Before McDonald’s was the global icon it is today, it was a humble barbecue joint in San Bernardino run by two brothers from New Hampshire. While their first location is no longer standing, it lives on at the First Original McDonald’s Museum, also known as the Unofficial McDonald’s Museum. Here no item is too small, no story too menial. Images and stories of early employees line the wall, cases are filled with food boxes and promo displays through the years and across the globe, there are even items from the film The Founder, donated by the producers, and if you ever wanted to walk down Memory Lane to see every Happy Meal toy you might have owned, it’s all here.
In 1937 two brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald (more fondly known as Dick and Mac) opened their first restaurant, known as the Airdrome, in Monrovia, where they sold hot dogs, coffee, tea, and orange juice. Just a few years later, in 1940, the octagonal, almost carousel like structure was moved to the corner of 14th and E Streets, along a stretch of Route 66 in San Bernardino, and dubbed McDonald’s. The pair expanded their menu becoming a barbecue restaurant, and used carhops to service the hungry customers.
After crunching some numbers, the brothers realized the majority of their sales were from burgers, so in 1948 they closed for three months and revamp their entire kitchen for the optimal layout for an incredibly small menu to feed people quickly. On December 12, 1948 they ditched the carhops and introduced their “Speedee Service System” a streamlined process to get their burgers out fast.
By 1953 the brothers had outgrown their modest “Airdrome” building, and in order to keep up with their growing popularity they demolished it, building a beautiful space-age walk-up with a pair of golden arches flanking the building. The arches were added by brother Dick to architect Stanley Meson’s design. This stunning icon would go on to become the standard for each McDonald’s that would be built until 1969, when the Mansard Roof was introduced, the one kids of the 70s, 80s, and 90s are fond of, and we are now losing. With the new “golden arches” building and their fast-paced service, the brothers began to expand, and franchised with eight more McDonald’s.
The success of the McDonald brothers eventually caught the eye of Multi-Mixer salesman, Ray Kroc, who was in awe of how many Mult-Mixers McDonald’s were using. The brothers were in need of a franchise agent, and Kroc stepped into that role, and opened his very own McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois on April 15, 1955. Despite being the ninth McDonald’s, Kroc insisted on dubbing it “Number One.” In 1984, the same year Kroc passed, the location was demolished, but the following year a replica of the original building was constructed, and became a museum. Flooding issued caused the location to shutter in 2008, yet the structure remained for visitors to peek into, eventually being demolished ten years later in 2018 after continued flooding issues.
Kroc continued to push in on the success of the McDonald brothers, and in 1961 bought the rights, paying $2.7 million. The original location remained close to the brothers’ hearts, and they kept that location for themselves, infuriating Kroc. The loss of the rights included their very own name, and the original location became known as Big M. Kroc took his revenge a step further, and opened a McDonald’s just one block from Big M. Confused patrons ended up taking their business to Kroc’s location, ultimately slowing Big M’s business, and the brothers retired. Their iconic, gleaming double arched building was demolished in 1972 (however a portion of the original sign was saved and is what you see today) replaced in 1980 with a music store. A layer of irony is that Kroc’s “revenge” location was demolished in 2003, and pieces of the tile from that location have found a home at the museum. In the decades that followed Kroc taking over, McDonald’s ballooned into global giant we know today.
By 1992 the property of the original McDonald’s ended up in the hands of the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera, but they also recognized the history of the location, and a plaque was placed at the site. However they soon faced mounting debt and were foreclosed upon. In the meantime, a man by the name of Albert Okura began building his roast chicken empire, Juan Pollo, starting in 1984. The third-generation Japanese-American had long been fascinated with fast-food, especially the McDonald brothers and Kroc. While reading the newspaper one June day, Okura spied an article about the foreclosure and sale of the McDonald’s property and decided to buy it for $135,000. Okura later reflected “I didn’t really know what I would do with the property but I sensed that I would get much free press and the publicity alone would be worth the price.” Newspapers and radio covered the purchase, with one article stating that a McDonald’s museum would open. Initially Okura intended to put his Juan Pollo corporate offices at the location, but then he liked the museum idea and decided upon both. Okura first tried to get help from some local McDonald’s franchisees, but they passed, citing fear from McDonald’s corporate. With no help from anyone actively associated with McDonald’s, Okura set out to do his own research, collecting items and stories. On the 50th anniversary of McDonald’s, December 12, 1998, Okura opened the unofficial McDonald’s Museum. Okura’s passion for Americana does not end with McDonald’s, in fact the man also purchased the entire town of Amboy (home to the iconic Roy’s) also along Route 66.
Today McDonald’s has over 36,000 locations in over 100 countries, and much of that history and diversity is showcased at the Unofficial McDonald’s Museum, and it should be noted the museum is unofficial in every sense of the word. “[McDonald’s Corporate does not] officially recognize us and they haven’t made official contact, but I know they are monitoring us,” Okura said in a Vice interview in 2016. The free to museum is full of donated items, often with the names and pictures of the donors with their items, and they really welcome almost anything! They did tell us they no longer accept Beanie Babies.
I want to take a moment to discuss something about McDonald’s history that the museum did not touch on, and does need to be discussed because of the shirt I wore for our visit. My wearing of the 1997 Bill Elliot Mac Tonight shirt does not mean I support or condone white supremacy, as the icon has recently been seized by white supremacists, and trust me, I’m bummed. I love Mac Tonight. Mac Tonight, the piano playing, sunglasses wearing crescent moon, was designed to attract a late-night dinner crowd and first appeared in 1986. Mac Tonight debuted in a commercial singing a parody of the Bobby Darin tune “Mack the Knife” playing into the 50s revival of the 80s, and was performed by legendary creature actor Doug Jones, of Hocus Pocus, Hellboy, and more. Jones credits the 27 commercials he recorded as launching his career, “That’s when my career took a turn that I was not expecting…the referrals came from there” Jones said in a 2013 interview The character was well received, being turned into Happy Meal toys, animatronic versions were installed at some locations, as well as a meet-and-greet character to further promote McDonald’s. The meet-and-greet versions of Mac Tonight wore heads made by Bob Baker of one of my favorite places in LA, the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Before too long Darin’s son sued McDonald’s for $10 million, citing that the commercials copied his father’s vocal style and gestures. McDonald’s stopped running their Mac Tonight ads amid the legal battle, even though Darin’s son later dropped the lawsuit. McDonald’s revived Mac Tonight a handful of times, in advertising, as well as a paint scheme for NASCAR driver Bill Elliot, in 1997. Elliot had McDonald’s as a sponsor beginning in 1995, and was my favorite driver growing up. Unfortunately in the 2000s images of Mac Tonight were appropriated by white supremacists and integrated into racists memes. It is sad that such a unique character, a stark contrast to McDonald’s vibrant cast of characters, should be usurped in such a way. Seriously, are racists are so pathetic they can’t even come up with their own imagery? Please remember it is no longer enough to simply not be racist, we must actively be anti-racist and speak up. A great way to get started is through Right To Be’s training.
Say “Hello” to the McDonald’s PlayPlace structures of yesteryear and perhaps get a little overwhelmed at the First Original McDonald’s Museum at 1398 N. E Street in San Bernardino. See some items from their collection on their Facebook and Instagram.