July 30, 2016 by John Wilcock
It was a major regret to me, as I coasted along, that the days of the Burma Shave sign were in the past, but every museum along the route, as well as innumerable gas stations, souvenir shops and cafes had replicas for sale of these serial, six-part quips. SLOW DOWN, PA/SNAKES ALIVE/MA MISSED SIGNS/FOUR/AND FIVE./Burma Shave.
Rents rarely topped $25 a year and most farmers were proud to display the signs on their property, often making repairs when necessary. Horses found some of them great for back-scratching until the company got wise and raised the height of the signs
By 1963 the thousands of signs were costing the company almost a quarter of million dollars a year with diminishing returns. Our fortune/is/Your Shaven Face/It’s our BEST/ Advertising Space/ the company had once boasted and its initial cost of $65,000 a year was mostly responsible for $3 million in annual sales.
THE LITTLE TOWN of Quapaw (pop: 984) boasts a strange phenomenon which regrettably I didn’t see, known as Spooklight. A yellow or orange-colored ball that has been seen many times since the Civil War era apparently travels eastward down the road, sometimes at great speed, emitting sparks and “hopping, swaying, spinning, or moving in arcs”. `Folklore attributes the light to the spirit(s) of Indians from various local tribes such as the Quapaw, or as an ethereal miner searching for his wife and children who were kidnapped by Indians. Scientific explanations have included swamp gas and car lights, fiery minerals in the air, electrical or sub-atomic disturbances, and heat rising from the ground at the end of each day. In 1946 the Army Corps of Engineers studied the Hornet Light phenomenon and could not find a cause for it.
The western most stretch of this state notes a few star-sightings, the most notable of which—the Will Rogers Museum at Claremore—is a tribute to the biggest celebrity of his day, the cowboy radio celebrity turned columnist whose quips (The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected) filled 3,600 columns that were syndicated in 500 papers. Rogers was born at Oologah a few miles north. Between Miami and Vinita, Route 66 totally disappears but the stretch of I-44 which replaces it is also called the Will Rogers Turnpike and was the subject of a song by Woody Guthrie, which you can download on your cell phone.
Mickey Mantle Boulevard in Commerce marks the hometown of the New York Yankees star. Approaching El Reno a sign for Big 8 Motel is a legacy from the movie Rain Man part of which was shot here and Erick (pop: 1,023) was once notorious for its speed-trap which busted Bob Hope. Near Oklahoma City is Lake Overholser, a seaplane base for early Pan American Clippers.
EVERYWHERE ON THE HIGHWAY were the ubiquitous sounds of the eponymous 1946 song, written by Bobby Troup and recorded by Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and scores of others. In a 1964 TV series, George Maharis and Martin Milner traveled the route in a Chevy Corvette, a conventional enough trip compared with some earlier exploits.
As early as 1928 International Transcontinental Foot Marathon (“the Bunion Derby”) was staged, Los Angeles to Chicago then on to Madison Square Garden in NYC, a distance of 3,448 miles. (The winner, Andy Payne, part Cherokee from Oklahoma, won the $25,000 prize).
Happy Lou Phillips and his friend Lucky Jimmy Parker made most of the route on skates but “they walked a great deal” reported one newspaper, “since at that time (1929), Route 66 was only paved through towns”.
Dick Zimmerman, 78, pushed a wheelbarrow from California to Michigan to visit his 101-year-old mother. Undocumented but legendary is a certain Mr. Doughtery, with white beard and turban, who traveled up to 16 miles each day pushing all his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.
The flat Panhandle stretches seemingly forever, but occasional vintage gas stations come into view, an art deco one at Shamrock dating from 1936 and another at McLean where the former Sears brassiere factory—now a barbed wire museum—has a Route 66 display.
Ruth Trew, a member of the local historical society here, meets lots of foreign visitors who tour the highway and she says it’s the wide-open spaces that attract them. “The Germans tell me, ‘Germany is full of cities, crowded with people. There’s no place to go except the next town’. On Route 66 you can drive and feel free and not feel crowded or penned in. They find it liberating”.
At Amarillo the oddly-named Natatorium began as a swimming pool but reopened as a dance hall in 1926, featuring such jazz age stars as Paul Whiteman, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Harry James. Tom Snyder claims that on nearby W. 6th Street a local grocer used to toss live chickens off the roof as a marketing strategy.
West of town at the famous Cadillac Ranch, ten 1949-63 models are buried nose-first in the ground and constantly graffiti’ed by visitors.
This eye-catching artwork was built in 1974 by helium tycoon Stanley Marsh with the cooperation of a San Francisco art collective. After Vega a slight diversion brings you to the Vega Motel with its 1940s furnishings and Adrian (pop:159) which is the exact center of the old Route 66. A onetime greasy spoon, Zelda’s dating back to the highway’s early days, is now the MidPoint Café—the oldest on the route—and displays a collection of memorabilia.
Eighteen of the 300 miles of Route 66 which cross and re-cross this state comprise the longest continuous stretch of the original Route 66. After Amarillo, whose 924 population is 98% American Indian, comes Tucumcari, its name associated with that of an ancient Indian chief.
The town—“two miles long and two blocks wide” say locals—sits under the shadow of a mountain of the same name. It used to advertise widely in the region as “Tucumcari Tonight” because it has plenty of overnight rooms, most of them in old neon-lit motels such as the Blue Swallow. The Tee Pee Curio Store dates from 1944 and its souvenirs include playing cards, sheriff’s badges, mugs, glasses, paperweights, ashtrays, belt buckles, money clips.
Roy Cline called Cline’s, “the coldest, the meanest, the windiest place on Highway 66” when he opened his trading post and gas station further down the highway in 1934. This speck on the map features in Howard Subtle’s Behind the Wheel on Route 66 after his 28 years as a Greyhound bus driver in which he recalls: mislaid children, garrulous passengers, the occasional stowaway hiding behind the rear seats and, on one noteworthy trip, an elephant tied to a tree and left with food and water by a man whose truck had broken down and gone for help.
In July 2001, Albuqerque staged a big celebration of the road’s 75th anniversary with art exhibits, car shows, old neon signs, walls covered with vintage postcards and photographs, and a demonstration by the Hardly Angels (a synchronized women’s motor cycle team). Authors and photographers were on hand to sign their works, and visitors were entertained by mariachis, solar-powered “futuristic” vehicles, posters and movies, jazz, country and western music, a crafts fair, and an ice cream and apple pie social. The post office issued a special stamp. Some party! Wish I’d been there.
Cubero achieved some measure of fame when Ernest Hemingway settled in a house nearby and wrote part of his The Old Man and the Sea. At Grants (pop: 8,806) which once boasted of being the nation’s “Carrot Capital”, you can make a diversion south to some genuine Ice Caves, but the town itself doesn’t have too much to offer. Mike Garcia, who used to sing in a local band called Bad Habits, saw the future while still in his 20s and chose to study computer science at the local branch of the University of New Mexico. But he couldn’t wait to leave town. “There’s nothing here but flipping hamburgers and a few teaching jobs” he complained.
Even movie stars drove across the country in Hollywood’s golden era, and in Gallup among those who signed the register at the historic El Rancho Hotel were John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Kirk Douglas. The hotel’s architect was said to have been former silent star Raymond E. Griffith who successfully planted the legend that he was D.W. Griffiths’ brother.
“This is harsh but beautiful country”, says the indispensable Tom Snyder, “the air clear and sharp, unspoiled for the most part”. Don’t even think of traveling Route 66 without Tom’s documented record. I certainly couldn’t have written this without his chronicle as my constant companion.
Holbrook is proud of its Wigwam Motel whose 15 cozy rooms, inside tall, stone teepees were built by owner John Lewis’ father in the 1940s. Architect Frank Redford built seven similar motels around the country. Outside is Lewis’ collection of ‘50s Fords and Buicks, and the main building houses a small museum with Indian artifacts and frontier days rifles and powder horns.
Holbrook’s a quiet town, to which former space engineer Ted Julian retired to open his Roadrunner Shop back in the Sixties. “Probably our most serious problem here” he says, “is the young people taking laps from end of town to the other, and sometimes mooning each other”.
Winslow is where you can get out of the car at Kinsley & 2nd Streets and celebrate “Standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona”, the song Jackson Browne gave to the Eagles. Snyder explains the background: “Roadies often improved their prospects locally by getting duded up a bit at the Store for Men before standing on a corner to wait for a girl (my lord) in a flatbed Ford”.
In 1984 when the last part of Route 66 was replaced by I-40 (thus becoming decertified as a Federal Highway) Bobby Troup attended the ceremony, it’s said, with tears in his eyes. This was at Williams, where a tan-colored 1953 Cadillac together with life-size cutouts of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sit outside a self-proclaimed “Back to the ‘50s Diner”. Drawn indoors past the old glass-topped Sky Chef gasoline pump by the overpowering scent of chile, you can study hundreds of photos of families who have preceded you along this fabled highway and choose from malts, shakes, floats, cherry phosphates.
After Kingman, the highway climbs between jagged peaks via endless switchbacks and blind curves, to the 3,500ft summit at Sitgreaves Pass, before beginning an equally twisting and turning segment down into Oatman, which looks exactly like you’d expect an ancient western town would look, sagging wooden shacks lining the unpaved street. Burros wander around, unfazed by the mock gunfights conducted daily. The doddering 1902 Oatman Hotel makes no concessions to such modern comforts as television—or even water—in the rooms. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon night here after being married in Kingman and room 15 is preserved as a sort of shrine (it costs fifteen bucks extra).
In this state much of the old route—apart from parched stretches thru the Mojave Desert where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees—has been submerged beneath a welter of freeways, re-emerging in short stretches or as main streets through towns such as Barstow, Victorville, and Rancho Cucamonga. Patricia Solis, who runs an antique store in Barstow, says the town finds it impossible to keep the Historic Route 66 signs that mark the streets. ”They get ripped off every time we put them up” she says. “we can’t seem to put them high enough”.
Anyway, after three time zones, we’re finally in the eighth and last state where at Victorville, among the ephemera of the Mother Road at the California Route 66 Museum, is the 1923 Dodge in which cowboy star Roy Rogers arrived in the state in 1930. Space for the museum and a vintage soda fountain was cleared by local Route 66 Society. “It was $30,000 worth of work” recalls one of its members, freelance writer Jon Robinson, who himself drives a 1950 DeSoto.
South of Victorville, the I-15 heads over the 4,300ft Cajon Summit. Apart from a brief stretch, I-15 has subsumed most of the old route, but you’re on it if you follow Cajon Blvd into San Bernardino, a Mormon town in the 1850s when it was once a major citrus-growing center. Every September, Stater Brothers stage a huge vintage car rally. At Pasadena, Route 66 becomes The Pasadena Freeway, in 1940 as the Arroyo Seco Parkway, it was California’s first freeway. The first freeway in a bold, new experiment that was to cover California with a series of similar fast motorways.
Take the Sunset Blvd exit and drive along Sunset until it reaches Santa Monica Blvd which runs all the way to the coast.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updat,ed A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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Now Available in Print!!
Don't let a real-life comic strip sneak by unnoticed. This one's too unusual (and brilliant) for that!
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook
Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy my books, and thank you. —JW
Now on Boing-Boing!
An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my Săo Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
“A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego.”