Vintage Roadside gear brings lost landmarks to life

LA Times | Travel

Like many noteworthy tales, the story of Vintage Roadside began with a road trip. Oregonians Kelly Burg and Jeff Kunkle were on their fourth driving vacation along U.S. 20 through central New York, marveling at the many \"roadside ruins\" they encountered, when the brainstorm hit. \"One min...

By Martha Groves // 06.19.09

Like many noteworthy tales, the story of Vintage Roadside began with a road trip.

Oregonians Kelly Burg and Jeff Kunkle were on their fourth driving vacation along U.S. 20 through central New York, marveling at the many "roadside ruins" they encountered, when the brainstorm hit.

"One minute we were driving along talking about what a shame it was that all the old roadside places were disappearing, wishing there were someone who could do something to save the history," Burg said. "The next minute we had pulled off to the side of the road and decided to quit our jobs."

Thus was born Vintage Roadside, a Portland, Ore.-based enterprise that sells T-shirts with graphical depictions of long-gone diners, motels and other attractions from the days of doo-wop, before the interstate highway system sent people whizzing by without stopping.

About 2 1/2 years ago, Burg left her publishing job and her husband gave notice at the distribution and warehousing company where he worked. They began digging into the history of places that had, in their day, entertained or accommodated thousands of travelers.

From Osage Beach, Mo., came Aquarama, a popular tourist destination completed in 1931 on the Lake of the Ozarks shore. It offered an unusual combo: dinner and an underwater show. "Beautiful girls that live like fish!" "Daring Aqualads in the monster fight!" In 1965, visitors were treated to "Gypsy Dancers From Hungary," "Bullfight in Spain" and " The Beatles Underwater," giving rise to a question: What exactly inspired "Yellow Submarine"?

On their website (, Burg and Kunkle invite anyone with the inside scoop to share stories about featured attractions. After posting the Aquarama design, featuring a turquoise mermaid, they heard from a woman who had worked there starting at age 15; she became choreographer of the underwater mermaid show and head "Aqua maid."

Burg and Kunkle spend about a month researching each site, tapping historical societies, newspaper archives and residents' memories to develop the back stories that their preservation-minded customers crave. They consult with copyright and trademark attorneys about their graphics, which are based on original advertising.

"Often the materials we use are in a deteriorated state," Burg said. "We call ourselves guerrilla historians."

So far they've added 12 designs a year, for a total of about 28. In their booth at a recent California Preservation Foundation conference in Palm Springs, they introduced two new styles: the 7 Seas, a Polynesian-themed cocktail bar, and Gwinn's Restaurant and Drive-In, a Pasadena landmark from 1949 to 1972 famed for fried chicken and homemade pies.

The midcentury modern design of Gwinn's, by the short-lived firm of Bissner & Zook, garnered praise in a 1948 Architectural Record article: "The horizontal motif of overlapping roof planes, the finely detailed expanse of glass and the restrained but effective 'billboard' all produce in this restaurant an admirably high standard."

Gwinn's was on legendary Route 66, now known as East Colorado Boulevard.

Another Route 66 spot was the B&B Rancho in Rialto, recalled by the community as a place with great food and service.

Other California motifs include the 7 Seas Cocktail Lounge, an early entry in the tiki craze and a hangout for servicemen stationed in Santa Barbara during World War II.

From Indio came Indio Bowl, featuring a Googie-style sign and exterior clad in split rock. It was the place to bowl in the 1960s, 24 hours a day.

Twentynine Palms offered the 29 Palms Roller Rink, built by Bill Underhill, a World War I veteran who had moved to the desert as a homesteader. He and his wife, Prudie, went on to found the town's newspaper and build its first drive-in theater.

Kibby's Drive-In operated in San Mateo from about 1954 to 1971. A volunteer for the San Mateo County History Museum told Burg and Kunkle that the popular spot was "quite similar to what you saw in the movie 'American Graffiti' . . . and the food really was that good."

In San Diego, the Tower Bowl by architect S. Charles Lee (who also designed the Saban Theatre, originally the Fox Wilshire, in Beverly Hills and the Tower Theatre in downtown Los Angeles) featured terrazzo floors, two cocktail lounges, a dance floor, seating for 400 spectators, 28 maple lanes and an 80-foot steel tower with revolving neon-illuminated bowling balls. It was demolished in 1986 to make way for an office tower.

Reviving such stories has been fun for Burg and Kunkle, but they also hope to help save remaining roadside treasures.

They donate a part of each T-shirt sale to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for its programs focused on rescuing roadside architecture and neon signs. And Vintage Roadside customers who have not previously been members of the trust also may receive a free one-year basic membership with their order.

For Burg and Kunkle, road-tripping has become a way of life. "Now that we have Vintage Roadside," Burg said, "we drive everywhere."