Easy Reader Writing and Photography Contest, Honorable Mention: “Pleasures of the pizza parlor” (essay) by Steve Fulton, “El Porto” (photo) by Samantha Gerada
No one batted an eye or made a suggestion that maybe the mix of kids’ games, silent movies, live music and a liquor license was not an appropriate combination
by Steve Fulton
Something significant is missing from the South Bay restaurant landscape — the classic pizza parlor. The pizza parlor was not a single restaurant, but instead, a concept of what it meant to eat pizza with your friends and family. When I was growing up there were two main establishments, a mile or so apart, on Sepulveda Boulevard that offered the pizza parlor experience: Straw Hat Pizza, and Shakey’s Pizza.
The concept of the pizza parlor went like something this: a huge, dimly lit, communal room filled with long, wooden tables and benches and entertainment consisting of silent movies, a player piano, a stage, a mechanical horse and arcade games. You ordered your pizza at a small counter that allowed just enough view of the kitchen to let you know everything was freshly made. You picked up your pizza at a similar window about 10 feet to the right.
Adults would order pitchers of beer, and if the kids were really lucky, they would get a pitcher of root beer.
In the ‘70s it was fairly common for adults to get very drunk with their kids in tow. The occasion did not matter (birthday party, soccer picnic, softball team dinner).
They were not Chuck ‘E’ Cheeses, where parents avoided the food and chase their kids for two hours. The pizza parlor amusements were designed to lure the kids away from the parents so the parents could enjoy themselves.
There was a lot of waiting in these pizza parlors because the freshly made pizzas took time to prepare in real pizza ovens. While waiting for the food, parents ordered more beer. The kids meanwhile, wandered unsupervised through the darkened cavern looking for excitement. The silent movie screen was the most obvious diversion. A loop of silent Laurel and Hardy, Three Stooges, Tom And Jerry and old newsreels played continuously.
The next most obvious diversion was the mechanical horse, a near full-size bucking bronco, at least as tall as any kid. You would climb-up into the leather stirrups, drop your coin into the coin-box on the one side, and prepare to lurch into action. The horse would start abruptly, and jolt back and forth wildly. It was operated by pennies available for free from the pick-up counter.
What were not free however, were the video games. The pizza parlor was a major source of new video games in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Asteroids Deluxe, Missile Command, Gorf, Dig Dug, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and many others all made their local debut at the pizza parlor.
There were also older games like electromechanical baseball, metal shooting galleries, and trivia contests still hanging on in the video age, trying to wring every last coin possible.
Each pizza parlor had is own take on what the perfect pizza should be. Straw Hat was my 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 double cut, which made sharing much easier.
Shakey’s Pizza had a distinct sauce and good mix of cheese. However, pizza was really the last act in a well-rounded pizza parlor experience. What was important was 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. The pizza parlor was home to local bluegrass and country artists, including Jimmy Conroy and the Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
No one batted an eye or made a suggestion that maybe the mix of kids’ games, silent movies, live music, and a liquor license was not an appropriate combination.
My wife, as a little girl in the early ‘70s, while at Straw Hat with her young, outgoing parents, was called up on stage to sing with local bands, a memory she holds dear.
Almost every community celebration in my youth ended up 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 was in 1980, when our soccer team, the Rowdies, held our end-of-the-season celebration at Straw Hat Pizza. Our coach owned a 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 sportswear emblazoned with The Juice’s initials. Not only did I cart home a hefty trophy from the Straw Hat that year, but also a loose-fitting, blue-velour, O. J. Simpson sweat suit that I won for being the “most improved” player.
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. Their next target was out West and only Straw Hat stood in it’s way. Pizza Hut solved that problem by buying Straw Hat Pizzas in 1987.
The local Straw Hat became a Pizza Hut. There was no community outcry, it just happened. But no one I knew frequented it. The changes under the Pepsi Co. regime doomed the place. The lights were 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 were moved to a back corner, the mechanical horse and live stage removed to make room for more booths, and the silent movie screen was covered 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 live music, happy voices from celebrating teams and community groups disappeared as well.
The local Shakey’s stayed around a year or so longer. Then, in 1989, all of the Shakey’s restaurants in the USA were sold to a Singapore company, which closed most of the stores.
And that was basically it for the Golden Age of the Pizza Parlor in the South Bay.
By 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 old Straw Hat location reopened a few months later as the Mongolian BBQ.