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HoJo's Last Night In Times Square
By Walter L. Mann
(New York, NY) It was a sad day in New York. I sat in one of the worn, orange booths inside the time capsule at 46th Street and Broadway. This time capsule, otherwise known as the Times Square Howard Johnson's Restaurant, provided me the opportunity to view the "Disney-fied" Times Square outside, while inside, the world stood still. That little world inside HoJo's really stood still for 46 years, while everything outside changed. While people say that change is for the better, there was one good thing about the lack of change inside HoJo's....familiarity. You've heard the expression, "stop the world, I want to get off," well, many, including myself, believe that's what really happened everytime you stepped into the Times Sqaure HoJo's. Yes, the carpet, booths, tables, walls, counters, were worn, heck, everything was worn. But isn't there something special and comfortable about your favorite worn t-shirt or shoes? Some say the Times Square HoJo's could, and should have lasted forever. Even the original owner, the late Morris Rubenstein, indicated in his will, his wishes for his "pride and joy" of restaurants to stay open forever. Unfortunately, his heirs didn't seem to agree with him. But, let's face it, whether we like it or not, this HoJo's shouldn't have lasted as long as it did. With the "Disney-fying" of Times Square, begun by the Giuliani administration, everything old was obliterated, and nobody thought the last remaining old establishment would have been HoJo's.
It's truly mind-boggling that this HoJo's survived until 2005. But, perhaps there's a reason why this HoJo's endured. Perhaps Morris Rubenstein and HoJo's founder Howard D. Johnson were trying their best from beyond the grave to keep the HoJo flame alive, at the world's most famous intersection. Perhaps they were trying to tell us something that we never seem to fully realize: some things are worth saving. Perhaps the Times Square HoJo's building should have been declared a historical landmark, thus saving it from the destruction that new owner Jeff Sutton is about to begin, when he completely demolishes the building. Landmark status was one of the many things discussed on the fateful evening of July 8, 2005, the night HoJo's bright neon lights forever dimmed on Broadway. Though I had made the journey from Connecticut to Times Square on Thursday night, something inside told me to be there for Friday, it's final night. Perhaps to be part of history, and to share memories and sadness with fellow HoJo lovers. Myself, along with three of my friends, arrived at HoJo's Friday night at about 10PM. Towards 11PM, the place was starting to fill up with some after-show theatre-goers. But, there were also a large amount of people who came to pay their final respects, like the 8 people next to me who met each other 20 years ago at HoJo's, and who met regularly either after a show or before taking in a late-night movie. Or the couple who met in adjoining booths at HoJo's years ago and are now man and wife.
For many of us, it was hard to believe that no one had, or was going to be able to stop this death of a landmark. I myself couldn't believe it was ending, until I looked up and noticed the two missing giant chandaliers that had been there since 1959, and were just there the previous evening. The chandaliers were removed earlier in the day while the restaurant was open, simply by moving the customers away from the booths underneath those chandaliers. Then I noticed the missing lamps above the ice cream counter. It was then that I realized there was no turning back, no chance whatsoever to save this HoJo's. Everyone seemded to have the feeling of helplessness. I later learned that a young man by the name of Sean had purchased 12 booths, some of the stools from the counter, the chandaliers, lamps, and other HoJo's memorabilia. Though those pieces are headed for storage, his long-term goal is to open his own HoJo's, if Cendant Corporation (the owner of the "Howard Johnson's" name) will let him or anyone. If denied by Cendant Corp., then he will eventually open a restaurant in New York City that is similar to HoJo's, but with a different name. As he said, though it's sad to see the furniture and memorabilia being removed, at least he will preserve it, as opposed to it all being deposited in a landfill somewhere, an all-too-common practice that has occurred with many former HoJo's. I was told that the neon signs outside have also been sold.
There was also sadness about the restaurant's employees, some of which have been there 15, 30 and even 40 years. I looked around and thought to myself, what are all these people going to do? Sure, with a million restaurants in New York City, they will eventually find jobs. But what will they do in terms of losing their "family"? That family being their many co-workers. People like Juan, Djamal and others, who due to the fact of working together day in and day out for so many years, became like family to each other. In effect, their family was being broken up. That night, I ordered what was available from their limited menu (they had run out of fried clams, clam chowder, hot dogs, burgers and other foods and many ice cream flavors, including my favorite, butter crunch). I chose a tuna melt and a cup of Texas chili. The food was delicious. My friends and I even shared an appetizer of toasted ravioli, which was great. We took our time thought, waiting 20 or 30 minutes in between ordering drinks, appetizers and entrees. We did this to take our time and enjoy our last visit to this Broadway legend. All around, people were sharing thoughts and memories of this HoJo's, and disbelief of its impending doom.
It was noted that during the past week, the restaurant had some 70 or more menus, and were now down to under 20. Those magical menus just seemed to walk away, hoping to be preserved as memories, rather than ending up in a landfill. We finally ordered dessert near midnight, knowing the end was near for HoJo's. I enjoyed a chocolate chip sundae, while my friends enjoyed a banana spilt and strawberry sundae. As we enjoyed our dessert, the clock struck midnight, and the doors were unceremoniously locked. Niether in the days leading up to the closure, nor the night of, was there ever a sign posted indicating the restaurant's closing. Even the day after, the was no "restaurant closed" sign. I got an eery feeling looking to my left towards the front of the restaurant, as all the booths had emptied out (see pic below), leaving the front of the restaurant effectively empty. Just a dozen or so HoJo lovers remained in the rear of the restaurant, sipping their last drops of coffee, soda or tea. Realizing the time had arrived. The carpenters hired by the man who purchased a great deal of the restaurant's contents, who had been waiting patiently for several hours, started the careful process of removing the booths and stools (see pics below). We all watched as the process of dismantling 46 years of memories began. Nearing 1AM, an hour after the restaurant had closed, the group of 8 mentioned earlier each gave themselves a toast to 20 years of friendship and HoJo memories, and quietly left. People seeking to grab a bite to eat at HoJo's were told by the manager that the restaurant "has closed forever." The handful of remaining HoJo lovers looked in amazement at the work being performed by the carpenters, all of us helpless. As the longtime manager stated, "its like a funeral for a friend."
As we started to leave, a reporter for the New York Daily News, accompanied by a camerman and a production assistant from the NBC-owned Bravo Cable Network (Bravo is doing a documentary on the life of a Daily News reporter) arrived, but were quickly whisked away by the longtime HoJo manager, who claimed they had to leave, and that the owner did not want them there doing a story. After getting thrown out of the restaurant, the reporter interviewed the last few HoJo customers, including myself. CLICK HERE to read the Daily News article. During the interview, the manager ran outside and caught a customer who had grabbed a menu, and retrieved it. Walking away, it was hard to believe the 46 years this HoJo's spent on 46th Street and Broadway was over. It was indeed a sad night. The next morning, I stopped by the former HoJo's and found the front doors open-wait, it couldn't be. Has it re-opened? Did a miracle happen? Unfortunately, when I entered, all I saw was the desecration of a landmark. I noticed all the booths in the middle of the restaurant were gone (see pic below), as was the etched-glass window with the Simple Simon and the Pieman trademark. Also gone were the classic posters from their glass encased home for many years on the ouside of the restaurant. There were workers inside cleaning up, and as I snapped a few pics (see below) I was chased out of the restaurant by a thickly-accented man. Thankfully, I was able to get some pics showing what had become of this landmark HoJo's. Later that night, I was shocked to see the still-blinking "Howard Johnson's" neon sign and the Simple Simon sign still lighting up Broadway. Unfortunately, these neon lights were beckoning people to a place that was dark inside, and no longer existed. Looking back, it was indeed sad to see this Times Square landmark shuttered, destined for demolition. The questions linger...Why couldn't it have been saved? Why couldn't it have been declared a landmark? Doesn't anyone care about a part of Americana? In this case, the almighty dollar has spoken, and the Rubenstein heirs cashed in, ignoring founder Morris Rubenstein's wish of keeping the Times Square HoJo's open forever, I can only think that Morris Rubenstien and Howard D. Johnson must be rolling over in their graves after seeing their Broadway jewel put to death. With the closing of the Times Square HoJo's. There are now only 5 HoJo Restaurants remaining (though Asbury Park, NJ is barely a restaurant and more of a bar). Now the guessing is which one of the 5 will be the last HoJo Restaurant in existence? My bet is Waterbury, CT. In the end, only Cendant Corp. has the power to bring HoJo's back to life or kill it. My bet is they'll kill it. HoJo's was a place that generations grew up on. A place parents borught their kids to, and a place those kids eventually brought their kids to. The real truth now is there is a whole new generation that doesn't even know Howard Johnson's has anything to do with anything other than a place to sleep. Only now, there are two things sleeping at HoJo's: weary travelers looking for a peaceful night's sleep, and the restaurants themselves. Only thing is, the people will wake up the next morning, while the restaurants are being put to sleep-permanently.
A Picture Gallery of Times Square HoJo's Last Night
Photos Taken July 8th, 2005. Photos Copyright 2005. HoJoLand.com / Walter L. Mann
A loyal customer kisses Richard, Times Square HoJo waiter for 27 years, goodbye
Customers enjoy a few last drinks moments
before the closing of the Times Square HoJo's.
Left to right: Juan the waiter, Djamal the night manager, and a HoJo maniac.
The weekend Maitre' D (left) and a customer
reminiscing shortly after the restaurant closed.
All the empty booths immediately after the
restaurant closed permanently.
All of the table condiments gathered up one last time.
Carpenters hired by a purchaser of some of the
contents begin dismantling the booths.
(Friday after closing).
Removal of the first table and booth coatrack.
(Friday after closing).
Carpenters work on removing some of the stools from the HoJo dairy counter. (Friday after closing)
Next Day:The desecration as all of the middle booths have been removed, leaving only the side booths (Saturday morning).
Next Day: The desecration as all of the classic outside advertising posters have been removed. (Saturday morning).
Next Day: Empty showcases abound as the classic outside advertising posters are now missing. (Saturday morning).
Next Day: Dark and empty HoJo's
Next Day: Dark and empty HoJo's
Times Square HoJo's As We Prefer To Remember It
(Above 2 Photos taken Thursday night, July 7, 2005-The Night Before The End)
Times Square HoJo's: Stripped of most of it's interior (looking towards Broadway) where dairy counter used to be. Taken 7/22/05.
Times Square HoJo's: Workers continue on their pre-demolition efforts. Taken 7/22/05.
Times Square HoJo's: Looking towards Broadway, empty and desolate. Taken 7/22/05.
Times Square HoJo's: Looking towards former dairy counter area where mirrors and 28 Flavors Ice Cream Signs used to be displayed. Taken 7/22/05.
Times Square HoJo's: Looking at the dark and somewhat flooded prep kitchen in the basement of the HoJo's Times Square building. Taken 7/22/05.
Times Square HoJo's: Looking at the former restaurant manager's office in the basement of the HoJo's Times Square building. Notice the abandoned safes on the right. The desk used to be in the top left corner of the picture. Taken 7/22/05.
How HoJo's Times Square Looked Inside In August, 2005
Above: what's left of the legendary Times Square HoJo. Notice the giant, window-size "Retail Development Space Available" signs in the windows.
Photo Courtesy: Bernard Ente
Articles Prior To Times Square HoJo's Closing
(New York, NY) Story by: Tom Miles/Edited by: Walter Mann
(Note: Tom Miles, a "Generation X'er" at 29, and his 21 year old girlfriend, Kristina Kucker recently visited the Times Square HoJo's. Miles, a Brooklyn native, says his "golden era" of enjoying HoJo's regularly with the family was the early 80s into the mid 90s.)
This is Tom Miles from Brooklyn, NY and I am very grateful I came across your site. I thought you might be interested to hear about the visit my girlfriend and I paid to the Times Square Howard Johnson's this past Saturday (the 23rd), 2005. We had just been there a week before (before news of the building sale completion) after I stumbled across your web page and became nostalgic, but this first visit knowing for certain the place's days were numbered was a distinctly different experience for me. I was only born in 75, thus the chain had already seen its best days, but I have many wonderful memories of dining at various HoJo's with my parents and grandmother. My girlfriend, a few years younger than I, had never even heard of Howard Johnson's, let alone visited one. We arrived at roughly 10PM and the place was perhaps 1/4 full. My girlfriend attempted for the second time to order the coconut chicken fingers on the menu, but was again told they didn't have any (Do they ever? Same goes for the ice cream cake roll). I scanned the menu thoroughly for the meatloaf I so used to enjoy at many other locations, but alas, not to be. (I had a very good burger with fries and cole slaw the previous week). So we both went for the chicken finger platter. We decided to share a "California," thanks in no small part to the mocking of this drink in the Times article (It was in fact quite good). At about the time the waiter (friendly enough guy, seemed a bit slow and lacking in hygeine) brought the cole slaw to start, I had noticed something heartwarming happening. There was a steady stream of diners coming in, some couples, some large parties, as large as 8 - many
appeared to be old timers, as well as many young people who had evidently not been there before, as they were asking where the bar was. By 10:40 or so, every table in the place was occupied, children were scurrying through the aisles, and the dairy counter and bar were teeming with people. As the classic rock played, many generations dined, locals and tourists alike, and there was a lot of nostalgia and inquiries about the place closing. The waiter and the guy manning the register (perhaps the manager?) said they had had many false alarms in the past, but this time they were going away for real, in a month and a half or so. There was a feeling of melancholy, but even more so a feeling that we were all sharing a piece of history. A couple asked a waiter to take a picture of them and he happily complied. I wished I had a camera to capture the moment - this night, HoJo's was the place to be, elitist detractors be damned. The chicken fingers were truly delicious - the two of us are chicken finger fanatics, and we agreed we had never tasted better. Say what you want - I readily admit the place is worn down, and the cleanliness leaves a lot to be desired (the bathrooms are particularly egregious) - I've had delicious food every visit there. For dessert, the girlfriend and I shared a couple of scoops of classic ice cream (black raspberry and vanilla chip - they were out of butter crunch). We are frequent visitors of the storied "Cones" of Bleecker Street, largely considered to serve up the best ice cream in the city, but this was just as good. We wondered if there'd be any way to get our hands on HoJo ice cream once this place was gone, and lamented that there doesn't seem to be even a token attempt to ensure this franchise lives on in any capacity at all. We'd certainly frequent an ice cream shop or food court hole-in-the-wall. I'm not certain if we'll be back to visit before the place closes (the prices are rather prohibitive for us, unfortunately - perhaps one more time during a happy hour) but I'm grateful for the memories, and I have a new appreciation for the storied history of the Times Square location. Even my girlfriend, with a grand total of two HoJo experiences, is lamenting the demise of this great place. I hope I haven't talked your ear off, just thought you might want to hear this little anecdote from a "generation x-er" who has still experienced enough of Howard Johnson's to appreciate its greatness and despair at its vanishing from existence. It even occured to me that perhaps you might gauge interest from your readers in this area for some sort of a protest to the Times Square closing. Doubtful it could ever have any impact, but at the least it would be a nice sendoff if any size gathering could show that someone still cares.
(Editors Note: Perhaps a classification to "Historical Status" could save the building!)
A tradition in New York's Times Square Ended. Copyright 2001 Geralyn Shukwit. Used with permission.
Amid all the big business that's grown around it, HoJo's kept brightening Times Square Until 2005.
Simple Simon and The Pieman
HoJo's...set in stone!.
The HoJo's Times Square Ice Cream Counter recently still served 13 flavors of original Howard Johnson's Ice Cream!
HoJo's Times Square Dining Room
The Howard Johnson's Restaurant in Times Square was well-regarded for it's cocktails!
Timeless In Times Square
Review by Steve Cuozzo, Dec. 23, 1998
1551 Broadway (at 46th St.), (212) 354-1445
Rating: 2 Stars
THE cheerful waiter at Howard Johnson's in Times Square wants it known his job has a larger purpose. "I'm networking," he explains of the career quest that has brought him to the Crossroads of the World. Networking at HoJo's? Masquerading as an outpost of Middle America, this place has seen New York seep into its every crack, making it as much a part of the scene as the pretzel guys outside. But for how much longer? Watch those wonderful, winking blue-and-orange neon lights. The three-story building is dwarfed by towering Bertelsmann, Morgan Stanley, MTV, and jumbo hotels. Boris Yeltsin's long-term prospects look solid compared to HoJo's, caught in the development boom cross hairs. HoJo's predates not only the New Times Square but the bad old one as well, standing as a link to the family-friendly midway of generations past. Opened in the mid-'50s, it looks much the way an earlier restaurant on the site did in 1943. It has seen the area's long decline, its degeneration into a porno pit and crime capital and its Spectacolor-lit rebirth. Somehow, HoJo's has come through, a phenomenon for which preservation law affords no protection: the emotional landmark. Stand across the bow-tie intersection this holiday season and look back on the New Year's Eves of generations past. To anyone with a memory, Little HoJo's is the center of gravity around which the whole pulsating canyon swirls. Pop in and watch the world come to town. At all hours, this weird orange and brown room is busy welcoming arrivals from parts unknown. The family of six in the next booth, giddy over their first taste of the metropolis, are clueless to a fault as to local geography. "For SoHo we go downtown," Mother drawls. Four elderly ladies in hats ask if it's "possible to order a drink at this time." Adventuresome locals head for the funky bar at the rear, where $2.50 happy hour "cocktails" can put you out like a light. How to explain the staying power of an establishment whose blackboard touts Salisbury steak as its "manager's special"? Ask the manager. "Quality food at reasonable prices. And we are nostalgic-looking," offers this friendly man who asks to be identified only as Joseph. There's no questioning his dedication. But what other story does HoJo's Times Square tell? I never loved HoJo's as a kid. The fabled clam strips I found tough as rubber, and I once walked out of a Boston HoJo that inexplicably could not serve me a vanilla ice cream soda. I lunched recently at 46th Street with a pregnant friend. Pickles and ice cream is the blandest combo you can get from the eight-page menu, which lurches merrily from French onion soup to Greek salad to Mexican spuds to "Wisconsin" pizza. Pigging out on open-face tuna melt, deep-fried cod and orange sherbet freeze, we joked that the fatty feast might induce early labor. name restaurateur like Shelley Fireman, the wizard behind grand cafes like Red Eye Grill, or the Santo family, who run the delightful Contrapunto and Yellowfingers. Ridiculous, of course - some things are meant to be what they are, and HoJo's something-for-everyone menu is one. But why care at all? Why did Hootie and the Blowfish choose HoJo's for a bash a few months ago? What is it that draws locals who regard happy hour at the bar as a secret find? Mere nostalgia doesn't explain the fun. Restaurant designers can learn a lot from HoJo's Times Square. No David Rockwell or Adam Tihany has touched the place, but it possesses a site-specific power that laughs off its tackiness. Yes, it is ugly - how could orange and brown and fake-wood veneer not be? But the room is so warm, it practically hugs you. The subdued lighting - nothing like the harsh fluorescence of fast-food dives - is flattering in an eerie way. And there is the comfy sweet-shop seating we all remember from childhood - booths sized to fit two, four or even six in comfort. "Everybody wants a booth," Joseph observes. Big windows gape right onto the colorful chaos of the sidewalk, providing a round-the-clock show. Unlike ubiquitous floor-to-ceiling panes, HoJo's start at a sufficient height to establish a barrier between ourselves indoors and the world outside. We peer out on tour buses, "Beauty and the Beast," the Tribes of Israel lunatics: rollicking Times Square compacted into a tableside view. The exterior glow - sun by day, neon at night - deepens the contrast between inside calm and outside disorder. And the tension between the two gives the place its special edge. Howard Johnson's might beat the odds. The family that owns the franchise also owns the building, and by some accounts intends to let HoJo's be HoJo's. The real estate buzz is that they've turned down offers. Pray they hang in there past the millennium. I asked Joseph what he has in mind for Dec. 31, 1999. "We haven't planned anything yet, but we are planning to," he says. Imagine: Hucksters are selling space on manhole covers for the celebration, yet HoJo's is so laid-back, they haven't even thought about it. As long as those orange and blue lights blink on, at HoJo's, every night is New Year's Eve.