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Redux: An L.A. Architecture Tour

ALEX COHEN, host:

Back now with Day to Day. Here on the program, we've been bringing you stories from our past. Today we are one about Architect Wayne McAllister. He may not be a household name but without him, we wouldn't have many of Southern California's famous drinking and dining destinations. In the summer of 2007, I did a story about McAllister and discovered he was a high-school dropout who landed his first architectural gig when he was just a teen. The story begins with McAllister himself talking about the speed with which he once built Bungalow Homes.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. WAYNE MCALLISTER (Architect): We worked so hard and fast on those things so we could put out a set of plans in a day. So, I had houses that (laughing) were built over in San Diego with my one-day plan.

COHEN: That's from an oral history recorded when Wayne McAllister was nearly 90 years old. He recalls his first big break designing a hotel spa and casino known as Agua Caliente that spans 655 acres just across the Mexican border in Tijuana. When Agua Caliente opened in 1928, it looked like an elegant cross between a Moorish castle and a Spanish mission. Hollywood stars like Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable came to drink and gamble there legally during prohibition.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: The hotel even became the inspiration for a Busby Berkeley film called "In Caliente."

(Soundbite of movie "In Caliente")

Unidentified Man #1: I'm now beginning to remember where I started to forget.

Unidentified Man #2: Good.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) frisky…

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: And I had a drink…

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: And I passed out…

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: You shanghai'd me

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: And this...

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Dah dee dah...

Unidentified Man #1: Mexico. ..TEXT: COHEN: Wayne McAllister built on his success in Mexico and designed night clubs, resorts and hotels in Southern California. His specialty was the much classier predecessor of today's fast-food drive-thrus, the circular drive-in restaurant, including the chain Bob's Big Boy.

Unidentified Speaker: (Announcing) Party of five for Sarah. Sarah party of five. Go, Sarah, party of five.

COHEN: I met Chris Nichols, author of the book "The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister," in front of the Bob's Big Boy in Burbank.

Mr. CHRIS NICHOLS (Author, "The Leisure Architecture of Wayne McAllister"): It's been written that Bob's is a concrete crescent that swallows up its stretch of Riverside Drive. It's angular, modern, post (unintelligible) coffee shop being towered over by this massive, massive neon sign that's like 40-something feet tall. It's set at this curve in the streets. You could see it from blocks and blocks and blocks away.

COHEN: There's also a boomerang-shaped steel awning that once gave shelter to carhop girls who served diners behind their steering wheels. The sharp, angular lines defining the restaurant's exterior contrast with the smooth, curved countertops inside. Of course, when most people think of great architecture, the words "coffee shop" don't come to mind, but Chris Nichols says, it's no small feat to create a place where people who want to spend their time and their money.

Mr. NICHOLS: There's a huge amount of effort that goes into making these things seem easy and comfortable. And, you know, you don't know why they're comfortable, you don't know why you like them, but it's because somebody sat over a drafting board and worked it out.

COHEN: Wayne McAllister's other specialty was creating places with a sense of fantasy, like the Smoke House Restaurant. Just across the street from Warner Brothers Studios, it's long been a hangout for Hollywood wheelers and dealers. The Smoke House even looks like a movie set for a film that takes place centuries ago in the European countryside.

Mr. MCALLISTER: That's kind of a country house, its Tudor, it's English. It's on the L.A. River, it has pine trees and lots of brick and stone. And it's a place of respite for Warner Brothers people.

COHEN: And you know who that is walking in right now. Do you see?

Mr. MCALLISTER: No. Who's that?

COHEN: Redhead, Partridge family, fill it in for me.

Mr. MCALLISTER: (Laughing) Who? Bonaduce?

COHEN: Yeah.

Mr. MCALLISTER: (Laughing) Oh, go say hello.

COHEN: Hollywood's still hanging out here.

Mr. MCALLISTER: Oh, yeah, definitely.

COHEN: Yep, child star-turned radio host Danny Bonaduce is a regular at the Smoke House, and so is this guy.

Mr. GARY OWENS (American Disc Jockey; Voice Actor): Hello, Gary Owens reminding you and only you that my hair is on fire.

COHEN: Gary Owens has worked a lot of gigs in Hollywood including a regular stint on a 1960s TV comedy.

Unidentified Man: And now, from beautiful downtown Burbank, the fun capital of the Sin Fernando Valley, it's time for "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In."

COHEN: Owens told me that the idea for his announcer shtick was born at the Smoke House in a most unlikely spot.

(Soundbite of interview)

COHEN: So here we are in the men's room of the Smoke House Restaurant.

Mr. OWENS: Yes, that's right.

COHEN: Tell us what happened here?

Mr. OWENS: Well, what happened, George Schlatter and I came at this very sink to wash our hands.

COHEN: George Schlatter was…

Mr. OWENS: George Schlatter was the producer…

COHEN: The producer of "Laugh-In."

Mr. OWENS: Of "Laugh In." We've been reading jokes, so we have purple typewriter ribbon on our hands. We went to washing our hands here. And I put my hand over my ear like the announcers of the '40s and '50s. And I said, my, the acoustics are good in here. And George said, Oh, my God, that's great. You've got to do that every week.

COHEN: So if it weren't - if it weren't for Wayne McAllister…

Mr. OWENS: If it wasn't for this restroom…

COHEN: And his design of this men's room and the acoustics, who knows where you would have gone?

Mr. OWENS: Thank you, Mr. McAllister.

COHEN: Among Wayne McAllister's other achievements, the El Rancho Vegas Hotel, the very first resort built on what would later become the Las Vegas Strip. Once again, McAllister used a giant beacon to lure in customers - this time, a pink and white neon trimmed windmill perched on the resort's roof. Writer Chris Nichols.

Mr. NICHOLS: The El Rancho Vegas would've been the first thing you saw driving into Las Vegas. You would see a pool by the side of the road, you'd see a windmill. I mean, it really must have been like a mirage seeing this crazy thing when you first enter the desert.

COHEN: McAllister went on to design Vegas' Desert Inn and the Sands Hotel, a regular hangout for the rat pack and a locale featured in the original "Ocean's Eleven."

(Soundbite of movie "Ocean's Eleven")

Unidentified man: This is our objective - Las Vegas, Nevada. Now, these are the five casinos we hit: Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, The Sands and The Flamingo.

COHEN: In Vegas, Wayne McAllister also designed the high rise Fremont Hotel where Wayne Newton got his start. Keep in mind, he built all of these places even though his entire architectural education was just a few years of high school drafting classes. Chris Nichols says McAllister benefited from working in an era that was a lot less stringent when it came to things like permits and building codes.

Mr. NICHOLS: The drive-in plans were outrageously simple, and it's crazy that they let people build things, you know, for like, anything goes, you know. Now, there's 42 layers on top of 42 layers, and it can take years and years to build something. And I think that maybe you squashed some of the joy of spontaneity of building something as simple as a little drive-in.

COHEN: In 1961, Wayne McAllister retired from architecture. He passed away in 2000. And an update to this story, Chris Nichols, who wrote that book about him, got married shortly after we reported this story. His wedding was held in McAllister's Mexican resort, Agua Caliente.

COHEN: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.