Friday, November 21, 2008


Sambo's, Sex, and Me?

My dear wife noted on her blog entry "Doddering Daughter-y"-- which nearly sounds like a Finley Peter Dunne moniker for a Chicago Irish pol in the Gay '90s-- my association of the chain restaurant of the 60s and 70s "Sambo's" with my first awareness of sex. She encouraged me to elaborate, given this prompt. So, here goes.

When I was ten, I got to go around California on a family road trip, my first. Before that, I'd never gotten further than a dimly recalled Indio and an even earlier night in a hotel room in El Cajon, near San Diego, both venues having to do with my parents' attendance at dog shows. And being too cheap for a babysitter?

Loving maps--both the ones I made up and the ones I pored over, I longed to see my native state. I spent many days wondering with my National Geographics and gazeteers (love that word too) piled up around me when I'd ever go farther than a twenty-mile trip to Fedco in either Pasadena or San Bernardino. I jumped up and down when my parents told me the news.

Off we went, the four of us in what could have been the Buick Riviera or the old fake-wooden panelled Ford Country Squire station wagon. North via the Grapevine towards Highway 99 to Visalia to stop, over into Mono County before hooking into Yosemite, along Highway 49 from Mariposa into the Gold Rush Country of the lower Sierras to Placerville. Three Dog Night played incessantly on the top-40 stations my sister and I cajoled our parents into tuning on their AM-only radio.

Back towards 99 into Sacramento and up across the Oregon border into Grants Pass and Rogue River vistas before back into the inspiring redwoods. My chart from Pacific Lumber Co, reviled by Humboldt State U's hippies, showed the comparison of a redwood's life to a timeline back into history-- Columbus, Crusades, Christ. Overnight in Ukiah, then down to my initial glimpse of the Golden Gate bridging the city I never have forgotten, San Francisco.

We stayed at TravelLodges; this cheap motel chain featured the logo of Sleepy Bear, paper covered drinking cups, and a lack of frills each time we spent the night. Yet, with air conditioning, for me it was a treat. I assume we zoomed down the coast, before Silicon Valley erased entirely the fertile Valley of Heart's Delight, into Carmel and Monterey. The latter remains one of my next favorite cities, along with nearby Santa Cruz.

I always thought that this was where the Sambo's I remembered was, and where I figured a Brazilian place on the north side of Ocean St. sits today. But, a check of the list (see note below) of former Sambo's shows none for Santa Cruz. My wife, when I checked now, confirms what I'd evidently forgotten; she recalls Santa Barbara as the sexy franchise. I guess my breakfast there was pretty traumatic.

Well, reconstructing this summer of '71 vacation, I gather we made our way down the coast of Highway 1 to Big Sur, Hearst Castle, and wearily we must have stopped at a Sambo's eventually. Probably the flagship one (details below).

All I can remember, just having turned ten, was going into the bathroom stall and seeing my first drawing of a naked woman. Voluptuous breasts and curves. The caption read "Watermelons."

Tim Putz' Sambo's Vintage Photos documents many of the former locations. Up over 1100 once, now down to the original coffeeshop along the splendid shoreline of Cabrillo Blvd. in Santa Barbara.

The name garnered the chain an unfortunate association by those ignorant of children's stories. In all innocence, so I surmised, this orange-bedecked, neon plastic flourescent vinyl temple to pancake-stacked sticky cuisine was christened and ubiquitously decorated in honor of the Indian tiger who spun his tail into a pool of butter. The rise of Afro-Americanism and nascent PC-cultural awareness fueled a backlash against the place, and this hastened, at least as I always assumed, their precipitous decline in a less innocent 70s. I also remind myself of another lost childhood icon, Bob's Big Boy's mascot, cheerfully chubbily checkered.

But note the corrective explanation from the surviving restaurant's homepage:
"Sam is Sam Battistone and Bo is Newell Bohnett, known affectionately to his friends, family and associates as "Bo". Despite all the other stories - this is really how SAMBO'S got its name. 'The Story of Little Black Sambo' by Helen Bannerman was an afterthought. The SAMBO'S RESTAURANT already was established before the children's story was discovered and used as part of a marketing promotion."

5 comments:

Layne said...

I wonder if this trauma caused your strong aversion to watermelon.

Fionnchú said...

Funny, when I was a child, I could eat it, but when I reached about the age of dawning into manhood, I found it indeed repulsive. Of all people, that you should notice the connection. On the other hand, I used to eat bananas as a baby but retch at their smell; I did learn to eat pizza only as a teenager. You're the food expert! I'm only the hapless guinea pig with the plate placed before me. Not that I'm complaining. Much. xxx me

Bob said...

Revealing narrative. I think there's something about sexual awakenings and the road trip, no?

I remember the original Sambo's on Cabrillo in the 1950's when the kid running from and with the tigers was African, not this south asian pink character today. Then it was "Little Black Sambo" and he was very black, with huge red lips, a "feets don't fail me now" bug-eyed expression, and nappy hair pulled up into a knot secured with a very large white bone. Perhaps the bone presaged your own awakening.

Fionnchú said...

Sex sells, or at least earns me blog comments more than my usual entries on medieval Irish chess or republican dissidents or Chaucerians. This is the only image I can retrieve of a pre-Indian, non-feline, ruby-less Sambo's logo. No wide-eyed melanin-generous natives dashing about, but a clown. Which may be more disturbing. Sambo's 1950s china cup

Bob said...

I think it's the vulnerability of self-revelation as much as sex. But I am probably clueless about what sells.