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Book review: “Father of Route 66: The Story of Cy Avery” October 28, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Highways, History, People.
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Some may assume Cyrus Avery became known as “The Father of Route 66″ simply because he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time when the highway became designated and federally certified in 1926.

But as Susan Croce Kelly’s well-researched new biography shows, Avery’s involvement in Route 66’s birth and its rise to worldwide fame was anything but an accident. The book — the first solely devoted to him — lays out convincingly how Avery’s talent, his background, his drive and his confidence all were crucial to the Mother Road eventually becoming a legend.

One section of “Father of Route 66″ (288 pages, hardback, University of Oklahoma Press, e-book available) signals Avery’s crucial role to the road. Shortly after the founding of the U.S. 66 Highway Association — for which Avery became vice president and, later, president — Avery started calling the highway the “Main Street of America.” Advocates for U.S. 40 and the Roosevelt-Midland Trail also used the nickname, and the Lincoln Highway probably had it, too. But because of Avery’s persistence, the “Main Street of America” tag stuck to 66.

Outside of Tulsa, Cyrus Avery probably would have been little more than a footnote in history books if Route 66 hadn’t started its revival during the early 1990s. By that time, Avery had died almost 30 years before, and he said his proudest accomplishment was not Route 66, but shepherding the building of a 50-mile pipeline from the Spavinaw Creek to give Tulsa a much more reliable water supply. And despite Avery’s growing posthumous stature — including an elaborate statue on Route 66 in his honor — even the biggest Route 66 experts were unsure where Avery was buried until I tracked it down a few years ago.

Croce Kelly was an ideal author to tackle a book on Avery’s life, as she and photographer Quinta Scott published the essential “Route 66: The Highway and Its People” in 1990. Still, she had a challenge: By the time she announced the project, Avery had been dead for a half-century. Save for grandchildren and a few other folks, barely any people remembered Avery when he was alive.

Fortunately, the Oklahoma State University-Tulsa owned a substantial archive of Avery’s papers, and the man himself was so much in the public eye that plenty of material was found in the Tulsa World and other newspaper databases. Croce Kelly unearthed a lot of verified material about Avery and weaved it into the smooth and easy-reading narrative in “Father of Route 66.” In the occasions Croce Kelly speculates about what happened during a point Avery’s history, at least it’s well-informed speculation.

Avery was born in Stevensville, Pennsylvania, but in his early teens moved 1,200 miles to northeast Oklahoma in a covered wagon when his father sought new opportunities after a deep recession in 1873. (Croce Kelly argues convincingly that Avery’s arduous journey helped convince him early about the importance of good roads.) The family settled in a dilapidated former homestead of Confederate Army general and Cherokee Indian Stand Watie.

Avery earned a bachelor’s degree at a teachers college but soon found himself adept in buying and selling real estate in Oklahoma — especially in the Tulsa area. His real-estate business put him in touch with many influential people in the state and gave him a sense of what the region needed to thrive.

One of Avery’s gifts was his ability to relate to anyone. It was said he could converse just as amiably with an oil tycoon as with a blue-collar worker or a small child.

He also proved to be an engaging public speaker. The Commercial Club — a forerunner to the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce — quickly grasped his speechmaking skills and made Avery its primary public face. Avery also owned a farm on the edge of town where he often invited out-of-town guests for a meal and a few whiskeys to sell an idea or talk over how to improve Tulsa.

One of those passions on how to improve the city was to shore up its chronically muddy highways and streets. He proved to be an ideal advocate in the better-roads movement that was burgeoning nationwide. He brought the first split-log drags to Oklahoma in 1907 and paid several Tulsa County farmers $1 a mile to grade the roads after each rain. He directed the planting of sweet clover near the roads to better hold together the soil and reduce erosion; that clover still can be seen growing near Tulsa County’s rural roads.

During the early teens, he became a booster of the Ozark Trail — a predecessor of U.S. 66. Avery successfully lobbied in 1916 for a bond issue to build the 11th Street Bridge over the Arkansas River. The bridge later carried Route 66 and stands today. He advocated for the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. Through it all, it seemed he attended dozens — perhaps hundreds — of meetings over the decades on how to improve roads in the nation and his adopted home base of Tulsa County.

During the 1920s, Avery overhauled the Oklahoma State Highway Department by eschewing cronyism and hiring qualified employees to improve roads. (He later was fired, but Avery had the last laugh when that governor was impeached and removed from office for incompetence.)

The irony about his “Father of Route 66″ tag was that infighting between states in early 1926 nearly sunk the landmark agreement that produced numbered federal highways. Kentucky officials quarreled over the placement of U.S. 60, which Avery wanted for his Chicago-to-Los Angeles highway. Aware a landmark roads agreement was in peril, Avery compromised and accepted U.S. 66 for his road instead. Avery might have made that decision pragmatically for the greater good, but one also suspects he saw the marketing potential for “66” was well.

Avery’s involvement in improving Tulsa wasn’t limited to roads. In addition to that water line, he shepherded the development of Tulsa International Airport and the enormous Mohawk Park. He served as president of the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce for a time. Although he nearly was financially ruined by the Great Depression, he remained active in local boosterism well into his late 80s.

And Avery seemed like a genuinely good guy. He ran Red Cross relief efforts for thousands of homeless Greenwood residents after the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Avery also repeatedly was on the right side of history in clashes with the Ku Klux Klan, which ran much of the state at the time. Despite being offered a proposal from the Oklahoma Legislature that would have improved roads, he turned it down because the same bill would have prohibited black people from voting. Avery occasionally was accused of corruption, but those allegations never were credible. The only obvious direct benefit from his better-roads efforts was his building a gas station, motel and the Old English Inn cafe on a busy Admiral Place street in Tulsa, which later became Route 66.

Thanks to popular culture — Bobby Troup’s perennially covered “Route 66,” the “Route 66″ television drama and now Disney-Pixar’s “Cars” movie — and Route 66’s own colorful history, the Main Street of America has arguably become the world’s most famous highway. And, as “Father of Route 66″ shows, that highway was very fortunate to have Cyrus Avery as its early champion to lay the foundation of its rise.

Highly recommended.

Former owner of Club Cafe dies October 24, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, People, Restaurants.
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Ron Chavez, 78, a former owner of the long-closed Club Cafe in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, who later became noted as a writer and poet, died Oct. 15 in Albuquerque, reported the Taos News.

His daughter, Sonia Valdez, told the newspaper he died of complications from diabetes and a stroke. The family declined to give details about his services or burial.

The newspaper provided some background on Chavez’s early days:

Chávez was born June 18, 1936 in the valley of Puerto de Luna on the banks of the Pecos River near Santa Rosa in southern New Mexico.

“When I was 6 years old I traveled Route 66 to California straight out of my village of Puerto de Luna in 1942 when my father went to work in the shipyards building warships. There, I befriended the owner of the corner grocery store who charmed me with his stories of how he had fought with (Emiliano) Zapata in Mexico. I am captivated with Zapata to this day,” Chávez said in an article published in Tempo (September 2013).

In Santa Rosa he was the owner of the famous Route 66 Club Café. During that time, Chávez and his café enjoyed fame in major media, which included books, television, magazines and newspapers, according to an online bio. He was known as the “Route 66 Storyteller.”

Chavez owned the Club Cafe for nearly 20 years after he saved it from closing during the 1970s, according to an archived article in the Chicago Tribune. Club Cafe was known since 1935 for its sourdough biscuits, New Mexican cuisine and its trademark “smiling Fat Man” logo on signs and billboards.

The restaurant closed in 1992, with Chavez mostly blaming it on the opening of a McDonald’s up the road. After fitful and unsuccessful attempts to reopen the eatery, the remnants of Club Cafe and its signs were slated to be demolished this year.

Chavez eventually found himself reciting and writing poetry in Taos in both English and Spanish. Many of his stories and poems were collected in two books — “Winds of Wildfire” and “Time of Triumph” (my review of the latter here) — and were published in numerous magazines.

Here’s a video from 2011 of his poem-recital style:

Chavez said he often was inspired by delving into New Mexico’s centuries-old cultures of its Native American and Hispanic residents.

(Image of Ron Chavez in 2007 by santiagosintaos via Flickr)

Route 66 coloring book published September 15, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Attractions, Books.
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“Route 66 Coloring Book” cover

The “Route 66 Coloring Book,” in conjunction with American Road magazine, was published a few weeks ago by creator Rich Newman, writers Dave and Laura Newman, and illustrator Abby Smith on the Coloring Books USA imprint.

Here’s a description of the book:

Route 66 is one of the country’s most traveled routes stretching from Illinois to California. Hundreds upon hundreds of wonderful and exciting things to see along the way. Teepees, museums, modernized old fashion motels and gas stations, and natural beauty unmatched anywhere in the world.

Our two characters take you on a personal tour from round barns to robot dinosaurs and so much more.

The 44-page book costs $4.95 and can be ordered directly from the website. If you fret over the lack of a gateway to get youngsters interested in Route 66, this book might serve as one solution.

Here are a couple of sample pages depicting Henry’s Rabbit Ranch in Staunton, Illinois, and the Blue Whale of Catoosa, Oklahoma:

A preview of more pages is here.

Another “Route 66 Coloring Book” was published in 2009 by Carole Marsh. That one is 24 pages, and, at last check, Amazon has just two left in stock.

(Page samples courtesy of Rich Newman)

Class of 2014 for Oklahoma Route 66 Hall of Fame announced September 13, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Events, Museums, People, Route 66 Associations.
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Author Marian Clark of Tulsa and the late J.M. Davis of Claremore will be inducted Oct. 18 into the Oklahoma Route 66 Hall of Fame at the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, according to a release from the Oklahoma Route 66 Association.

The ceremony is slated for 2 p.m. and will be free to the public. A plaque for each winner will be placed on the Wall of Honor at the museum. An association panel selects two winners — one living and one dead — from a list of nominations every two years.

Marian Clark

Clark is most famous for writing cookbooks, using recipes from Route 66 restaurants or facsimiles of dishes from long-gone eateries, including “The Route 66 Cookbook” and “Hogs on 66.”

Clark is a native of the Texas Panhandle but has lived in Tulsa for more than 30 years. She resides a few blocks from the Mother Road, which kindled her interest in the highway.

Davis managed the Mason Hotel in Claremore, but became famous internationally for his enormous gun and arms collection and the museum that eventually was built to house it, the J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum that opened on Route 66 in Claremore in 1969. Davis died in 1973 and was buried on the museum grounds.

The ceremony next month also will mark the 25th anniversary of the nonprofit Oklahoma Route 66 Association, which aims to “promote, enhance, perpetuate, encourage the development of tourism, economic opportunities, and historic resources and landmarks along Oklahoma’s section of Route 66.”

Book review: “The 66 Kid” September 8, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, History, Magazines, People.
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“The 66 Kid” is not your typical memoir. Then again, Bob Boze Bell isn’t a typical fellow.

Nearly all memoirs consist of a few hundred typewritten pages with a few dozen black-and-white photos crammed into the center.

But Boze, best-known as owner of True West magazine and as a western-themed artist, treats his early life story as a series of colorfully illustrated vignettes that don’t last more than a page or two.

As a result, “The 66 Kid” (192 pages, hardback, Voyageur Press) becomes a breezy, vivid and entertaining set of reminisces of growing up during an earlier era, mostly in the desert Southwest town of Kingman, Arizona.

Bell said he became motivated to tell his life story after suffering a near-fatal heart attack during a 2006 reunion of his high school rock ‘n’ roll band, The Exits. After his brush with death, one would expect Bell would get his early memories down on paper as quickly and have the memoir in bookstores within a year or two.

But Bell took his time, mostly because he apparently had a lot of painting to do. “The 66 Kid” is filled with dozens of Bell’s vivid artwork. If the pages don’t contain a painting, he uses old photographs or memorabilia from his collection. Voyageur Press books tend to be heavily illustrated (such as Jim Hinckley’s Route 66 books), so Bell’s more-artistic approach probably wasn’t a big stretch for the publisher. Still, “The 66 Kid” is unique for a memoir.

Bell also sprinkles helpful “History Detours” and “Legends of the Road” side stories throughout the volume, including “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66″ songwriter Bobby Troup, “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac and Life magazine photographer Andreas Feininger and his now-famous image of Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona.

Bell was the only child of an Arizona rancher’s daughter and a farm boy from Iowa. As a result, Bell and his family “ping-ponged” between the Midwest and Southwest to visit relatives or when his dad took on a new venture, mostly in gas stations. But Kingman exerts an inexorable pull at the Bell family — it was where the couple first met when his dad was stationed during World War II at Kingman Air Field, and they settled there for good when his dad became a mechanic and bought his first home.

“The 66 Kid” provides a snapshot of what Kingman was like from 1955 to 1965 — basically during the pre-Interstate 40 era. A detailed map lists the dozens of businesses along Route 66 then, many which now are gone. He also provides many stories from that time, including drag racer Billy Logas, “King of the Kingman Quartermile” and when a Hollywood film, “Edge of Eternity,” was shot there and at nearby Oatman Road, aka Route 66.

And Bell offers memories about the family’s regular road trips on the Mother Road to Iowa and back — including breakfast at the Copper Cart in Seligman, stops at the Longhorn Ranch Saloon and Museum, and an indelible memory of a ranch house in twilight in Del Norte, Colorado. Some of Bell’s recollections are candid, including his mother’s bigotry to blacks or Hispanics.

Bell probably gained his fascination of the Old West through osmosis. In addition to growing up in the middle of cowboy country, he discovered he was related to outlaws Blackjack Ketchum, John Wesley Hardin and Tap Duncan. He found out from his grandmother that Wyatt Earp, as she put it, “was the biggest jerk who ever walked the West.”

A seemingly minor but key moment in Bell’s life was when he bought a purported photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett at the Longhorn Ranch. Not long after that, Bell found out through a True West magazine report that the image was a fake. That became the spark eventually leading to Bell’s ownership of the magazine in 1999.

Very little of “The 66 Kid” delves into Bell’s adult career as an art director, cartoonist, radio broadcaster and True West owner. But it proves how the first 18 or so years of a person’s life can leave an indelible impact on the remaining 50 or 60.

“The 66 Kid” is highly recommended. In particular, baby boomers and natives of the Southwest likely will find it enjoyable.

Filmmaker is shooting documentary about “The Grapes of Wrath” May 21, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, History, Movies.
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Filmmaker P.J. Palmer of (twenty)2 films is making a documentary movie about John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” novel after acquiring official rights from the Steinbeck estate, according to a news release.

The new documentary “The Grapes of Wrath: We Shall Overcome” began filming in New York City last month interviewing James Franco, who is currently on Broadway in a re-launch of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice & Men.” Production on the documentary continues in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Washington D.C. [...]

“The Grapes of Wrath: We Shall Overcome” is being produced through Palmer’s company, (twenty)2 films in partnership with the non-profit The National Steinbeck Center (NSC). [...]

The film explores the legacy and meanings of John Steinbeck’s American realist novel “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) while also revealing the struggles of dispossessed families in the U.S. today. The release of “The Grapes of Wrath” shook America to its core with its unflinching depictions of poverty, homelessness, starvation and misery within the U.S. and its exploration of the imbalance of power between the wealthy and the poor. This film examines the impact of the novel since its publication 75 years ago and utilizes its influence to shed light on the current state of similar social issues in America today.

Palmer was enlisted by the Steinbeck Center last fall to shoot several short films about the book and the Joad family’s journey on Route 66 in advance of the book’s 75th anniversary this year. Palmer, once he got on the road, probably found a lot of rich material and decided he could produce a full-length film.

One interesting tidbit from the news release: Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks studios are developing a new film version of “The Grapes of Wrath.” I’m sure those who adore John Ford’s version from 1940 would recoil at the news, but I strongly suspect Spielberg would tackle the grittier aspects of the novel that were sanitized or omitted for pre-World War II film audiences.

One should remember that a film being “in development” means it could be years before it makes it to the silver screen — if it makes it at all. So any excitement about Spielberg making a new “The Grapes of Wrath” movie should be tempered until the project is approved and a release date is scheduled.

(Image from “The Grapes of Wrath” film by drmvm1 via Flickr)

Book review: “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath” May 15, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Movies.
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I have bad news and good news about Susan Shillinglaw’s “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath,” a behind-the-scenes look on the writing and marketing of John Steinbeck’s classic and controversial novel that marks its 75th anniversary this year.

The bad news is Shillinglaw’s book (paperback, 206 pages, Penguin) delves very little into the Joad family’s journey on Route 66 (“the road of flight”) or any of Steinbeck’s research about the Mother Road — despite a sizable chunk of the novel taking place there.

The good news is Shillinglaw — a San Jose State University professor and scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center — dug up enough interesting material about Steinbeck’s seminal work that even those casually acquainted with the novel probably will want to read “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath.”

A few may find it curious for someone to write a book about a book. But “The Grapes of Wrath” not only is one of the most acclaimed American novels (it pretty much hand-delivered the Nobel Prize to Steinbeck) but remains one of the most successful (it was an immediate best-seller and has sold well over 100,000 copies a year since the 1980s). The film version, directed by John Ford, remains one of the praised movies of all time.

And “The Grapes of Wrath,” along with the “Route 66″ television drama of the 1960s and Bobby Troup’s endlessly covered song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” cemented the highway into popular culture.

Roadies may find it interesting to learn why Steinbeck made the curious decision to shift the Joads’ home base from Shawnee (just east of Oklahoma City) to the far east Oklahoma town of Sallisaw, where the Dust Bowl didn’t occur. Apparently Steinbeck liked the similar etymology of Sallisaw and his hometown of Salinas, California (both starting with “Sal,” meaning salt). And Sallisaw was associated with Pretty Boy Floyd, a modern-day Robin Hood who robbed banks and gave money to impoverished residents — no doubt appealing to Steinbeck’s sensibilities.

One wonders why Shillinglaw didn’t embark on her own Route 66 trip and follow in the Joads’ path. But she lets it slip she had only two months to write the book, so she probably didn’t have time for a cross-country journey, even if she wanted one.

Despite the abbreviated time to compose the book, Shillinglaw compiled these fascinating tidbits about “The Grapes of Wrath”:

— Although Steinbeck didn’t grow up poor, he worked a series of blue-collar jobs — dredging, sugar plant worker, ranching and highway builder — before he became a full-time writer. This background undoubtedly helped give him empathy for the Joads and other Okies made desperate by the Great Depression.

— Steinbeck’s agent tried to make him tone down the book’s salty language by the Okies and California workers. “I’m writing the speech as I know it with my ear,” he explained. Steinbeck mostly complied, but drew the line when publishers wanted him to excise the word “shitheels.”

— Steinbeck, in a fit of anger, wrote a short and biting satirical piece about Salinas, “L’Affair Lettuceburg.” But his wife hated it, and unfortunately the manuscript was destroyed. But the writing exercise cooled much of Steinbeck’s white-hot fury and turned “The Grapes of Wrath” into a better book.

— At one point during the late 1930s, Steinbeck planned a collaboration with Great Depression photographer Dorothea Lange, most famous for  her “Migrant Mother” image. That seemed like an artistic match made in heaven, but it never materialized.

— Shillinglaw briefly details the book-burnings and other outrage from some quarters after “The Grapes of Wrath’s” publication, including Oklahoma congressman Lyle Boren calling the work “a lie, a black infernal creation of a twisted, dishonest mind.” (His son, future U.S. senator David Boren, quietly but firmly disagreed.) Also, the book inspired two now-forgotten rebuttals — the novel “Grapes of Gladness” and the film “Plums of Plenty.”

— The book includes folk musician Woody Guthrie’s typically memorable take on “The Grapes of Wrath” film. It needs to be read in full to be appreciated, but it’s clear he was a fan.

— A special two-volume edition of “The Grapes  of Wrath” in 1940 included dozens of illustrations by famed artist Thomas Hart Benton. (If you find it at a garage sale, pick it up — it’s probably worth at least $1,000.) That was one of several fancy special editions of the book, many shepherded by Pat Covici. And for the 75th anniversary, Penguin continues the tradition by offering a $250 special edition of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

— Steinbeck fought with editors who wanted him to change the book’s ending. Shillinglaw’s book includes correspondence from one dismayed member of Viking’s editorial team.  This was one battle with the marketers where Steinbeck did not back down.

Readers might find parts of Shillinglaw’s book — such as Steinbeck’s influential friendship with marine biologist Edward Rickets and a dissection of the novel’s “five layers” — a tough slog. But the chapters are short, and Shillinglaw moves quickly to more interesting subjects, such as how the title of Steinbeck’s book was chosen (it originally was “The Oklahomans”).

Penguin Books should feel fortunate it found an author who possessed so much knowledge and access to Steinbeck’s work, or else “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath” might have been more slipshod. But with the missed opportunity of the Route 66 angle and Shillinglaw’s lack of time to work on this volume, one has to wonder what she would have accomplished if she received the assignment a couple of years in advance of “The Grapes of Wrath” anniversary.

Better yet, go straight to the source. Viking Books has published a special 75th-anniversary hardback edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” that features the original first-edition cover illustration by Elmer Hader and original 1939 reviews on one of the end papers. And if you’ve got a lot of money burning in your pocket, Viking just published a pricier version in a leather case, a gilded top and ribbon.

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