Pizza came to America in 1905, arriving at Lombardi’s in New York City two years before Oklahoma became a state. But pizza didn’t come to Oklahoma City until 1947, thanks to a larger-than-life figure.
This is the second of three posts about restaurants I knew and enjoyed in my hometown of Oklahoma City. Last week I wrote about El Chico and its many relatives and descendants, and next week will be hamburgers and drive-ins.
The first Italian restaurant in Oklahoma City to serve pizza was Sussy’s in 1947. Jack Sussman was a Chicago gambler who partnered with OKC’s Jake Samara. Jake had the Jamboree Supper Club, which featured dining, dancing, and a bartender to mix drinks for those who paid a $32.12 initiation fee and dues of $7.31 per month. By dancing, I mean striptease acts. Jack Sussman’s wife was an exotic dancer at the club. Jack and Jake decided to open an Italian restaurant at 629 NE 23rd Street, across the parking lot from the club. Jake said, “Jack, since you’re Jewish and I’m Lebanese, we need an Italian name. We’ll name the place Sussy’s, and I’ll start calling you Sussy.”
Sussy’s opened in February 1949. Most of the recipes came from Jack’s wife, who was Italian. A chef who was a native of Naples, Italy, was brought in to train the staff on making a variety of dishes, including pizza, with Sussy’s original sauce. Ads exhorted folks to “bring the family and dine in a true candlelight atmosphere. Economical too! Four persons can share a 14-inch pizza for about 35 cents apiece.”
Sussman endured a gunshot wound in a 1953 robbery, but kept on going. Another restaurant opened in 1956 at 9014 N Western Avenue, and that year they began selling frozen versions of their pizza and boil-in-the-bag spaghetti and meatballs. In 1959, Sussman opened a large Italian-American restaurant and steakhouse, and another branch in Norman.
On one special occasion my sweetheart (my husband) took me to Sussy’s. He really wanted to impress me, so I could order anything on the menu. Of course, we were dressed in our best high school finery. When it came time to pay, his billfold was nowhere to be found. The owner, Jack Sussy himself, was notified. Benny said I could stay at the restaurant and he would drive home and get the money. Mr. Sussy wouldn’t hear of it. He told us to go on our way and come back the next day to pay. We often returned to Sussy’s and were always warmly greeted by Mr. Sussy.Sandy Brown, 1999, in Classic Restaurants of Oklahoma City
The 1960s featured fires and arson, with Sussman implicated but not convicted. He opened more restaurants featuring various cuisines, including some with go-go dancers and strip clubs. Oklahoma City’s pizza boss died in 1980 at age 92.
My parents ate at Sussy’s, but I don’t ever recall being there. The big national pizza chains trace their origins to the late 1950s, over a decade after Sussy’s pioneered offering it in Oklahoma City. Below is a look at the pizza joints I’ve enjoyed in Oklahoma over the years.
Shotgun Sam’s Pizza Palace
The first restaurant I can remember clearly was Shotgun Sam’s Pizza Palace.
Doug Jones held a number of jobs as a young man, and one day was eating at a pizza place in Oklahoma City and decided that he could do a much better job. He quit his job with a drug company and developed plans for a western-themed pizza joint. He was clearly inspired by Shakey’s Pizza, which had begun in California in 1954 and had 342 locations by 1968 and shared many characteristics with Shotgun Sam’s.
In 1967, Jones and a Jack Mills from OKC wanted to open a Pistol Pete’s pizza, and Tom Winslow was putting the real estate deal together. Mills bailed on the project, and Winslow, who had a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Oklahoma State University, teamed up with Jones to start Shotgun Sam’s in Tulsa, with developer Ramon King as their landlord.
When they opened, they had entertainment five nights a week. Usually there was a banjo and piano player doing sing-along music, and then they went country and western. Garth Brooks once said on the “Tonight Show” that his first professional job was at their restaurant in Midwest City.
They opened their second restaurant in Oklahoma City at NW 39th Expressway and May Avenue in 1969. Winslow and Ramon King bought out Jones in 1978. Later they added restaurants in Joplin, MO, Midwest City, Dallas, a second location in Tulsa, and Springfield, MO. Below is an ad from the Joplin incarnation.
Shotgun Sam was a western character with an oversized gun who perched atop a wagon wheel. He sported a handlebar mustache, and co-founder Jones grew one for the grand opening and ended up keeping it. He even carried a little gold comb to keep it tidy.
In print and radio ads, Sam had a blue or purple horse named Alice. The first fiberglass statue of him in OKC was felled by an April 30, 1970 tornado, the same one which tore off half the roof of the Windsor Lanes bowling alley on 23rd Street west of Meridian Avenue. That statue was replaced by another until the restaurant closed in 1991.
I loved Shotgun Sam’s for four reasons when I was a kid.
First, they had big windows by the doors into the kitchen, with benches below them. So kids like me could climb up and watch the cooks toss the pizza dough, place them in pans and apply the tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings, and then slide them into the oven.
Second, they had live music. I loved sitting on the stage and watching the performers. Once the kids clamboring about got on the musicians’ nerves and they shooed them away, but they made an exception for me. The performers told my mother, “He can stay. He really listens to and enjoys our playing.” Our neighbors had an electric organ which fascinated me, and I’m sure that my early interest in playing the piano was also whetted by my experiences at Shotgun Sam’s. The musicians noted my avid interest and how I kept time, urging my parents to encourage my obvious interest in music.
Third, when Dad placed the order, they gave him a huge playing card. When your order was ready, they would call the card they gave you. So I had fun listening for “5 of hearts” or “ace of spades” and the like.
Fourth, I liked the pizza. I started eating mushroom pizza there when I was very little. Their pizza was fairly thin and quite dry, with little sauce. I’ve never had a pizza quite like it anywhere else.
In 1970 or so, they were one of the first pizza places to offer a lunch buffet, which helped boost their business, which had been primarily at dinner time. Jones developed the original recipes, which scaled the meat and cheeses to keep each pizza as identical as possible. For example, 10″ pepperoni pizzas always had 28 pepperonis. The crusts were thin and crispy, with plenty of cornmeal on the bottom. They made their sauce with tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato paste, and 11 spices. Their dough used a blend of flours, and the cheese was a blend of four types.
Shotgun Sam’s was done in by the pizza delivery trends of the 1980s. The Oklahoma City restaurant was the last one to close.
In the mid-2010s, Jim Rice, who had been a policeman who worked security for a few years at the original Shotgun Sam’s on Sheridan Road in Tulsa, reopened one in the London Square shopping center. Rice replicated the original menu, used big playing cards, etc. The revived place didn’t last, however, and original co-founder Doug Jones passed away in 2015.
The pizza place my parents took me to the most was one of the many Pizza Huts, which originated in Wichita, Kansas in 1958.
Brothers Dan and Frank Carney borrowed $600 from their mother to open Pizza Hut, so named because their sign only had room for eight letters. They catered to students at Wichita State University. By 1977, they had 4,000 outlets and sold out to Pepsi for over $300 million. Frank went on to run 133 Papa John’s franchises by 2001, and passed away in 2020. Dan maintained strong ties to Wichita and has been involved with a variety of charitable organizations.
The brothers became worried about competition from Shakey’s in the 1960s, so they decided to distinguish themselves with a standardized and iconic design. They contacted Richard D. Burke, a Wichita architect and artist who had been a college friend and fraternity brother. He requested a $32,000 upfront fee, which they couldn’t cough up, so they agreed to instead pay Burke $100 per restaurant. But other sources claim the distinctive design with the red roof and trapezoidal windows was designed by Chicago architect George Lindstrom in 1963 and adopted in 1969.
As for the corporate logo, that has changed many times. When I was a kid, the chain had a Pizza Pete mascot, who had a checkered neckerchief, apron, hat, and mustache.
Pete’s original neckerchief echoed the checkered vinyl tablecloths they once used, with similar curtains on the trapezoidal windows. The old design usually had booths along the walls, with a small corner booth with a table by a full-height window. Kids loved to eat in those corner booths.
Back then, many of the huts were built with fire pits out in the dining room, although later many of those were replaced with salad bars.
Pan pizza was introduced in 1980, and the BOOK IT reading incentive program launched in 1984. Hand-tossed pizza debuted in 1988, and stuffed crust began to be offered in 1995.
Pepsi spun off Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1997, which are now owned by Yum! Brands. The chain now has many storefront delivery and carry-out locations, while still retaining some family-style dine-in restaurants. As an adult, I regularly visited a local Pizza Hut on Sundays for some delicious breadsticks and a personal pan pizza, but a switch from canned to fresh mushrooms led me to switch my allegiance to Mazzio’s.
Pizza Inn always struck me as a pale imitation of Pizza Hut. Just like Pizza Hut, two brothers started it in 1958, although they were from Dallas instead of Wichita. It peaked with over 500 locations in 20 states, but by 2020 was down to about 250 in the USA and 38 internationally. By then Pizza Hut was headquartered in nearby Plano, Texas and was operating over 18,000 restaurants.
Ken’s & Mazzio’s
My parents didn’t take me to Ken’s Pizza in Oklahoma City very often, which had a spicier sauce than Pizza Hut. But in high school, I frequented a Mazzio’s. Both restaurants originated with Ken Selby, a former junior high science teacher from Tulsa.
Ken was born in 1936 in Milburn in south central Oklahoma, east of Tishomingo. He was a part-time meat market trainee in a country store in Durant as a teenager, and he loved retail. In college, he went to Chicago with a friend, who could hardly wait to get some “peezuh”, which Selby had never heard of. He had pizza for the first time in 1956 at a Chicago drugstore.
After college, Selby taught high school chemistry in Granby, Missouri, near Neosho. He managed a couple of Pizza Huts, and he was 24 years old and teaching at Monroe Junior High in Tulsa in 1961 when he started his own pizza place.
Ken secured a three-year lease on a location at 11th and Florence, across the street from Skelly Stadium at the University of Tulsa. He borrowed tools from his father to renovate the location over two nights, bought fixtures and equipment with $2,000 he had saved from his teacher’s salary, and paid $75 for his first oven, which had a burned-out deck, so he had to set pizzas only in certain spots.
That first restaurant had parking space for two customers, and opened on November 1, 1961. He did $25,000 in the first year as the only employee. He changed his spices for about a year before settling on a combination, ensuring everything was fresh, saying that chopping garlic and 50-pound bags of onions kept his friends away. As for the meat, he said that every night he could wring the grease out of his hair.
For four years, Ken taught school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and then made pizza until midnight or 2 a.m. He used 25-pound sacks of flour to mix pizza dough by hand in a № 2 galvanized wash tub, with the huge lump of dough stored in a clean trash can. With each order, he would pull off a ball of dough and flatten it with a rolling pin.
After a few years, Selby wanted to open a second location on south Sheridan in Tulsa, but he had no luck getting any bank loans. Then a friend told him about Ramon King.
You may recall King would become the landlord for the first Shotgun Sam’s in Tulsa, and he and Tom Winslow bought out Doug Jones in 1978. King was a Tulsa developer and quite the entrepreneur.
King graduated from the University of Tulsa in 1950 with a degree in marketing. He did commercials, was a disc jockey on both radio and television, and was a television weatherman. He then managed civic affairs for the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce before going into housing. He built and developed a dozen suburb additions and was Oklahoma Builder of the Year in 1967.
One day, King drove his long blue Cadillac up to Ken’s pizza parlor. They discussed Ken’s plans for a second restaurant. They didn’t have any paper, so Ken got out a pizza sack, folded it in half, and he laid it across the leather seats in King’s car, where they laid out the store. King said he would build it for a 13-year lease at $450 per month. Selby was floored by the size of the commitment and King saying they would start the project the following week. That second location opened in June 1965 and soon grossed $1,500, then $2,000, and eventually $5,500 per week.
Selby then partnered with a friend to open a place in Enid in an old Mexican restaurant, and hired an airplane to drop leaflets to promote it. But the oven they had kept from the Mexican restaurant broke on the first day. So they scrambled to Oklahoma City to buy a new oven, renting a trailer to haul it back to Enid.
By 1975, franchising helped Ken’s Pizza grow to 100 restaurants. In 1979, he started Mazzio’s Pizza, to compete with Godfather’s outlets. Selby said, “We were astounded that people would eat a thick crust product like that.” Mazzio’s were larger, upscale outlets meant to appeal to youth and “yuppies”. He later bought out Scooter’s Pizza to compete in deliveries, and eventually all of the Ken’s Pizzas, except for some franchises in Tulsa, became Mazzio’s.
I spend a lot of time in high school at a Mazzio’s on 23rd Street in Oklahoma City. Fittingly, that was where my girlfriend helped me survive Latin III. We were in that class together, but while she had taken Latin I as a sophomore, II as a junior, and then III, I had only had Latin I as a junior. My senior year schedule couldn’t accommodate Latin II, so I was supposed to take it by correspondence from OU over the summer. I did a couple of lessons that way, but I hated it and dropped the course. So when I showed up for my senior classes, I was stuck in Latin III with advanced translations while having missed a year of preparation. My girlfriend was my savior, tutoring me at the Mazzio’s as I struggled through translating Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae, Cicero’s Orationes in Catilinam, and other works. She and our beloved Latin teacher, Mrs. Ivich, did a great job. I managed to test out of the first Latin course at OU and earned Honors credit in the second course of the subject with the fantastic Dr. Peggy Chambers. But I’ll confess that I would struggle to translate most Latin these days, although I can certainly understand Amo pizza!
In the early 1990s, Mazzio’s was losing dinnertime business to casual restaurants like Bennigan’s, Chili’s, and TGI Fridays, which had extensive menus and full bars. Selby opened his first Zio’s Italian Kitchen in Tulsa in 1994, and branches opened in Oklahoma City, Kansas City, and Springfield, Missouri. I met friends for lunch at Zio’s in Tulsa for several years. But a Pizzetti’s all-you-can-eat concept of Ken’s failed, as it just attracted big eaters rather than large families. One of Ken’s last innovations was the contemporary Oliveto Italian Bistro in Tulsa which opened in 2008, which both Wendy and I enjoy.
One of my former students piloted Ken’s jet plane for awhile. She invited me out to the Tulsa airport to see it, and I was charmed when she showed me a huge bag of key lime disks…the very treats I loved getting after a meal at a Zio’s Italian Kitchen. Ken wanted a bin in the plane kept full of those mints.
For the 50th anniversary in 2011, Mazzio’s resurrected Ken’s Pizza as an offering, with its thin crust made with less water and its spicy sauce. In six months, they sold more than $2 million of those 15-inch pizzas across their 100 Oklahoma stores. You can still order a Mazzio’s pizza with the original Ken’s sauce.
Ken Selby died in 2012, and over time his empire withered. Zio’s 16 restaurants were sold to a Texas corporation in 2014, which reorganized under bankruptcy in 2016. The two Zio’s in Tulsa closed in 2022, but happily there are still dozens of Mazzio’s pizza locations across the south central US, including one in Bartlesville.
Pizza Planet was a local chain in Oklahoma City. Dr. Phil McGraw worked at one when he was a teenager. In high school, I decided I wanted to try it out, but the one in our part of the city had closed. My friend Jeff and I drove to far northeast OKC to find one. We frankly stuck out like sore thumbs amongst its clientele, but the pizza was delicious.
One of my favorite places to eat in Tulsa was Crystal’s Pizza and Spaghetti. It was located in the same shopping center as Tulsa’s Casa Bonita, and was another creation of Bill Waugh, who developed the Taco Bueno, Casa Bonita, Casa Viva, and Burger Street restaurants.
Bill was born in 1935 in Norman and graduated from high school in Colorado Springs. He was a serial entrepreneur after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Abilene Christian University in 1959. He started out in dry cleaning and laundry, purchasing a One-Hour Martinizing franchise and expanding it into a small chain in Texas and Oklahoma over eight years.
He opened a Taco Bueno in Abilene, Texas in 1967, which grew to 176 restaurants across seven states by his death in 2015. Waugh’s Casa Bonita restaurants started in Oklahoma City in 1968, but that is a story for a different post. Waugh sold Taco Bueno and Casa Bonita to Unigate in 1981, founding Burger Street in 1985, which grew to 14 locations in the Dallas metroplex and four in Tulsa.
Abilene was also where he developed Tony’s Pizza Cave in 1972, which served 15 types of pizza and offered salad and sundae bars. It had a fake cave for an entrance. He then turned that into Crystal’s Pizza and Spaghetti, which grew into a chain of family restaurants in Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma for 35 years.
Waugh was known for nurturing long-term relationships and grateful people spoke of how he provided them transformational opportunities. His commitment to the growth of his employees and those around him were hallmarks of his success in business and life. Waugh donated his time and money to causes that included orphanages, learning institutes, and feeding and clothing those in need around the world.
As for Crystal’s, I knew of locations in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. The Tulsa one at 21st and Sheridan opened in 1975. It was in a former Borden’s cafeteria, which had been built in a New Orleans style. The 14,000-square-foot restaurant could seat 400 and had antique furniture, a gazebo, wrought-iron balconies, a glass-enclosed gasoline pump turned into an aquarium, carved wooden busts of “Crystal”, and a 25-by-9-foot mosaic of a New Orleans seascape which was leftover from the Borden’s.
Live entertainment included piano players, singer Hank LaCroix, and Sam Threadgill, who played Whiskers the Clown. Needless to say, the place was a popular birthday spot for kids. Eventually it gained a bunch of arcade video games.
We lost Henry Stephen LaCroix II in 2018, but Sam Threadgill is still clowning around.
I went to Crystal’s in Tulsa as a young adult for the delicious breadsticks, which you could dip in cheese sauce. The pizza was good but different, with smoked provolone cheese. I wasn’t interested in all of the hubbub, so I usually ducked into the cartoon/movie room which showed old cartoons and black-and-white westerns. Usually few if any people were in there, and those that came in tended to be quieter, since they wanted to hear the movie.
In its heyday, as with Casa Bonita, waiters with walkie-talkies would roam the place to find seats for customers. Fast-food and home-delivery pizza businesses took their toll on the Crystal’s in Tulsa, along with a closed campus policy imposed at Nathan Hale High. So it closed in 1995. The last Crystal’s, in Irving, Texas, closed in 2013.
When I was a teenager, there was a Godfather’s Pizza near the bowling alley in Windsor Hills where I lived, but I didn’t eat there very often. It was in college down in Norman that I became a frequent customer.
In 1973, Gregg Johnson started a pizza place with thick, rich pies in Omaha, Nebraska. Willy Theisen owned a beer parlor, Wild Willy’s, next door and there was a passageway between them. They joined forces to open Godfather’s Pizza, inspired by the popular “Godfather” movie franchise. I’ve never seen any of the Godfather movies, so any references are lost on me, and I didn’t care for J. William Koll’s Godfather character they used in ads.
Willy bought out his partner in 1974, and within a decade he had the third-largest pizza operation in sales, behind Pizza Hut and Domino’s. He had great personal magnetism, and made franchisees feel good about themselves and their business. His strategy was Keep it simple, stupid. He located his restaurants mostly in inexpensive strip shopping centers with only counter service and concentrated on topping-rich pizzas. The chain attracted families and sports teams.
However, Theisen recognized the chain was having issues by 1983, and he hired the senior vice president of Pizza Hut, who was also the president of Taco Bell, to manage it. Godfather’s then merged with Chart House Inc. in December 1983, but internal management strife and the failure of a new pan pizza patterned on Pizza Hut’s big seller led to plunging earnings and rebellious franchisees. Pillsbury acquired the chain in 1985, with Herman Cain the president and CEO. Ronald Gartlan became the CEO in 1995 and bought out Cain in 2009.
Willy celebrated his 40th birthday in 1985 by flying with his wife and 98 friends on a 100-seat Concorde supersonic airliner to London. The party cost him about $500,000 then, or about $1.3 million today. Here’s a 2020 interview with Willy, who is an interesting character. He had left college in Iowa without a degree and was on his way to California with a nebulous plan to seek his fortune when his car broke down in Omaha, Nebraska, and he ended up settling there. He built a 20,000 square foot mansion in Omaha in 1983, selling it in 1995.
As an undergraduate college student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman in the late 1980s, I of course knew of the Campus Corner shopping district north of the campus. It had blossomed until OU built massive dorms on the south end of the campus in the 1960s. By the time I came to OU, very little at Campus Corner appealed to me. The big advertisers were Harold’s, a clothing store I couldn’t afford, and the Walter Mitty’s strip club.
College towns have plenty of pizza offerings, and while living in the dorm my freshman year, I usually ordered pizza deliveries from Pizza Shuttle. I only ate at Pinnochio’s pizza once, which had opened in 1972 and was quite popular, only closing in 2002 because the owner wanted to become a music teacher. Pinnochio’s was simply too popular for an introvert like me.
So instead I liked to walk to the north end of the campus to grab a personal pizza at the Godfather’s on Campus Corner. It was usually quiet, the pizza was quick and good, and I could grab unlimited refills for myself while sitting at a high table, studying and waiting for my next class. It was also reasonably close to the student union, where I worked for a couple of years for Scholars Programs while attending classes.
The only Godfather’s Pizzas left in our area that I know of are just express franchises in Love’s Country Stores. The two companies began partnering in 1999, with an initial unit in Oklahoma. I’m not a fan of that model, and I wish that there were some dine-in choices around here.
I had never heard of Hideaway pizza until the 1990s, by which time I was living in Bartlesville. Hideaway was a Stillwater thing, and there are lots of Oklahoma State University folks around here. I probably first ate there while taking kids to a Scholastic Meet at OSU or maybe at some educational technology conference.
Richard “The Big Kahuna” Dermer and his wife, Marti, created Hideaway in 1957 near the OSU campus. They delivered pizza on campus in the 1960s and 1970s with a fleet of Volkswagen Beetles. In 1993, three trusted employees expanded the concept into new markets beyond Stillwater, with the Dermer family retaining ownership of the flagship location.
The first expansion was on Cherry Street in Tulsa, and it had grown to six locations in the Tulsa and OKC metro areas by 2006 when Darren Lister and Brett Murphy purchased the company. Lister and Murphy grew up in Bartlesville, being members of the first graduating class of Bartlesville High School when College and Sooner Highs were merged.
Lister and Murphy have expanded the company further. Each restaurant has its own look and feel, and happily they opened one in the Johnstone-Sare building in downtown Bartlesville in 2014. At least in 2016, that location sold more pasta than any of the others. It has a full bar with big screen televisions along with tables and booth seating for about 168. I like their pizza, but I especially like their lemonade pie.
I’ve enjoyed pizza for over 50 years. Everyone has their own preferences on toppings, cheeses, sauces, and crusts. As for me, canned mushrooms were the first pizza topping I had, and remain my favorite, while I also like beef, sausage, and pepperoni. I generally prefer thin crust while also enjoying hand-tossed and pan, but I’m not a fan of stuffed crusts. Mozzarella cheese is of course preferred, but blends are fun. Regular sauce is fine for me, with the Ken’s sauce that Mazzio’s still offers being as spicy as I can tolerate.
I’m not a fan of sauce-on-top. I remember taking a date to My Pi in Oklahoma City when I was young. We’d never heard of deep dish Chicago style pizza, and the restaurant was very dark. The pizza took a long time to cook and when it came out, we were appalled by the sauce on top, thinking at first that they had somehow forgotten the cheese and toppings. That was probably the last time I had that style of pizza until I was at a conference in Chicago a few years ago and a coworker wanted to eat at Giordano’s on the Navy Pier. That time I knew what to expect, and it was a fun novelty.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this lengthy look at a variety of pizza joints from a state that was late to the game. If you’re like me, this post has your mouth watering for a warm pizza pie, and nowadays there are plenty of choices.
Next week I’ll look at OKC hamburgers and drive-ins.