March 27th, 2006



The Howard Johnson's restaurant chain is all but dead in 2006. This once-proud restaurant chain was known as "the Landmark for Hungry Americans" among other clever monikers. The chain prospered along with Eisenhower's post-WWII Interstate Highway System, grabbing lucrative toll road concessions and strategically placing franchises at the bottom of exit ramps country-wide. At its height, the HoJo Empire boasted over 1,000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges, all roadside orange and aqua from coast to coast. But empires don't last, do they, Hadrian? Of course not.

Time, gas shortages, corporate sales and mergers, and changing cultural attitudes towards faster forms of roadside food took its toll on the erstwhile chain. Marriott bought the company in the 1980s, but was only interested in the motor lodge portion, parcelling the restaurants and ice cream shops out. Over the course of the 80s and 90s these familiar landmarks closed up, got renovated, torn down, what have you, in the name of progress or somesuch. The last Howard Johnson's in Massachusetts (its home state) closed in 2002; the landmark Times Square location closed over the summer of 2005. Now there are but five independently-owned franchises in existence: One in Connecticut, one in Maine, one in New Jersey, and two in upstate New York.

So much for HoJo's. What I wanted to talk about, however, was this: Do you know who was inadvertently responsible for the restaurant's rise to greatness in the first place? Eugene O'Neill.

The Patriot Ledger writes an interesting tale of how, when O'Neill's "Strange Interlude" was predictably Banned in Boston in 1929, the city of Quincy stepped forward and put the touring company up in downtown's Quincy Theatre (chosen for its proximity to the Old Colony train line.) The show was a hit, and played for a month, bringing with it scads of Boston brahmin. The nine-act show had a long intermission, and nearby restaurants did brisk business serving the intermission crowds. One of these restaurants was Howard Johnson's place, and he did so well during the show's run that it helped give him the financial boost he needed to start franchising (which was itself a strikingly new concept at the time) and that franchising kept him afloat during the Depression.

So an O'Neill production started Howard Johnson off, and a Presidental highway system brought him to greatness. Not bad for a legacy of fried clams.