Thoughts & Musings

Twenty-Eight Flavors of Mayhem:
Ron Clark’s and Sam Bobrick’s
Murder at the Howard Johnson’s (1979)

The Humanities Post-Show Talkback will be after
Sunday, February 19’s matinee performance.

Murder at the where?

Remember the orange roofs, the cupolas and weather vanes, the turquoise trim? Remember those tender sweet fried clams and the yummy, melty ice cream in more flavors than you could possibly sample? Remember when you traveled on America’s post-war highways and turnpikes and every single time you stopped it was at a Howard Johnson’s? Neat little family-friendly motel rooms all in a row, orangey décor in easy-clean plastic veneer, the cartoony silhouette of Simple Simon and the Pieman on the unchanging menu? Howard Johnson’s motor inns and restaurants were everywhere. The brand even made a futuristic product-placement appearance in the 1968 sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey as the ‘Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room.’ The HoJo’s experience was one of those shared points in a common culture. In 1979, if you wanted to create a comic setting onstage referencing the most easily recognized, everyday, ordinary, unoriginal spot for a fractious, failed series of middleclass murders, you’d stick it in a Howard Johnson’s. How odd that, in one of those sic transit-something events, all those orange roofs are now demolished and passed away into American legend.

If it weren’t for rabid theatregoers, the Howard Johnson’s restaurant and hotel chain might not have become the national behemoth it was during its late ‘70s heyday. Playwrights Clark and Bobrick, might then have set their delicious murder farce in some other ubiquitous, cookie-cutter hotel in middle America.
By the late 1920s the original Howard Deering Johnson had parlayed his original drug store soda fountain in Quincy into a chain of Massachusetts beachfront concessions selling hot dogs, soft drinks, and ice cream. He had just secured a loan and opened his first sit-down restaurant in Quincy, expanding his very New England menu to include fried clams, baked beans, and chicken pot pies.

He got an incredible break in 1929. Eugene O’Neill’s play Strange Interlude (1928) was due to open in Boston, when it was banned within the city limits by Mayor Malcolm Nichols. Reluctant to fight City Hall, the Theatre Guild moved the production over the city line into Quincy. The monster play in nine acts ran for five hours and was scheduled in two parts with a dinner break. As luck would have it, the most convenient restaurant to the theatre was Howard Johnson’s. Soon hundreds of influential Bostonians had eaten at the Howard Johnson’s and they told their friends about it.

Johnson himself was quite an innovator and his vision helps account for the rise of HoJo’s to becoming the largest hospitality presence in the country. He had started by making ice cream for his soda fountain, using the recipe of a German immigrant (or his own mother, depending on which story you read). He walloped up the butterfat content and experimented with more and more flavors over the regular vanilla-chocolate-strawberry until he had created that famous 28. He field-tested his flavors with kids at a playground in Massachusetts (and stuck to that system for years). He economized on advertising by using his own children and his mother as models. He was wise to branding before others had a clue; as he stuck to those orange roofs, blue letters, value-priced items in recognizable packaging, and, always, a consistent experience. He helped another entrepreneur to success and riches when he gave all supplier rights to Greek immigrant Thomas Soffron, who invented fried clam strips by using battered slices exclusively from the foot of only hard-shelled clams.

During the Depression, when Johnson couldn’t afford to expand into other restaurants, he invented the idea of the franchise and sold the name and a consistent model to other businessmen. During the rationing of World War II, Johnson kept the company going by serving the commissaries for war workers and US Army recruits. After the war, as the national highway system expanded, he kept pace by locating his restaurants at the turn-offs for service stations throughout the network. He pioneered the creation of flash frozen menu items using good ingredients, reheated for dining room service. His son, the CEO by then, took this idea one better by hiring up-and coming New York chefs (Pierre Franey and Jacques Pepin, no less!) to develop frozen signature dishes that could be shipped anywhere in the country.

By 1979, when this farce was written, there were nearly 1,000 Howard Johnson’s restaurants in the United States and about 500 hotels. However, Ron Clark and Sam Bobrick could not have known that this peak of business was actually the tipping point. Howard Johnson’s was in stiff competition from new restaurant models, like fast food McDonald’s, and challenged by new American dining habits and diets. Rather than innovate themselves, however, a succession of owners tried cost-cutting rather than investment and outreach to a new generation of customers. The downward spiral was so fast and so plunging that the demise of Howard Johnson’s by the early 21st century is a famous case study at the Harvard Business School!

So what does Howard Johnson’s history really have to do with the stupendous silliness of this murder farce? Well, actually nothing. Unless you think of it as an oozy, sweet scoop of one of those 28 ice cream flavors—high calorie fun, too much laugh sugar, and extra helpings of butterfat hilarity.

This essay has been sponsored by the generous people at
Ocean State Urgent Care of Barrington

The opinions expressed in this essay
are not necessarily those of 2nd Story Theatre.

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