn off, and the little stage would come alive with musicians. Often “The Pizza Parlor” was home to local blue grass and country artists who would play weekends and some week nights. Adding live music to the darkness, communal atmosphere, and pitchers of beer made for a truly memorable experience. In many cases, the adults would have just as good a time as the kids, and no one really batted an eye or made a suggestion that maybe the mix of kids games, silent movies, a live music, and a liquor license were not really appropriate. It just was the way it was. Sometimes the kids were even invited into to the act – my wife for instance. As a little girl in the early 70’s, she was called-up on stage to sing with the likes Vince Gill, Emmy lou Harris, and The Sweethearts Of The Rodeo at the local Straw Hat while she was there late at night on multiple occasions with her very young and outgoing parents.

Almost every community celebration in my youth ended up taking place at “The Pizza Parlor”. I attended dozens of birthday parties, school celebrations, Cub Scout get-togethers, and end-of-year sports team events at one of these restaurants.  One of my fondest memories of the “Pizza Parlor” was in 1980, when our soccer team, The Rowdies, held our end-of-the-season celebration at Straw Hat Pizza. Our coach was loaded (money-wise), and he spread his wealth that year over his son’s soccer team. He owned his own textile company so the team had custom uniforms and jackets emblazoned with shiny fabric stars he awarded when we did something good in a game. His company had just made a deal with O. J. Simpson to create sports wear emblazoned with The Juice’s initials. Not only did I cart a nice hefty trophy out of the Straw Hat that year, but also a loose-fitting blue-velour O. J. Simpson sweat suit that I won for being the the “most improved” player. Community events like these types of parties had a natural place at the “Pizza Parlor”. As the kids guzzled pitchers of soft drinks, played video games, and generally ran around the place creating complete mayhem, the adults sat back and reminisced about their kids’ passing youth over cold beer and warm memories.

– – –

In 1977 Pepsi Co. bought Pizza Hut and went on tear buying-up all the similar restaurant locations on the East Coast. By the late 80s Pizza Hut had become a behemoth in the East, and was ready to swallow the pizza business on a national scale. Their next target was out West and only Straw Hat stood in it’s way (Shakey’s a very small player). Here is blurb from the Straw Hat web site that explains what happened next:

By the mid-Eighties, Straw Hat Pizza was regarded as the dominant pizza restaurant in the Western United States as the Pizza Hut chain was trying to establish a market presence in the same area. Pizza Hut made a move to eliminate a major stumbling block to its own expansion by purchasing all company owned Straw Hat Pizza restaurants in 1987; thus removing its prevailing competition.

Pizza Hut was never a favorite in our neighborhood. As mentioned before, the pizza was not very good, but they also had a different attitude about eating it. They had waiters, tables with chairs, booths, and a menu that extended far beyond what a traditional “Pizza Parlor” offered. There was little of the communal atmosphere of “The Pizza Parlor” at Pizza Hut, and while they had some video games, you’d be hard-pressed to find a any kind mechanical horse, silent movies, or live music stage any where near one of their establishments. As far as I knew at the time, no one really frequented the local Pizza Hut very often. It was just not the place to go to be with other people. However, with the mighty wealth of Pespi co. behind it, Pizza Hut became unstoppable.

Within a couple years, the local Straw Hat was consumed by this effort and turned into a Pizza Hut. Nobody really wanted Straw Hat to go away, but there was no choice for the community. Large multi-national corporations felt they knew what was best for the concept of the “Pizza Parlor” and it’s name was “homogenization”. The local Shakey’s stayed around a year or so longer than Straw Hat, but it did not last long either. All of the Shakey’s restaurants in the USA were sold in 1989.

Shakey’s Inc., the domestic division of Shakey’s Pizza Restaurants Inc., has been sold to Inno-Pacific Holdings Inc. of Singapore, the companies said. Terms were not disclosed. (N.Y. Times, Feb 10, 1989)

They would see a similar fate to Straw Hat. Wikipedia had this to say about the fate of Shakey’s:

Most of the U. S. stores closed during the time Inno-Pacific owned the chain.

And that was basically it for the glorious “Age of the Pizza Parlor”. Within the span of a couple years the two biggest names in the area were eradicated, and in their place came either an empty storefront, or a very corporate, very bland substitute that never managed to become any kind of replacement.

Even as it’s new sub-par incarnation, I still frequented the location of the Straw Hat Pizza often after it was converted to a Pizza Hut. Even though it had been gutted and most the things that had it special had been removed, like a zombie from Dawn Of The Dead, I returned to place of my rampant childhood consumerism as a force of habit. For what it was worth, the building still hosted some very significant events in my life. In my senior year, 1988, it was the place my only really serious high school girlfriend and I went on our first date. Several years later, my future wife and I went there every week to play our favorite pinball game Machine Bride Of Pinbot” (but we hardly ever ate the pizza). Still, it was hard to be there for very long without getting too nostalgic for the “Pizza Parlor” of my youth. Memories hung around the place around like residual spirits, magically implanted into walls by the sheer volume of joy that the building once held.

No matter how much I wanted it to be the same restaurant though, the changes that had taken place under the new Pepsi Co. regime doomed the place into obscurity. The lights had been turned brighter, the long wooden tables removed, and the root beer pitchers replaced with all-you-can drink cups filled with Pepsi products. The video games had been moved to a back corner , hidden from view, the mechanical horse and live stage removed to add more booths, and the silent movie screen rendered both mute and blind, and then later, covered-up with sports memorabilia. The smaller tables brought smaller groups and the communal, party, atmosphere of the “The Pizza Parlor” was stamped out completely. In time, the music and loud, happy voices from celebrating teams and community groups disappeared as well, never to return. By the year 2000, Pizza Hut lit their pizza ovens for the very last time, and moved to a new location as a delivery-only store-front. The building re-opened a few months later as a Mongolian BBQ rendering the final remaining link (no matter how thin it might have been) to the “Age Of The Pizza Parlor”, gone forever.

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