24 August 2006


It's about 1:30 in the morning, and -- having caught up on blogs -- I sit here in one mean state of wistful nostalgia. I just finished reading Nettiemac's tributes to her grandfathers and "Pop John", the former inspired by something I'd written .... a previous post (on another blog) about my grandfather, Big John.

And this got me thinking even more about Big John. Lately, his role in my life and all he was to me has suddenly asserted itself. Memories, big and small, have come back to my mind's stage.

Now, you're probably wondering just what in tarnation this has to do with the old Holiday Inn logo, perhaps the single most important piece of roadside Americana ever created, and the identity for the lodging chain from its inception in 1953 until circa 1982. Founder Kemmons Wilson designed it. He even gave it a name: The Great Sign.

NOTE: pictured here is my re-creation of their classic smaller roadside billboards -- the upcoming city's name in the marquee square, with the distance marked at the bottom. I used Bainbridge for two reasons: 1) my wife lived there for many years and has kinfolk in the area; 2) My Gran Lera used to always stop at the Holiday Inn restaurant in Bainbridge when going to Tallahassee to visit her sister and family.

Ruins of one such billboard still stood as of a couple of years ago: along US 80 between Montgomery and Tuskegee -- trailblazing the way toward the HI in Phenix City, Ala.

Well, some of the memories of my grandfather involved trips. He made many, brother did he ever. Sometimes I wish MY employer sent me all over the state on business (wish #2 to a genie: "Reincarnate me as Charles Kuralt!"). Many of those trips were business-related, and included stays at something called, ummmmm, er, ah, I believe it's called a "MOTEL."

Most of the time, Big John would rest his head at a Holiday Inn. And, I'm forever certain, basking in the solitude (!) and peace (!) of his Alabama Power Company-paid room. Comfortable bed. TV. White towels with "Holiday Inn" stitched in green. Paper "Sanitized For Your Protection" strips around the commode lid. The best swimming pool to be found. And, to top it all off, a "#1 Restaurant" Back then, Holiday Inns ran the on-premises eatery -- it was rarely ever 'outsourced', as is the case now -- and that restaurant was oft-times the best place to eat in town! A Holiday Inn was intended to be as much a community asset as it was a roadside motel for travelers.

Those restaurants were more important than you think. In 1971, fast food wasn't as common as it is now ... but even so, who cares; wasn't it nice to have a good place to grab a bite to eat, without having to get back into the car?? Holiday Inn restaurants weren't special -- their menus contained mostly basic, no-frills American food. Classic dining. Something for everyone. I'd give many things to have a good restaurant on the premises at a motel where I'm staying.

Just look at this artwork, from the cover of the Summer 1965 Holiday Inn directory:

Doesn't this image just make you want to bury your head in the keyboard and short it out with your sobbing? I know it's just a picture, but this could've been "any" family traveling in the '60s. Maybe yours.

See the kids? They're having a blast eating at a Holiday Inn. No bitching and moaning because Dad didn't stop at freakin' MICKEY D's. "I don't like this. There's no toy with the food. I want McDonald's! McDonald's!" (the word "McDonald's" repeated like a chant)

Damned kids of today.....they don't get it. :-)

Holiday Inns also had a feel about them. A distinct, welcoming feel. I can still picture the warm, yet dignified lobby, always with a hallway connecting it to the courtyard pool .... and the glass wall, partitioning the lobby from the restaurant. Behind the counter, jockeying the Holidex (the proto-Internet computer system created for making reservations at other HIs) was a friendly face. No attitude. No indifference. No cutting corners. No curry. There was a natural order to things in a Holiday Inn. Kemmons Wilson would've had it no other way.

The rooms were always clean. You knew what you were getting when you checked into a Holiday Inn, whether in Sacramento, California ... Sugarland, Texas ... or Summerton, South Carolina. All with the Great Sign out front, pulsating with its miles of electric wiring, hundreds of bulbs going off in a chase sequence, tubes upon tubes of neon, and -- God love it -- that star on top, with the multi colored 'rays.' To see the Great Sign in the distance was to mentally hear the words the neon and incandescent lights were trying to tell you: Hello. Enter. Welcome. Stay here tonight.

You had to have been there to see and appreciate the magic of a Great Sign all lit up at night. Trust me, it looked like no other sight on the nighttime roadside. (a precious few seconds of one at night can be seen in The Blues Brothers, just prior to the infamous "Murph & The Magic-Tones" lounge scene)

And, I'd always know when Big John had spent the night under a Holiday Inn roof. Because on my next visit to Birmingham, he'd bestow goodies upon my person -- the stationery (always in the drawer beneath the TV - several sheets of paper and a couple of envelopes), ink pen, post cards (some HIs had the generic post cards, but others got very creative with 'em) ... and often the latest copy of the "PASSPORT" motel directory.

My grandfather was also a world-class hoarder of matchbooks and soap. There was a small basket in his bathroom closet that contained dozens upon dozens of small bars of soap, wrapped in black-colored paper with the Great Sign logo emblazoned upon it.

And today, with apologies to any teacher who might read this, I proudly leave no motel soap behind. I hoard 'em. My "dop kit" has a ton of 'em inside as I speak. Big John would be proud.

[I cannot emphasize enough that my grandfather never once liberated a towel from a Holiday Inn .... he only took what he called the "disposable" items in a room]

And Holiday Inn today? I can't put it any other way except to say "a shitty joke of an overpriced motel coasting on its past glory." Too pricey for what you often get -- a small room, usually remodeled from one of Kemmons Wilson's old Inn designs, with very little real extras to speak of. Not a problem ... so long as I get what I pay for. Look, pal, when I want no frills, I'll stay at Motel 6. Believe it or not, Motel 6 has yet to disappoint me. Yeah, Motel 6. Who'd have thunk?

This reality was driven home in a big way earlier this week when I called the Holiday Inn outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. to make reservations for a trip late in September. Seraphim will be attending some Wilton Cake training up there, and it'll be held at this Holiday Inn. The "special rate" for the seminars were all for double bed smoking rooms, and that was $89.00. To get a king sized non-smoking room would've been $129.00!

I don't think so, Tim!! For starters, smoking rooms are out; I don't want to breathe in traces of our predecessors' smelly carcinogens. Second, do you really think my wife and I -- you'll never see either of us as poster folks for "Save the Children" -- would be comfortable on a standard double bed? You have to be anorexic to be comfortable sleeping two abreast on one. "Calista, you fatass, MOVE OVER!!"

Anyhoo, the lady at the HI answered the phone as "The Newly-Renovated Holiday Inn." Boy, talk about a color-guard of red flags! I pulled out one of my old "PASSPORT" books -- yup, there it was. This is a 1967-era property. The architecture didn't and doesn't allow for much modification from the original design .... back in the Great Sign days, Holiday Inn didn't have many high-falutin' rooms, they were mostly basic, one big room with TV on credenza, and a small table beside the one or two beds. Kemmons Wilson designed Holiday Inn for the middle-class traveler, with affordable rates. It was neither a flophouse "budget" chain, nor was it ever intended to be a high-end hotel!

I don't think the room we'd have gotten would've been worth the $89, much less $129.

We're going to spring for the Hampton Inn a block away -- $119 a night, but much better laid-out and you get The Hampton Bed. Damn, those are the most comfy things I've ever slept on. Like sleeping on a friggin' cloud.

I dare say Big John would've gone somewhere else, too.

That experience, along with thinking and reminiscing about my grandfather, got me thinking about the Holiday Inn of old. It was something special on the highways of my childhood.

Today, there's an abandoned Holiday Inn off I-85 in Tuskegee, Alabama. It left the chain in the early '80s and was an independent motel for a number of years before closing down for good. But it still retains most all the features of a circa-1973 Holiday Inn, right down to the yellow neon "RESTAURANT" atop the breezeway roof in a gothic-like font, typical of HIs built in that time frame.

I pass by that motel whenever I make my regular trips to Alabama to see my son. And every time I see it, I get all melancholy. I think about the original Holiday Inn. The way it used to be. Back when people who ran motels gave a rats' posterior about pleasing the traveler.

Man, what a concept.

Things WERE so much better a long time ago.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "The Blog's Innkeeper" Gleck

No comments: