Gordon R. Howard Museum Preserves Burbank’s Storied Past


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Jul 23, 2023

Gordon R. Howard Museum Preserves Burbank’s Storied Past

During World War II, a Burbanker named Don Draper (no, not the “Mad Men” guy) operated a lunch stand that served workers at the nearby Lockheed Corp. In 1947, after the war had ended, Draper then

During World War II, a Burbanker named Don Draper (no, not the “Mad Men” guy) operated a lunch stand that served workers at the nearby Lockheed Corp.

In 1947, after the war had ended, Draper then opened a drive-in burger restaurant on South Glenoaks Boulevard with a car hop wait staff.

While the mobile diners ordered and ate in their Buick Super Convertibles or Estate Wagons, Ford Woodys or Super Deluxe Tudor Sedans, or Hudson Super 6 Broughams, they listened to the songs of Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, The Andrews Sisters and Bing Crosby on their car radios tuned to KHJ, KLAC or KFI-FM.

Not one of them had ever heard of David Bowie, Elton John, Mick Fleetwood, Gregg Allman, Joe Walsh, Meat Loaf, Don Henley or Carlos Santana. That was because they were all born that same year.

Sixteen years later, in 1963, Draper transitioned his drive-in to a full-service diner eponymously named Don’s Coffee Shop. It was where waitresses Brenda and Lillie served up a New York steak that cost $5.75, making it the most expensive thing on the menu, their famous fish and chips that they claimed to be “the best you’ll ever have eaten,” which cost $3.25, and a bazillion cups of coffee that came with free refills for 35 cents.

With its recessed lighting throwing out a warm glow from behind amber fiberglass panels, the restaurant’s row of counter seats covered in shiny gold Naugahyde became a town square where issues and topics of the day, such as the war in Vietnam, the new Pope who had taken the name Paul VI, and a quartet of mop-topped lads from Liverpool, England who were making a big splash on the music scene from coast-to-coast in spite of the fact that none of the boys had ever yet stepped on American soil.

It was a place in which Martin Luther King Jr’s. “I Have a Dream” was discussed, and the shock of the nation’s 35th president having been assassinated was processed.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Don’s became a place where, on any given day, Burbank City Council candidates and members, such as Jarvey Gilbert, Byron Cook, Leland Ayers, Dan Remy, Mary Lou Howard and others, could be found campaigning or discussing local issues with constituents.

All told, Don’s Coffee Shop served the Burbank community for 56 years before it had a short run as a Japanese restaurant and now houses Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.

While Don’s has been relegated to the memories of an ever-dwindling local citizenry who ate there, the coffee shop’s iconic neon chef sign has been preserved and is displayed on the wall of the Ray R. Sence room at Burbank’s Gordon R. Howard Museum.

This past Saturday, close to 250 Burbankers had the opportunity to see Don’s old sign along with hundreds upon hundreds of other artifacts that have been collected and are displayed by the Burbank Historical Society.

Smack dab in the middle of their yearlong 50th anniversary celebration, the society staged a membership drive barbeque which, for just $20, included a one-year membership to the organization, food provided by Barragan’s Mexican Restaurant and Handy Market, entertainment by Bob Baker’s Marionettes which is the oldest children’s theater company in Los Angeles, and music by the Valley Boys Band.

If you have never visited, or perhaps haven’t even heard of the museum located between Clark and West Olive avenues in George Izay Park, it was the brainchild of Mary Jane Strickland, a library employee who became the city’s first public information officer and died in 2015.

Along with her husband Harry, Mary Jane and a small group of like-minded preservationists, including a real estate developer named Gordon Russell Howard were committed to making sure the city’s past would be properly documented with all sorts of ephemera including letters, photos, newspaper clippings, official documents and all manner of memorabilia.

The complex is also a repository of artifacts chronicling Burbank’s history over the past 100 years, vignettes and displays from Warner Bros., The Walt Disney Company, NBC and Lockheed, and vintage dresses, fashion accessories and an extensive doll collection.

A visit to the museum also gives visitors the opportunity to walk through a replica of a 1920s Burbank ranch house, see a 1948 tractor built by the Adel Corporation, view old motion picture and television equipment, and see a display honoring Jim Jeffries, the 1899 World Heavyweight Championship who lived and trained in Burbank.

The museum comprises two separate structures, a 20,000-square foot facility, which houses the society’s collection, and the Mentzer House, an Eastlake-style Victorian house embellished with Queen Anne gingerbread that was built in 1887 by the Providencia Land, Water and Development Company.

Among the numerous supporters and volunteers who made last week’s event a success were Don and Sue Baldaseroni, Barbara Bartman, Diana Briggs, Mickey DePalo, Elaine Rosenberg, Ted Garcia, Gary Sutliff and Carey Briggs, who serves as the society’s director of operations.

Notables who enjoyed the day included state Sen. Anthony Portantino, James Roy representing state Sen. Caroline Menjivar, former Mayor Marsha Ramos, former City Councilman Tim Murphy, Sister Regina Palamara, MSC of the Sisterhood of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart founded by Saint Frances X. Cabrini, Kathy Garver, the actress best known for having portrayed Catherine “Cissy” Davis in the 1960s CBS sitcom, “Family Affair,” and Pete Perotti who was the drummer of the 1980s heavy metal band, Jagged Edge.

The society’s golden anniversary, which has consisted of ongoing events, includes an essay contest for Burbank elementary, middle and high school students. Asked to select one of two topics, either about the most significant event that has occurred in Burbank over the past 50 years, or what they believe the city will be like in 50 years from today, six winning essays will be selected with each writer receiving $750. The winners will be announced during the last of the 50th anniversary events, “An Evening at the Museum,” a gala with dining and entertainment, which will take place on Saturday, Oct. 21.

“This museum and everything in it would have never come to fruition without people who had a tremendous vision for preserving our city’s history,” Don Baldaseroni told the event’s assemblage on Saturday. “As for keeping this special place going, we owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the Cusumano family, the city of Burbank, Burbank Water and Power, Community Chevrolet, Susie Aprahamian, the Augustine family, the Road Kings and Tilley’s Sinclair Gas Station.”

The Burbank Historical Society and the Gordon R. Howard Museum operate completely on donations. For more information on society membership, the museum, and rules for the essay contest, visit burbankhistoricalsoc.org or call (818) 841-6333.

DAVID LAURELL may be reached by email at [email protected] or (818) 563-1007.

First published in the July 22 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

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