A 52-year-old drive-in burger joint, a landmark of mid-20th Century Southern California teen cruising culture, in all its space age glass and neon Googie-style glory, gets a new lease on life after suffering years of neglect and the blows of a wrecking ball at the hands of its leaseholder.
Opened in 1958 on Firestone Boulevard near Old River School Road on the west edge of the city of Downey (a quintessential Los Angeles suburb and then-new frontier of middle class optimism in the Beaver Cleaver era), Harvey’s Broiler was born the same year that the first great teen angst anthem “Summertime Blues” was released. Rockabilly star Eddie Cochran lived just about a mile away as the crow flies – or as the T-Bird flies – from Harvey’s and he may or may not have hung out there somewhere between the time his song shot up the charts and the time his life came to an end just two years later. It’s said that all the kids went to Harvey’s so you know he must have.
Well, Eddie should be on the jukebox now as the beleaguered and tenacious Bob’s Big Boy franchise took up the challenge of the city of Downey, local preservationists and vintage car enthusiasts to save, salvage, restore and run the old place on Firestone Boulevard, complete with carhop service that harkens back to its glory days.
My parents went to Harvey’s when they were young and growing up in Downey. By the time I came into this world the name had changed from Harvey’s to Johnie’s and fate would have it that in spite of many, many childhood trips to Downey to see Grandmas and Grandpas throughout the 70s and 80s, I would never set foot in the warm red & cool blue neon glow of Harvey’s/Johnie’s until 2010 after the chubby kid in the red & white overalls rebuilt the place from a heap of broken glass and rusted, twisted metal then climbed up and claimed the perch of the chubby kid in the blue shorts that used to smile down, burger-in-hand, from the gigantic rooftop sign that looms over the bend in the road. (The chubby kid in the blue shorts now hangs out at the parking lot entrance).
At 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning the joint was really jumpin’ with kids, couples and old timers (in our party of five, all of the above were represented) and it felt good to know that just one more little piece of SoCal history was brought back from the brink and will be around for some time to come.
Bob Dylan digs Johnie's Broiler (video for "Things Have Changed")