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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.

Lavishly appointed and imaginatively decorated, Fleischer’s Famous Foods must have been a sight to see. The exterior of the building was adorned with fifty-foot mechanical neon figures of the Fleischer characters — Betty Boop, Grampy, Popeye, and Olive Oyl — who waved, danced little jigs, and shouted the daily specials, courtesy of loudspeakers implanted in their skulls. Even in bustling Times Square, it drew crowds.

Max-imizing Service
As this excerpt from a 1937 Fleischer’s Famous Foods training manual amply indicates, the restaurant’s staffers were held to a standard of grooming that was second to few. Max himself never waited tables at the establishment, but posed for this illustration to avoid model fees.

Inside, the restaurant displayed a technical inventiveness that was typical of the Fleischers’ work. Customers were strapped into burlap jumpsuits and transported high over the restaurant’s floor to their seats, via an elaborate network of cables and pulleys. Max justified the expense of implementing this system by explaining that it allowed the restaurant to reduce aisle space by 60%, saving on expensive Times Square rents. Food, meanwhile, was shot directly from the kitchen via small canons, eliminating the need for waiters. When it worked, it was a most efficient way to deliver dishes, although more than one patron ended up with a face full of someone else’s rhubarb pie.

The restaurant’s reasonably-priced, well-prepared food — Austrian specialties such as Schnuckelhüben and American fare such as yard-long hot dogs — won it plaudits from Manhattan‘s legions of famously picky eaters. While not actively involved in its operation, both Max and Dave dined there frequently, and Mae Questel and Jack Mercer were paid small stipends to wait tables dressed as Betty Boop and Popeye, respectively.

And so, when the Fleischer operation relocated to Florida in 1938, it was quite natural that Fleischer Famous Studios would make the trip to the Sunshine State as well.Long-forgotten Fleischer brother Jean-Pierre cleverly devised a way to dismantle the restaurant into nearly 200 sections, and each studio employee was asked to take one piece along when making the trek to Miami. Once reassembled, the restaurant continued to be quite popular, although it was renamed Gabby’s, in an attempt to promote the Lilliputian star of the studio’s
Gulliver’s Travels feature. (When the studio began producing Superman cartoons, Dave Fleischer donned a replica of the Man of Steel’s uniform and tended bar on weekends.)

Disaster, of course, hit the Fleischer studio after the failure of its second feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town. The brothers’ distributor, Paramount, wrested control of the studio, redubbed it Famous Studios, and returned its operations to New York. The restaurant was disassembled once again and transported back to Times Square where, by happy coincidence, its former location was still available. Paramount continued to operate it, although on a tight budget and with ever-diminishing attention to detail. In 1956, it finally got around to replacing the Betty Boop and Grampy automatons on the building’s exterior — or more precisely, it made a slapdash attempt to refurbish them as Casper and Baby Huey. The restaurant’s fortunes took a modest turn for the better only when Ralph Bakshi was appointed to head Paramount’s cartoon operations in the spring of 1967. Bakshi added pizza to the menu and hired political cartoonist Jules Feiffer to write a memorable series of radio commercials, but by then it was too late. The restaurant (by then known as Honey Halfwitch’s) ceased operation late that year.

In the decades since, its location has seen countless tenants. Today it houses a Sbarro’s. Funny thing, though; while the Casper, Baby Huey, and Popeye neon signs are long gone, Olive Oyl is still there — a bit rusty and creaky, to be sure, but still waving to passers-by and alerting them to restaurant specials that date from 1949. Pay her a visit the next time you’re in New York, and tip your hat to the memory of the Fleischers.


  C’mon, Get Scrappy
ramped, unsanitary, and generally uninviting, Scrappy’s Chowateria could not match the success of most of the animation eateries. Owner Charles Mintz converted the building into a ranch house and lived there quietly in the final years of his life.
Sadly, not every animation restaurant was a smashing success. Take, for example, Scrappy’s Chowateria, a diner erected in Yorba Linda, California by the hastily-organized food services division of Charles Mintz’s company in 1937. (The popularity of the Scrappy character, never immense, was already on the wane.)

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.

Mighty Tasty
Paul Terry’s Terry-Mats, like his cartoons, were no-frills ventures, although the menu expanded to include gazpacho in 1944. Napkins were provided only in the chain’s final months.
If every cartoon restaurant was as resounding a flop as Scrappy’s, this would be a short article indeed. Fortunately, that restaurant’s early demise was atypical.

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.

On to part three