Wonder Boys black and white film frame: 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 with a Howard Johnson's restaurant neon sign's color reflection.
4305-4309 Pennsylvania Route 51 North, Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania
As I have written about previously, family cross-country road trips in the 1980s established my love of that sort of travel as well as the roadside truck stops, restaurants and attractions that accompanied them.
Unfortunately, many of these places have closed or completely changed, not to mention that I have not taken a proper road trip in years. Even more regrettably is that I did not visit some places before they were demolished.
One such location that I will never see in person is the Howard Johnson's restaurant that appears in the 2000 film Wonder Boys.
The Belle Vernon Howard Johnson's restaurant in Rostraver Township just north of the interchange of Pennsylvania Route 51 and Interstate 70 was a modern-style unit originally designed by architect Rufus H. Nims (1913–2005) during his time at Howard D. Johnson Company from about 1948–1958.
It opened for business sometime around Saturday, 14 December 1963, the date an advert appeared in the Monessen Valley Independent newspaper.
Elements of the notable design, also known as the "Series 77" or Nims-type, present at this location included a trademark orange roof and a finned spire cupola topped with a special metal weathervane.
Created by artist John Alcott in the 1930s, the weathervane design of a man, boy and dog called "Simple Simon and the Pieman" was a prominent figure in Howard Johnson's of this era, also appearing on the building, signs, menus and china until the 1970s when remodeling occurred.
The Belle Vernon Howard Johnson's land and building, and indeed the surrounding lots, were owned by Ira Vernon Pfile and Virginia V. Pfile, land owners and descendants of a prominent local family.
The Pfiles entered into a lease agreement with the Howard D. Johnson Company on Wednesday, 06 February 1963 (filed 21 February 1963) and an amended agreement on Thursday, 30 April 1964 (filed 07 July 1964).
These lease agreements give us an opportunity to see the excellent signature of Howard Brennan "Bud" Johnson, the son to whom Howard Deering Johnson left his business in 1959. The below is from the 1963 agreement with the Pfiles.
It is unclear if the Pfiles ever operated the restaurant after leasing the land, but it was being operated by Howard D. Johnson Company in the 1980s when the brand was sold to Imperial Group, which in turn sold the company to Marriott Corporation and Prime Motor Inns.
The latter two companies were sued in 1986 by a group of franchisees who feared for the long-term viability of their restaurants given the buy out situation. As part of a settlement agreement, the franchisees formed Franchise Associates, Inc. (FAI) and gained the rights to the Howard Johnson's name and brand. The Belle Vernon location was one of the restaurants transferred to FAI in 1991.
A new lease agreement was entered into between the Pfiles and FAI on Monday, 11 October 1993 with an expiration of 11 December 2003. On Friday, 02 January 1998, the Pfiles sold the land to Donald M. Yoder for $300,000 (filed 07 January 1998). The Howard Johnson's lease to FAI was also transferred to Yoder on the same date (filed 24 February 1998).
It seems that Yoder had other plans for the site, however. The restaurant closed in February 1999 without any fanfare, four years and ten months before the end of the original FAI lease. It was at this point that the Wonder Boys film crew arrived, giving the location a final send-off into the cinema universe.
On Friday, 19 March 1999, the Monessen Valley Independent reported on Yoder's plans to demolish the Howard Johnson's restaurant and redevelop the land as a convenience store/gas station travel plaza with an adjacent fast food restaurant.
The Howard Johnson's building was torn down by August 1999 to make way for a Bruceton Farm Service, Inc. facility, consisting of a bfs convenience store, Sunoco gas station and Burger King restaurant.
The bfs convenience store, Sunoco and Burger King were operating in May 2012 and are presumably still open today.
EXT. COFFEE SHOP/MOTEL - OFF THE HIGHWAY - EVENING
GRADY rolls into a space near the coffee shop and James slides out. GRADY stays put, hands still on the wheel.
If you are not familiar with Wonder Boys, the narrative, adapted by Steve Kloves from the Michael Chabon novel of the same name, takes the audience through an unusual three-day period — Friday, 26 February through Sunday, 28 February 1999 — in the life of Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) and his morose but brilliant literature student James Leer (Tobey Maguire).
After spending Saturday together driving from Tripp's house (359 South Atlantic Avenue, Pittsburgh) to the grocery store (Schwartz Market, 1317 East Carson Street, Pittsburgh) and then to Tripp's soon-to-be former in laws home in Kinship (145 Wayne Street, Beaver), Tripp and Leer end up at Howard Johnson's for "a nice meal and a couple cups of coffee" before Tripp is to take Leer home.
INT/EXT. PHONE BOOTH - PARKING LOT - MOMENTS LATER
GRADY rests his forehead against the PAYPHONE as he speaks.
C-a-r-v-e-l. That's right, Carvel.
Yes, I'm sure. It's outside Scranton.
GRADY straightens up, takes a peek at James, sitting by himself on the far side of the coffee shop.
While the Wonder Boys production including director Curtis Hanson and cinematographer Dante Spinotti was able come in February 1999 to use the restaurant's Nims-type architecture, exterior payphone and still film-ready interiors, they constructed and added a new 1940s-style roadside neon sign and neon Howard Johnson's sign for the roof.
EXT. COFFEE SHOP/MOTEL
As GRADY limps out of the coffee shop, he finds an OLDER MAN in a TUXEDO standing in the open door of a gleaming BLACK MERCEDES. Beyond him, in the front passenger seat, a WOMAN in MINK examines her eye shadow in the tiny mirror of the sun visor.
During a series of five exterior and four interior scenes running for five minutes and fifty seconds, the Belle Vernon Howard Johnson's and the filmmakers' additions are featured nicely. I am particularly fond of the recreated roadside sign, similar in design to the one in Bordentown, New Jersey in 1940.
As noted by Highway Host, shots in the film reveal a circa 1990s FAI advertising poster in the vestibule and the waitress — wearing a uniform reminiscent of the 1950s style — hands Maguire an FAI menu.
You can also see in the background of a few shots a motel sign with a large arrow of yellow lights added by the filmmakers to give the impression that the Howard Johnson's had lodging.
I think that the "coffee shop" scenes are rather pivotal to the journey of the Tripp and Leer characters, even though they do not feature any bridge imagery as other notable moments of the film do.
EXT. COFFEE SHOP - MOMENTS LATER
Fred Leer hits the gas and swings the Mercedes around in a tight little arc, feathering Grady's pants—from the knee down—with a pudding of ICE and MUD. GRADY glances down at his spattered self, then notices, sitting on the front passenger seat, James' knapsack. GRADY grabs it, turns.
The final scene at Howard Johnson's takes place in the parking lot inside Tripp's 1966 Ford Galaxie 500 with him smoking marijuana and reading Leer's novel manuscript. As the camera moves away from the car's exterior, the neon sign reflects on the passenger-side windows and snow continues to fall.
Within a film that I consider to be one of my favorites, it is this simple pull away shot set to Neil Young's 1972 hit "Old Man" to which I find myself drawn. Visually and thematically, I find it to be very effective.
I think that I first did a capture and edit of the shot on Sunday, 04 May 2008 for use as a desktop wallpaper. My most recent pass on Thursday, 02 January 2014 benefited not only from six years of additional Photoshop (and now Lightroom) experience but also more advanced hardware.
Although DVD quality, I took the capture at 1920x1080 to allow for a more precise edit. The unavoidable compression artifacts on an already imperfect transfer are obvious in the film but less so in the still, especially after post-processing. One can only hope for a remastered Blu-ray release!
The new exported frame is 1910x810 after removing the letterbox and cropping the frame slightly. Removing only some of the color from a photo is hardly a new thing, but there is something about this composition that seems ideal for this treatment.
EXT. PARKING LOT - MOTEL/COFFEE SHOP - A BIT LATER
Grady sits in the GREEN GLOW of the radio dial, smoking a joint. He glances at the knapsack, sees James' MANUSCRIPT:
The Love Parade
He reaches in, takes the manuscript and, in the light that rains from the PARKING LAMP overhead, begins to read.