Hidden Treasures

When I was a kid, I loved stories with hidden treasures and secret tunnels. They often appeared in the stories I read in the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators series, as well as the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books that a spinster aunt allowed me to borrow. This week we’ll look for hidden treasures, and next week we’ll go tunneling.


The Stratemeyer Syndicate produced the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Dana Girls, and other children’s series. If you are ever curious about them, many of their titles can be checked out and read online for free at archive.org.

The first three Hardy Boys books entered the public domain in 2023. So we can copy, distribute, recast, and remix them at will, as no one can own them anymore. And over the next 50 years, the additional original 58 books will steadily lose their copyrights. However, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams published revised versions of the Hardy Boys books from 1959 through 1973, and those revised works will remain under copyright for 95 years after their first publication.

The Hardy Boys series included dead-on titles like #1: The Tower Treasure and #5: Hunting for Hidden Gold. The original versions of the early books by ghostwriter Leslie McFarlane are far better than the revisions, anyway. The originals are products of their time and do suffer from some racial stereotypes, but they are rollicking adventures that I read and re-read in elementary school. I know that some of my self-confidence and self-reliance was sparked by his formative tales, even if I had to ask my folks what a jalopy was or where on a car you could find a rumble seat.

McFarlane wrote 19 of the first 25 Hardy Boys books between 1927 and 1946, plus two more later. He could write one in about three weeks, earning maybe $100 to buy coal to keep his Canadian family warm. Funly enough, he also wrote the first four of the Dana Girls books that my aunt loaned me. And despite rushing to write them and never revisiting them later, McFarlane didn’t write trash. Here is how he stoked my imagination when writing about a storm in Hunting for Hidden Gold:

The snow flung itself upon them and the wind shrieked with renewed fury as they left the unsheltered pit and entered the half-darkness of the cave mouth. It was as though they were entering a new world. They had become so accustomed to the roaring of the gale and the sweep of the storm that the interior of the passage seemed strangely peaceful and still.

from Hunting for Hidden Gold, in 1928 by Leslie McFarlane, as Franklin W. Dixon

Nancy Drew had some spot-on titles as well. The first 34 volumes were also revised from 1959 to 1975. One of my favorites was the original 1945 version of #22: The Clue in the Crumbling Wall which my spinster aunts had tucked away high up in a closet. In that adventure, the hidden treasure was, surprisingly enough, bottles of magenta dye made from whelks and notes allowing a chemist to create color-fast versions of it. That intrigued me, and I would read again of valuable dye from sea snails when I took Latin in high school and college and studied Roman history. I learned that treasures come in many forms, not just precious metals, money, bonds, or jewels.

Although the Nancy Drew series is credited, like the Dana Girls, to the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, Nancy was born from the typewriter of Mildred Wirt Benson. She ghost-wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books for a flat fee of $85-$250 from 1927 to 1953, with the first book published in 1930. Her first three books will enter the public domain in 2026.

Buried Treasure

Perhaps the most famous buried treasure comes from Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. At the conclusion, the protagonist Jim Hawkins described it thusly:

It was a strange collection, like Billy Bones’s hoard for the diversity of coinage, but so much larger and so much more varied that I think I never had more pleasure than in sorting them. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Georges, and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck—nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection; and for number, I am sure they were like autumn leaves, so that my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.

from Treasure Island, Chapter XXXIV: And Last, in 1883 by Robert Louis Stevenson

The book famously opens with a map to buried treasure on Skeleton Island which propels the plot. Three crosses of red ink on it evolved into the famous “X marks the spot” in popular culture.

The famous treasure map

In 1894, Stevenson told the story of how he came to write the book. He conceived the idea for the novel based on a map of an imaginary, romantic island which he drew with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne during a holiday in Braemar, Scotland in the summer of 1881. Sadly, when he submitted that map with the manuscript of the novel to the publisher, the map was lost. Stevenson had to recreate the map from memory, combing through his own text to ensure everything matched up.

Hidden Safes

A hidden treasure trope of television and movies is a wall safe hidden behind a picture. Adam West’s Batman spoofed that in 1967 by showing that the Wayne Foundation’s safe was hidden behind a painting…of that safe.

In the real world, the fabulous Marland Mansion in Ponca City has one wall safe intended to hide liquor during prohibition and another in a cedar closet which I presume was for jewelry. I guess it was meant to be hidden behind mink coats?

An old house I lived in during elementary school had a safe, but it was better hidden. The original part of the home had two bedrooms, with a smaller one designed for kids, complete with windows strategically positioned for bunk beds. That room featured a built in counter with a desk and cabinet, and there was a square panel in the bottom of it that you could pry up to reveal a small safe embedded in the slab. It opened with a key, and one was snapped off in the lock when my parents bought the house. A locksmith got it working again, which reminds me of what Harriet Stratemeyer wrote about Frank in the original 1946 edition of #25: The Secret Panel:

The Hardy boy found another book on the history of locks and keys, which looked so fascinating that he turned on a reading lamp and sat down in an arm-chair to glance through the volume. He became completely absorbed in the subject, learning first that in Biblical times keys were made of wood and were so heavy they had to be carried over one’s shoulder; that later the makers of metal keys received the name of locksmith because actually they were blacksmiths who forged keys; and that the invention of truly burglarproof locks is barely a hundred years old.

A secret panel with a hidden safe was a dream come true, but of course my parents knew all about it. So I remember searching my own adjoining room for secret hiding places. That had been the parents’ bedroom in the original two-bedroom house, and it had two closets on one end with a make-up counter between them. A large tilted mirror was mounted above it, and I found I could remove the decorative screws at its top and tilt it down. That revealed a wooden panel with a square hole in the middle. Imagine my disappointment when I found nothing in the dead space behind there.

It was simply too difficult to use that hiding place, as I knew I’d be in big trouble if my parents caught me mucking about with the big mirror. So I remember choosing not to use it, instead stuffing notes into a gap behind some molding. I recall that one was something about my fear of death, which was a brief obsession when I realized that everyone dies. That reminds me of the secret tree/temple in Wong Kar-Wai’s marvelous In the Mood for Love.

Finding Hidden “Treasures”

Geocaching with the Falkners in 2001

Few of us will ever encounter an actual treasure map, although your smartphone can become a type of treasure map if you enjoy geocaching. My first experience was with my friends the Falkners at Red Rocks Park in Colorado in 2001.

I didn’t take up the hobby, but in 2012 I accidentally discovered a geocache in a dead tree at Hartman Rocks at Gunnison, Colorado while recovering from altitude sickness.

Discovering the Geocache at Hartman Rocks
Accidentally discovering a geocache at Hartman Rocks near Gunnison, Colorado
Wendy finds a geocache

Wendy spotted another geocache in 2015 when we were hiking on the remnant of the Standing Rock Nature Trail at Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma.

But what about buried treasures? If you don’t have a map and the treasure is conductive metal, then you’ll need a metal detector.

Dad’s first detector was this model

There was a metal-detecting craze in the late 1970s and 1980s. My father had a Garrett model that found many an aluminum pulltab despite his attempts to set its discriminator circuit to ignore them. Ernie Fraze invented pulltabs in 1959 and they quickly littered the earth. Things improved in the late 1970s when Daniel F. Cudzik invented the stay-on pop-top.

Pull tabs were a bane of metal detecting

So how do the detectors work? They have a coil of wire that transmits an electromagnetic field into the ground. Alternating current makes the field pulse up and down. That induces electrical current in conductive metals in the ground, generating a field of the opposite polarity (Lenz’s Law). So when the transmitted field pulses downward, the object’s induced field pulses upward, and vice versa.

The most common type of detectors have a second receiver coil. The induced field pulsing from the buried objects induces a current in the receiver, which is amplified and can be used to make a meter respond and to produce sound from a speaker.

Metal detectors go way back. Five years after receiving his telephone patent, Alexander Graham Bell invented the metal detector in 1881, in an attempt to locate the assassin’s bullet inside President James Garfield. Metal detectors took off as hobby devices in the 1970s due to technological improvements and surging gold prices.

Charles & Eleanor Garrett of Garland, Texas

In 1968, Charles Garrett began manufacturing detectors that eliminated oscillator drift, improving their power and accuracy. Then very low frequency detectors were introduced, which could detect small objects like gold nuggets and detect coins buried as deep as 10 inches. The addition of discrimination circuits to eliminate signals from iron and foil reduced frustrations. But what really drove the fad in popular culture was that in the 1970s the price of gold trevigintupled. Trevigintupled? Okay, that’s a truly obscure way to say it went up by a factor of 23.

My dad bought a Garrett detector, and he had great fun searching for treasures on vacations, at parks, etc. His interest was more resilient than my own. There were too many pulltabs and junk with too few coins to hold my interest.

Our last shared metal detecting outing was in 1994 when we dug at an old homestead in the Missouri Ozarks. By then he had a simpler Bounty Hunter detector along with his original Garrett. We found a few items, and he later returned on his own to thoroughly explore the site, finding quite a collection of junk. Dad truly delighted in his finds, even though they were hardly treasures to anyone else.

I realize that I am more interested in reading about treasure hunting than actually joining the search. Real-life hunts that come to mind include:

Well, that’s enough rambling for this week. Next week, we’ll explore secret tunnels.

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My 40-Year-Old Computer Programs

My first computer was a TRS-80 Color Computer that my parents bought for me at Radio Shack in 1981. I was in ninth grade, which was my last year of junior high. I was fortunate that my parents were willing to invest $650 in a computer that I could hook up to the 13″ color television in my bedroom. That’s equivalent to over $2,000 in inflation-adjusted 2023 dollars.

The computer only had 32 kilobytes of memory. To put that in perspective, a single photo on a smartphone in 2023 would consume about 150 times that amount of memory. Zoinks!

My desktop computer 40 years later has 500,000 times more memory, uses 64-bit rather than 8-bit data units, and has four microprocessor cores which collectively process over 1,500 times more instructions per second than that first computer could manage.

Programs were initially stored and retrieved using an audio cassette recorder, which basically recorded or played back a modem signal. But after I invested countless hours learning to program in Extended Color BASIC, my parents invested another $1,000 to purchase two floppy disk drives for my computer, which would be almost $3,000 in 2023.

I played some video games on it and collaborated with my best friend, Jeff, on writing a couple of games of our own in BASIC. But the real investment of time was a total of 15 Star Trek programs I wrote, some on my own and others with Jeff, from 1982 through 1984.

I had been a huge Star Trek fan since 1974, and two Star Trek movies book-ended our high school years — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock in 1984. Those and the original Star Trek television series inspired several of the programs in which we honed our skills to create little space battles, ship plans, and the like.

It was all quite primitive, given that even at its best, the computer could only produce black-and-white 256×192 pixel images or four-color images at 128×192 pixels. My current desktop computer monitor’s resolution is 13 times wider, 7.5 times taller, and can display over 16 million colors.

I upgraded to a newer model of the Color Computer in 1983, and moved on to an entirely different and incompatible computer in 1985, as documented here. But before I got rid of my last Color Computer, I hooked it up to a videocassette recorder and ran the 15 Star Trek programs to preserve their output.

Jeff passed away in 2018, my father passed in 2022, and my mother has moved to Bartlesville. So I’ve been saying goodbye to my hometown of Oklahoma City. My way of processing that has been a series of posts. I’ve written about my old schools, three posts on my old neighborhood (1st, 2nd, 3rd), and posts about the Mexican food, pizzas, and hamburger joints of my youth. Now I’m documenting one of my youthful hobbies.

I’ve digitized the old videotape, adding commentary and showing how we programmed the computer, designed the graphics, and honed our skills. It’s almost an hour long and quite esoteric, so I know very few folks will actually watch it. But I’m glad to have made it. Goodbye, OKC. So long, Jeff, and thanks for all the fun.

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Okie Burgers & Drive-Ins

No one is certain who first thought of putting a Hamburg steak between two slices of bread, but hamburgers first appeared in the late 1800s or very early 1900s. Oklahoma, however, is the definite origin of two hamburger variations: the fried onion burger and the Theta burger.

This is the last of three posts about restaurants I knew and enjoyed in my hometown of Oklahoma City. I previously wrote about El Chico and its many relatives and descendants, along with pizza places.

Onion burgers are hamburger patties with paper-thin slices of Spanish white onion smashed in the meat, which are cooked together until the burger sears around the edges and the onions are caramelized and crisped. They were invented by Ross Davis around 1926 at the Hamburger Inn on Route 66 in downtown El Reno, west of Oklahoma City. Some online sources erroneously say it was Ardmore, but the Hamburger Inn in Ardmore was started much later in 1938 by Earnest and Lillian Brown.

Onions were cheap while hamburger meat was expensive. So Ross came up with the idea of adding onions to his burgers and smashing them into the meat with the back of his spatula. Ross would pound a half onion’s worth of shreds into a 5-cent burger. They caught on statewide in the Great Depression, when cheap food was a must.

Charcoal burgers are prepared quite differently, being cooked on a rack over charcoal, rather than being cooked on a gas grill or on the flat-top grill one uses to make a fried onion burger. Oklahoma City charcoal burgers are often thinner than other burgers and traditionally topped with hickory sauce. Hickory sauce is similar to barbecue sauce, but usually thinner with a pronounced tomato/umami character. Speaking of hickory sauce…

The Theta Burger

Theta burgers are another Oklahoma specialty and traditionally include mayonnaise, pickles, cheese, and, crucially, hickory sauce.

The Theta burger was either born at the Split-T in Oklahoma City or invented by Ralph Geist at the Town Tavern in Norman, the home of the University of Oklahoma. The Kappa Alpha Theta sorority at OU claims it was named after them. Their story is that the sorority had a curfew of 10 p.m. and would call the Town Tavern for a late night burger delivery. Supposedly Ralph invented the Theta as a compromise burger all of the girls could agree on to simplify the late-night orders. Who knows if that’s true, but it is a good story.

The Split-T was where the Theta burger originated

Vince Stephens opened the Split-T on North Western in Oklahoma City in 1953, naming the restaurant after the offensive formation employed by the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team coached by Bud Wilkinson. Vince had been a member of the RUFNEKs cheer squad at OU.

Supposedly Stephens used his mother’s recipes for the Caesar dressing as well as for the hickory sauce in his Theta burger. In the mid-1960s, students from John Marshall and Harding high schools, as well as Bishop McGuinness, and Casady, hung out at the Split-T.

Stephens hired David Nathaniel Haynes as his first manager. Haynes had left home in Poteau, Oklahoma at age 15 to work in drive-ins in California, under the name “Johnnie” adapted from his father John’s name. He enlisted in the Army and spent three years as a cook in Germany before moving for good to Oklahoma City in 1950. He was working at the airport’s Sky Chef restaurant when Vince hired him, and he ran the Split-T through the 1960s while Vince spent much of his time with family in California.

The Split-T was one of the Oklahoma City restaurants targeted for desegregation by Clara Luper. She taught history at Dunjee High in Spencer in 1957 when she became the advisor for the OKC Youth Council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She wrote a play which the Council was invited to perform in New York City. That trip to a place where segregation did not thrive inspired the group to begin a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience to end segregation in Oklahoma City.

They famously sat at the lunch counter at Katz Drug Store, were refused service, and they remained there, bringing out their books and studying, from opening to closing. A few days of that led Katz corporate management in Kansas City to desegregate its lunch counters in Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Iowa. Luper worked to integrate hundreds of restaurants, cafes, theaters, hotels, and churches. Locations that proved difficult for Clara to integrate were Anna Maude’s Cafeteria, the Skirvin Hotel, The Pink Kitchen, and…the Split-T.

Clara Luper in 1963

One Friday night, the Bishop McGuinness high school football team showed up at the Split-T. The manager refused to serve the blacks among the team, so the team walked out. With the high school principal’s blessing, the entire school boycotted the Split-T. Clara recalled staging a sit-in there, and she recalled how Split-T diners shouted profanities and threw ice and rocks at the protesters, who sang and chanted. Luper and others were arrested on complaints of disorderly conduct. And the next night, they did the same thing. More arrests and a restraining order followed. After the Split-T finally integrated, Clara was teaching at John Marshall High School. She commented, “When the walls of segregation fell, I didn’t go back there. I just couldn’t get an appetite.”

After Johnnie left in the 1970s, the Split-T declined, and Stephens later made half of it the T-Bar, which attracted state legislators. A group of Democrats that became known as the T-Bar 12 wanted to oust the Speaker of the House. They invited House members to lunch at the Split-T to gauge their happiness with the leader, and if griping began, lunch moved through the double doors to the T-Bar. In May 1989, the T-Bar rebellion hit the House floor and Jim Barker was removed.

Former OSU star Rusty Hilger was a partner in the 1980s, but became embroiled in a drug sting operation and the health department reported some serious violations. Brad Vincent and Chad O’Neal purchased the Split-T in 1994, but it closed in 2000 and was demolished in 2010. Now a Sonic Drive-In occupies that space.

The end in 2000

I never ate at the Split-T, but I’ve taken a look back at a couple of OKC burger joints and a couple of drive-ins I knew:

Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler

Theta burger at Johnnie’s

In 1971, Johnnie Haynes, formerly of the Split-T, took over Colonel Potter’s drive-in at Military Avenue and Britton Road, renaming Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler. It had a 16 carhop stalls and a dozen inside booths. He brought the Theta burger and Caesar burger with him from the Split-T.

His son David was a senior in high school and one of the first managers. Another son, Rick, was 13 when the drive-in opened. They grew up working for their dad at his restaurants, teaching them a strong work ethic.

In 1977, Johnnie’s moved and expanded to 2652 W Britton Road, and later opened other branches across metro OKC. When he stepped away from running the business, his sons expanded aggresively, trying various options, including a couple of franchise locations in Tulsa in the 1990s. Some of the ideas, including the Tulsa franchises, didn’t last.

Johnnie Haynes and his sons with the hickory sauce

Johnnie died in 2000, but several of the restaurants continue in metro OKC under David and Rick.

Years ago, my parents began eating regularly at the Johnnie’s on Britton with a group of fellow retirees. I ate there a few times, but I dined mostly at the big branch on Northwest Expressway they opened in 1992. It eventually shrank, with half of it becoming their corporate office, and it was torn down in 2018. They built a new space nearby, which reopened in 2019.

The Johnnie’s on Britton Road as I remember it

Johnnie himself liked to serve cold shredded cheese on the burgers. Nowadays, they ask if you want that or prefer melted cheese. While my mother liked their hickory burger, and my father would sometimes order a Theta, I’ll confess that I just order a burger with mayonnaise and that mound of cold shredded cheese, along with a bunch of their yummy fries.

Charcoal Oven

I have never had an onion burger, but I’ve certainly had plenty of charcoal burgers. Some of the most charred ones were from my youth, when my parents would drive to the Charcoal Oven. Unlike many other drive-ins, you didn’t park in a stall and have your food brought out by a carhop. Instead, it was more like a drive-through.

The original sign and logo were drawn by a downtown OKC artist who was paid $8 for his work. A famous large neon sign was a replacement made of porcelain after the first one, which wasn’t as sturdy, was toppled by the wind. The second one lasted.

The way it operated was that you drove up to miniature version of the chef sporting a menu on his chest, with a loudspeaker at his navel. You gave your order via an intercom, and sometimes customers would gibe, “I didn’t know you could talk out of your stomach.”

Dave Wilson

You then drove on up to pass by the small building where you would pay and get your food. Then you could park along the exit route to enjoy your meal. There were enormous trash cans with huge chutes on each side at the exit, and when I was little, it was a thrill for me to toss our trash in them.

Charcoal Oven opened on Northwest Expressway just west of Pennsylvania Avenue in May 1958, owned and operated by David and Carolyn Wilson. As of 2008, the Wilsons also had a Charcoal Oven on the NW Expressway at MacArthur Blvd, but that one had carhops.

Crowd favorites at the Charcoal Oven were their #2 hickory burger, the Classic Theta Cheeseburger, and the Chick-a-Doodle-Doo sandwich. They served up fresh onion rings and Suzy-Q Fries.

Wilson also owned Quick’s, home of 19-cent hamburgers at NW 32nd and Classen Boulevard. When he opened the Charcoal oven in May 1958, business was slow until the Penn Square Shopping Center (which later was enclosed to become a mall) opened in 1959, a half-mile east. Northwest Classen high school kids hung out there.

Dave Wilson was known as a straight shooter who never stiffed anyone. He retired and closed the Charcoal Oven in 2016, but later opened a new location at 3604 N. May, operated by his son-in-law.

Coit’s Drive-In

Don Coit

The other drive-in my parents frequented was the Coit’s at NW 50th and Portland Avenue, although I never ate their burgers, preferring their Schwab’s weiners.

Don Coit was born in 1925. He and his three brothers struggled with their widowed mother to make ends meet. She worked at the stockyards, and the boys delivered newspapers. Don graduated from Classen High, served in World War II as a remote control turret mechanic gunner, and then attended OU.

Don returned to Oklahoma City and worked for his older brother Raymond at the stockyards, where he evaluated measurements and sales prices for cattle. But when a lot came up for sale at SW 25th and Western Avenue, he borrowed money from his mother and opened a Weber’s root beer stand in 1954.

The stand was just one room and a bathroom, with no windows, heat, or air conditioning. Solid boards were lifted and locked when they closed up. But Coit was able to pay back his mother, with interest. Winter business was terrible, and Don was struggling when an acquaintance at the fire department suggested he sell Christmas trees.

Don Coit and his Christmas trees

Don traveled west to Washington and east to North Carolina, getting to know tree growers, staying at their homes, and soon his business was as well known for its five Christmas tree lots as it was for the root beer stand.

In 1960, Don Coit turned his stand into a drive-in and restaurant, later opening branches at NW 39th and Pennsylvania and the one I knew best at 50th & Portland. Don bought a shopping plaza across 50th from that location, which became Coit Center, along with two more, and he invested in over 200 oil wells.

Coit’s at 50th & Portland in 2011

By the 1980s, the Coit’s logo with a Christmas tree atop the “i” was a fixture in town, with a large Christmas tree operation open every winter at the corner of Northwest Expressway and what is now the Lake Hefner Parkway.

An old Coit’s menu board
The Coit’s on Portland in its early days

As a child, I loved getting my own little frosty mug of root beer to go with my preferred Coit’s #3: a Schwab’s weiner with mustard only. As I grew, I eventually ordered two #3s, along with fries and of course a frosty mug of root beer. Coit’s grew as well, adding indoor dining at their Portland location, and eventually adding a sun room to accommodate the crowds.

The hot dog wrappers that I remember

But Coit’s later began to struggle, and Don Coit passed in 2005. The affiliation with Weber’s Root Beer had ended long before, and once I drove by their open back garage to see cases of A&W Root Beer. All three of the locations closed in 2012. Don’s widow, Jessie, passed in 2014, and the Coit’s at 50th and Portland is now a diner.

So what about Weber’s? It opened at 38th & Peoria in Tulsa in 1933, and is the oldest and longest-running business in the Brookside area. Oscar “Weber Bilby” created their formulation in the late 1800s, moving from Missouri to a farm north of Sapulpa in 1884. His secret recipe had 14 natural ingredients, all native to Oklahoma, which were “fire brewed” with pure cane sugar and water and then stored and aged in birch bark barrels, with yeast used to carbonate it. Oscar’s great grandson and his wife owned and operate the original stand through the end of 2021, with the next generation preparing to carry on the legacy. But I’ll confess that I’ve only had genuine Weber’s once. ‘Nuff said.

As for Schwab’s, George Peter Schwab emigrated from Sachsenhausen in 1890, moving to Kansas but then relocating to Oklahoma City around 1900. They founded a store selling “old world” sausages, with more family members joining the business in 1923. Now the company has fifth generation sausage makers.

Their weiners at Coit’s always had bright red casings, except for a brief spell after Red Dye No. 2 was pulled from the market in 1976 and the company had to reformulate.


A Sonic menu from my high school days

I don’t recall eating at a Sonic until I was in high school. PC West had open campus lunch for older students, and there was a Sonic a little over a half-mile east on 23rd Street.

My girlfriend and I could drive there for a quick lunch, and I always ordered the same thing: a foot-long hot dog with mustard only, an order of tater tots, and what the menu described as a “Delicious Juicy Orange” drink, which I insisted on ordering by that full description to be obnoxious. They didn’t sell cherry limeades back then.

In 1953, Troy Smith of Shawnee, Oklahoma opened the Top Hat, a former root beer stand, to serve hamburgers and hot dogs. While traveling in Louisiana the next year, he saw a food stall with homemade intercom speakers that allowed customers to order from their cars. He contacted the innovator and had him make an intercom for the Top Hat. Smith also added a canopy to shelter the vehicles and hired carhops on roller skates to deliver food directly to the cars. Each customer received a mint with their order, a tradition held to today to remind customers that they are “worth a mint.”

The old Top Hat Drive-Inns had instructions on how to use their fancy new intercoms

In 1956 Charlie Pappe, who managed a supermarket in Woodward, partnered with Smith to open another Top Hat. Two more popped up in Enid and Stillwater, but they discovered the name was already trademarked for another business. Top Hat’s jet age slogan was “service with the speed of sound” and they chose the new name “Sonic.”

By the time Smith sold the firm in 1973, there were over 120 Sonics in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas. Sonic Systems of America, later Sonic Industries, headquartered in Oklahoma City. By 1977, there were over 800 drive-in across 13 southern and southwestern states. The company became a collection of independent restaurants during the 1980s, but from 1995-2000 Clifford Hudson unified the company again. The 2000th Sonic opened in OKC in 1999. Now there are over 3,500 of the drive-ins in 44 of the 50 states.

But there isn’t a Sonic anymore at the location I frequented in high school; that is now an Oh! Donuts store. A newer sonic is just around the corner at 21st and Council Road.

And that wraps up my trilogy on OKC restaurants I remember.

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Okie Pizzas

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.


President Truman with Jack Sussy

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, age 56, awaiting arraignment on the arson charge in 1966

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.

Sussy’s pioneered pizza in Oklahoma City in 1947

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.

Tom Winslow and Doug Jones in 2014

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.

Doug Jones in his younger days

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.

Pizza Hut

The first Pizza Hut in Wichita

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.

Old-school Pizza Hut design
Pizza Pete

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.

Pizza Hut in the 1970s

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.

The fire pits were often 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

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.

Ken Selby and his Pizza Parlor

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.

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!

Ken Selby stirring 60 gallons of alfredo sauce at a Zio’s in Tulsa in 2000

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.

Mazzio’s locations in 2023

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

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.

The Pizza Planet that Andy Davis and his toys enjoyed in Toy Story, which was a parody of Chuck E. Cheese’s, was a far cry from the humble chain in Oklahoma City

Crystal’s Pizza

Bill Waugh

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.

Waugh’s first pizza joint in Abilene

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. 

Crystal’s facade in Tulsa; photo by Linda Duke Vance Kelley
Where Crystal’s would appear in Tulsa

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.

Godfather’s Pizza

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 Theisen

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.


Richard and Marti Dermer

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.

Darren Lister, Marti Dermer, and Brett Murphy in 2017

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.

Personal Preferences

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.

Deep-pan Chicago pizza is just a novelty to me

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.

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The Boy who was Tex-Mex

Tex-Mex cuisine originated with Tejanos, Texans of Mexican descent, who mixed native Mexican and Spanish foods. It is characterized by shredded and melted cheese, beans, meat, chili peppers, spices, and flour tortillas. Beef, grilled food, and tortillas were popular in the ranching culture of south Texas and northern Mexico, and twentieth century Americans incorporated cheddar and jack cheeses.

A Tex-Mex favorite of mine is chile con queso, a smooth and creamy sauce of melted cheese and chili peppers, which originated in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua and is both a topping and a dip for corn tortilla chips. I grew up loving the original pale yellow queso at the El Chico chain of restaurants, which is different from their bright yellow or white standard offerings today, but can still be obtained by asking for their old way queso. El Chico — The Boy — is my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, and it has connections going back 85 years to the Café El Charro and the Café El Charrito in Oklahoma City.

This is the first in a series of three posts about restaurants I enjoyed in my hometown of Oklahoma City. Later I’ll recall pizza places and then hamburgers and drive-ins.

The Cowboy came before The Boy

Adelaida Cuellar with three of her children in 1901

Adelaida and Macario Cuellar emigrated to Texas from Mexico in 1891. Macario was a cook for a covered wagon gang, picked cotton by moonlight, and did odd jobs. In 1913, they became tenant farmers in Kaufman County southeast of Dallas. An old Mexican soldier they took in taught them to read Spanish, and their family grew to eight boys and four girls.

Adelaida opened a stand at the Kaufman County Fair in 1926, selling chili and tamales. The children had learned to play instruments, so they formed a band to attract customers, and Adelaida realized a handsome $200 profit.

Impressed, sons Frank and Amos, over the objection of their father, opened a small café in Kaufman in 1928. The boys had married sisters, and business was sometimes so slow that the two couples had to take turns picking cotton in order to pay the $30 monthly rent. Their café perished in the Great Depression.

Luis Alvarado married Mariá Cuellar

Different brothers opened and closed cafés in Terrell, Malakoff, and Wills Point. Frank eventually found success in Shreveport. Meanwhile, Frank’s sister, Mariá, had married Luis Alvarado, and Luis partnered with her brothers Gilbert and Willie Jack on a successful café in Tyler, Texas.

Luis Alvarado had grown up in Mexico and made tortillas the traditional way for five years, migrating to San Antonio and then Dallas, where was hired to train the staff at El Fenix on new-fangled tortilla machines. He then worked for three years at a corn chip factory in New York before partnering with Mariá’s brothers on the café in Tyler. When Luis and Mariá decided to open their own restaurant, they chose Oklahoma City. The Café El Charro (The Cowboy) opened on NW 10th and Dewey in 1937.

El Chico opening night in Dallas

Five of Adelaida’s sons — Frank, Mack, Alfred, Gilbert, and Willie Jack — then banded together to open the first El Chico (The Boy) in Dallas in 1940.

In February 1942, Luis Alvarado got a brief mention in the OKC newspaper for bringing St. Anthony Hospital its smallest patient to date. He had a beloved canary, Tony, and had taken him outside in his cage for some sun. The Oklahoma wind blew the cage over, injuring Tony and almost breaking Alvarado’s heart. Luis took his bird up the street to the hospital, where two nurses and a physician set and wrapped Tony’s right leg. They examined the bird again the following day. It takes a village!

The Little Cowboy

Nine years after opening, the Café El Charro had a fire, but Alvarado reopened at a place he named Café El Charrito (the Little Cowboy) at 2909 Paseo, partnering with his nephew Jesus Tello and Manuel Cruz II. Manuel Cruz introduced mariachi music to Oklahoma City, eventually becoming an icon at Chelino’s Mexican Restaurant, which opened in OKC in 1989. His son, Edgar Cruz, is a well-known guitarist I have had the pleasure of hearing perform at a Sunfest in Bartlesville and other venues.

Café El Charrito at 2909 Paseo in July 1950
Interior of Café El Charrito after a remodel in 1950

Willie Jack Cuellar had joined the North American Aviation plant in Dallas during World War II. When he left in 1945, he was unsure about returning to the restaurant business. Mariá and Luis Alvarado came to Dallas for a family gathering and convinced Willie Jack to come to Oklahoma City. Luis said, “I’ll give you a restaurant.”

Cuellar family portrait
Jesus Tello repairing music box selectors after a failed burglary at Café El Charrito

Willie Jack and Jesus Tello then managed the Café El Charrito on Paseo until 1949, when Willie Jack returned to Dallas to work at El Chico with his four brothers. Meanwhile, El Charro had expanded to Wichita, Kansas, and Luis had opened Café Palacio in Capitol Hill at US 77 and South Robinson.

The Café El Charrito underwent a significant renovation in 1950, and a second El Charrito opened at 113 N Walker in OKC in August 1951, which included murals of the Sleeping Lady volcano. A third El Charrito followed at 2300 N Broadway.

1950 full-page newspaper ad

In 1962, Luis Alvarado gained his citizenship. That same year, he opened an El Charrito in the new Shepherd Mall, which was where I first experienced El Chico. That isn’t a typo — a merger was coming.

El Charrito y El Chico

Mico Rodriguez, the co-founder of the Mi Cocina and founder of Mesero restaurants, recalled how his mother was a cashier and father was an assistant manager at an El Chico in the Dallas area in the 1960s, when the five “Mama’s Boys” went from one El Chico to another doing quality control. They all wore tall cowboy hats and boots, and spent time talking to the employees, encouraging them to be brave and to learn English. Each Christmas they gave away thousands of pounds of food. The company also developed successful lines of both canned and frozen foods.

Princess Grace of Monaco autographing a sombrero for Willie Jack Cuellar

In 1966, Princess Grace of Monaco, the former actress Grace Kelly, was urged by Trini Lopez, a popular singer from Dallas, to ask the Cuellars to cater the food at a Monte Carlo centennial event in Monaco. Trini had gotten his start in the El Chico restaurants, singing for tips. Willie Jack and an entourage of helpers boarded a transatlantic flight with 591 pounds of Mexican food. They served about 200 dignitaries enchiladas, chili, tamales, nachos, rice, refried beans, guacamole, and pecan pralines.

Gilbert, Mack, Frank, Willie Jack, and Alfred Cuellar in 1966

In 1968, El Chico went public and had just merged with El Charrito, bringing together the Cuellar boys’ thirty restaurants with the six of Luis Alvarado. Luis’s restaurants outside OKC became El Chicos, while the OKC ones were initially termed El Charrito y El Chico, but soon simply El Chico.

El Charrito and El Chico merged in 1968

The Later Years

Willie Jack, Mack, Alfred, Gilbert, and Frank Cuellar pose before Adelaida’s portrait
Adelaida Cuellar

But then the inevitable happened…Adelaida Cuellar passed away in 1969 at age 97. Mama’s Boys had long maintained a tradition of giving her the first dollar earned at each restaurant when it opened. Over the decades, her children had opened dozens of restaurants that drew upon her recipes.

The public company began franchising, with Gilbert Cuellar granting 22 of them, but he discontinued it in 1972 because they had trouble maintaining their standards.

By 1974, there were 77 El Chicos, and the five Cuellar brothers, who tightly controlled operations, saw the business wilting as an elder statesman in the industry. In 1974, they sold controlling interest to Hela, a Dallas holding company, and in 1977 Campbell Taggart, Inc. paid $20 million for the chain of 79 El Chicos.

That was also the year that Luis Alvarado died. Mary Goddard once shared in The Oklahoman how since World War II her family had gone to Luis Alvardo’s restaurants to celebrate special occasions, including every Christmas Eve. Her brother had celebrated his homecomings throughout his career at the Air Force with dinners at El Charrito and El Chico. So his son then associated the restaurants with homecomings. Once as a teenager after arriving in New York after a long tour of duty in Greece, he came straight to Oklahoma City to see his grandparents and requested a dinner with everything on the El Charrito menu.

Luis had obliged, arranging a full sampling for the lanky youth to enjoy, washed down with plenty of milk and topped off with pecan-laden pralines. Another time, when her nephew couldn’t make it home, he was sent a pinata from the array decorating the ceiling at El Chico. On Mother’s Day 1975, Luis snapped a picture of the group, and a couple of weeks later, called to ask them to be his guests at El Chico. They obeyed the mysterious command and were given the royal treatment. Luis appeared with a big print of the Mother’s Day snapshot he had taken. That became a precious memento, as Mary’s mother died the next January, and Luis passed in 1977. He left quite a legacy in Oklahoma. There are connections from him to La Roca Grande, Cocina de Mino, Tulio’s, Pepe’s, Laredo’s, and Milagros.

You can also learn more about Luis Alvarado in this video, starting at 16:40.

Unfortunately, Campbell Taggart was far more interested in El Chico’s frozen and canned Mexican food business, which was 1/3 of the corporate revenue, than the restaurants. The company was in trouble by 1980.

El Chico transitioned its frozen dinner line to the El Charrito brand in 1980, drawing upon the old restaurant name from Oklahoma City, and hired Richard Rivera, a senior executive at Steak & Ale, to lead a revival of the faltering restaurants.

Rivera refurbished the restaurants at $40,000 to $50,000 each, stressed manager training, changed employee uniforms, and redesigned the menus, signage, and logo.

The former Cafe El Charrito closed in 1981

In 1981, the original El Charrito on Paseo, which had been an El Chico since 1968, closed. A year later, Campbell-Taggart was acquired by Anheuser-Busch, and a brewing company couldn’t operate retail restaurants.

That provided an opening for Gilbert Cuellar, one of the original five brothers who founded the chain. At age 73, he offered $12.6 million to acquire the business. He and his son, Gilbert Jr, took over, with Gilbert Sr. passing away in 1986. Under Gilbert Jr. the company tried new concepts such as Cactus clubs, an upscale Casa Rosa dinner house, and spicier food at a Cantina Laredo. Gilbert Jr. was ousted in the early 1990s by a board of directors who wanted to focus less on upscale dining and emphasize the original El Chico restaurants, and the chain fluctuated over the years, but still had about 100 locations in 1996.

In 1995, the El Charrito frozen food brand was sold to Don Miguel Mexican Foods. In 2009, Hormel Foods and Herdez del Fuerte created MegaMex Foods, and it acquired Don Miguel Foods Corporation in 2010. The El Charrito frozen dinners were discontinued by 2018.

In the 21st century there was far more competition in the Tex-Mex space than El Chico had faced in its first 60 years. El Chico’s parent company became Consolidated Restaurant Operations, which also ran the Cantina Laredo, III Forks, Luckys, and Silver Fox restaurants. The company was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and by 2021 it was down to 50 restaurants with plans to franchise its Cantina Laredo operations.

As of early 2023, the El Chico operations have shrunk to only 15 locations in the USA and a couple in Abu Dhabi. All of the locations in Oklahoma City are gone, with the only remaining Oklahoma locations being two in Tulsa, one in Ardmore, and another in Norman.

My Boys

As I mentioned earlier, the first El Chico I experienced was the former El Charrito at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City. While in elementary and high school, my family travelled regularly to a cabin on Table Rock Lake in Missouri, often stopping for lunch at the El Chico at Interstate 44 and Lewis Avenue in Tulsa.

As an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, I was delighted there was an El Chico at Sooner Fashion Mall, and I ate there at least once per week. And when I was in Oklahoma City, there was one at May Avenue and Britton Road which I liked.

After I moved to Bartlesville in 1989, there were five El Chicos beckoning me down to Tulsa. I frequented the I-44 and Lewis location there as well as one at Promenade Mall. Highway improvements doomed the one on Lewis, and the Promenade location closed in 2020, but service there had already slipped enough to divert me to the 21st street or 71st street locations. When I travelled around Oklahoma or to nearby states, I often checked to see if there was an El Chico I could stop in at for a delicious meal.

A mouth-watering sight

Wendy and I still love eating at the surviving locations in Tulsa, but I am fearful that someday I will no longer able to order my old way queso and steak lunch fajitas with frijoles and flour tortillas. I’ve seen many of my favorite restaurants in Tulsa close over the years…Crystal’s Pizza in 1995, Marie Callender’s and Casa Bonita’s final Tulsa incarnation in 2011, Spaghetti Warehouse in 2017, and now both of the Zio’s Italian Kitchens are closed, albeit with a note on Yelp that one might reopen in March 2023. Alas…here’s hoping that Mama Cuellar’s legacy lasts awhile longer.

Next week’s topic will be OKC pizza places I knew and loved.

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