Inside an old restaurant you can hear the sound of kids hunkered down at the counter, plotting a revolution. It’s a long shot for sure, but maybe they will pull it off. Maybe they will save us all.
This is a story about Johnie’s Coffee Shop, about the slowness of the natural world - the concept of deep time, and about the activists who now gather in this old abandoned Googie style restaurant.
Full script below:
DAVID: The first thing you see when you walk through the front door of the building is a giant black coffin standing upright. The restaurant closed decades ago, and the general vibe of the place is post-apocalyptic. The windows and walls are covered with posters and signs, the remains of protests and street marches. It feels like some sort of revolution happened, but it didn’t go well, and everyone fled leaving everything behind — the 1950s cash register and milkshake machine still sitting there gathering dust on the counter. When you turn and look out the giant plate glass windows, you see the building across the street. With it’s waves of red and silver metal, it feels like it is from a different century... which it is. Across from that is an even more futuristic looking structure that resembles a smaller, more fuel-efficient version of the Death Star from Star Wars if it had landed at one of LA's busiest intersections. Standing there inside this post-apocalyptic coffee shop, and staring out at these space age buildings, you think about the concept of deep time.
In “Uninhabitable Earth”, a book about the parade of horrors that we will experience as a result of global warming, the author David Wallace-Wells talks about the idea of deep time. The way that naturalists and geologists think about the epic slowness of the natural world. He writes, “what lies in store for us is more like what Aboriginal Australians, talking with Victorian anthropologists, called “dreamtime” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience of encountering, in the present moment an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage a feeling of history happening all at once.”
[AMBIENT SOUND: Teens in a cafe]
DAVID: That’s what it feels like at this strange Los Angeles intersection; inside this old restaurant where you hear the sound of kids hunkered down at the counter, plotting a revolution. It’s a long shot for sure, but maybe they will pull it off. Maybe they will save us all.
From KCRW this is Welcome to LA, episode 11: Deep Time — The Strange Life of an LA Googie
When the restaurant opened in 1955, it was called Romeo’s Times Square, but then it was changed to Johnie’s Coffee Shop. It was a great location right on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax — one of LA’s busiest intersections. With its giant glittering sign made of hundreds of light bulbs, you could see Romeo’s from blocks away, which was the whole point of the building — it was a Googie.
HESS: Googie architecture is part of the upwelling of good modern design after World War II. But specifically it was modern design for the average person — for coffee shops, or gas stations, for car washes. It was picking up on the optimism, and the faith in the future, and the modern technology that was just being developed then.
DAVID: Alan Hess is an architect and the author of 20 books about modern architecture, including one about Googies. One of the defining characteristics about Googie architecture is that it’s commercial in more than one sense of the word. Googies were often designed to be both the business, and the billboard advertising the business. They were purposefully designed to be big and bright and dramatic so they would be seen from a car cruising through the city.
HESS: It was meant to attract your attention, it was meant to advertise itself, it’s often good light, but also to create an environment that was appealing — that connected indoors and outdoors, and so forth
DAVID: Even if you’ve never heard of Googie architecture you are familiar with the golden arches of McDonald’s, which came with the design of the first McDonalds.
HESS: It, of course, has these big sheet metal golden arches, two of them, rising above this little one storey building the arches. It was a piece of Googie architecture.
DAVID: That McDonalds, one of the first, is still standing in Downey California, which was one of the epicenters of the new and amazing future that was being invented and built in Southern California in the 1950s.
HESS: It's hard for us to kind of put ourselves in that mindset, but technology at that time was a good thing. The darker sides of technology had not yet really come to light. But at that time, nuclear energy was going to promise cheap energy for everyone. We were also at the same time getting dishwashers, garbage disposals, toasters, and appliances of everyday life which were part of this modern era making life easier.
DAVID: And it was so much more than toasters and garbage disposals being built in this laboratory of the future. Airplanes and rockets were designed and built at places like Lockheed Martin, Douglas Aircraft, and Northrop Grumman, all located in Southern California.
When I first saw a collection of photos of Googie buildings with their cartoonish elements and bright colors, they made me think of The Jetsons.
HESS: In fact the animators at Hanna-Barbera who did "The Jetsons" were inspired by what they were already seeing on the streets of Los Angeles. Things like the theme building at LAX.
DAVID: The thing about Googies is that that futuristic element is often mashed together with the prehistoric, like two buildings that crashed into each other while traveling through time. You can see it in some of the interior walls of Johnie's Coffee Shop. They are made from stone embedded in concrete.
HESS: Googie architecture was a place where George Jetson and Fred Flinsotne could sit down for a cup of coffee. It was the best of all possible worlds. It combined both that sense of the future and amazing cantilevers in swooping forms of modern engineering, but also with a sense of earthiness, and stone, and natural materials, which its roots go back to Frank Lloyd Wright.
DAVID: The architect who designed the very first Googie was John Lautner. Lautner was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright and spent six years living at Taliesin, Wright’s architecture fellowship. Lautner was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles of organic architecture, especially the idea that we should take our inspiration from nature, which feels at odds with the blind devotion to technology that characterised 1950s futurism.
And yet, these two ideas merged together at a time when Americans felt they had achieved dominion over nature — that we could bend it to our will. We could sit in a cool air conditioned vinyl booth sipping hot coffee, and gazing out the giant plate glass window with its view of a scorching desert. We could be both a part of, and separate from nature simply through the magic of human ingenuity and good design.
Googie architecture gets its name from a single coffee shop that was designed by the iconic Southern California architect John Lautner. That coffee shop was called Googies. Today Lautner is revered for his Atomic Age houses, like the Chemosphere and the Garcia house both of which look stylistically like other Googie buildings. As popular as Googie buildings were with the customers who went inside them, the architectural critics in Lautner’s time did not appreciate them.
HESS: There was a bias, this was at a time when the architecture profession was primarily white and well to do, and clients were well to do, and there was a certain standard of respectability in architecture profession... and anything that had to do with commerce commercialism, selling things, billboards, advertising selling products, was considered not terribly respectable for a real architect.
DAVID: It’s pretty crazy to have an entire style of architecture named after a single building you designed, but Lautner was not particularly happy about it. He felt that his association with Googie hurt his career more than it helped.
And much of what critics said about Lautner and Googie architecture was similar to the things LA detractors say about this place: that it's all glitz and no substance. It’s a sprawling undisciplined city of strip malls and billboards, flashy and loud. It's the consequence of a city built around the automobile. But that’s also the story of America: a nation of over 4 million miles of roads. In many ways we are living in the future that was dreamed up in the 1950s.
Back then you could take a short drive from your fantastic job at the rocket factory to the McDonald's down the street for a cheap hamburger, and on Sunday you could even worship the lord in your car at the Crystal Cathedral — a drive-in church in Orange county that was one of the first megachurches. The pastor Robert Schuller got his start standing on the roof of a concession stand at a drive-in movie theater shouting the gospel at people in their cars. As his fortune grew, he asked architect Philip Johnson to design a spectacular church that according to Johnson was both a building and not a building. Johnson designed the sanctuary so that while standing at the elevated pulpit, Schuller could turn to a wall that slid away revealing a vast parking lot below, where hundreds of worshippers sat in their cars receiving the word of God through tinny speakers. The motto was — come as you are in the family car. And even if you couldn't make the drive down to Orange County you could just beam the gospel directly into your TV in the Hour of Power, one of the first Televangelist programs.
[CLIP: Hour of Power]
“Welcome to an Hour of Power. Each week at this time, we join Robert Schuller in an hour of inspiration….”
DAVID: This future was now, and it was glorious. Never mind the redlining that kept people of color out of middle class suburbs; just ignore that toxic smog building up on the horizon. No need to worry about hot summer days that seem to be getting hotter every year. Life is grand, God is great... We are making rockets to the moon, people!
And even if you don’t have one of those fancy rocket jobs, you can still experience this exciting future simply by visiting a Googie Coffee shop. Come on down to Johnie's and step inside a building that is made from the same material as those very rockets. Pull up a seat at the counter and you will see that everything is amazing... until that moment when your food arrives, and you take a bite and realize that your hamburger tastes like shit.
GOLD: We always said it's OK for breakfast.
DAVID: I’ve never heard anyone rave about the food there.
GOLD: I know people who said some really bad things, but there are some people when I said: I didn’t really like it that much — they became offended. So obviously they couldn't have stayed in business if they had no fans.
DAVID: This is Howard Gold. He grew up a few blocks away from Johnie's Coffee Shop. Howard is the son of Dave Gold, the founder of the 99 Cents Only Store. Today you see them everywhere in LA The ones with the 1980s color scheme — magenta blue and green signs. Long before Dollar Trees and Family Dollars became staples of the American landscape there was the 99 Cents Only Store which was founded in 1982 by Dave Gold. In an interview with the LA Times he talked about the moment inspiration struck him while working at his dad's liquor store in Grand Central Market. He said quote: “Whenever I’d put wine or cheese on sale for $1.02 or 98 cents, it never sold. When I put a 99 cent sign on anything, it was gone in no time. I realized it was a magic number. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to have a store where everything was good quality, and everything was 99 cents?”
If you shopped at Dave Gold’s stores, there’s a good chance you’d run into him shambling around the parking lot dressed in wrinkled ill fitting pants, and a 99 cents store polo shirt. He’d probably be picking up trash, his hair long and wild. You would never have expected that he was methodically building a billion dollar empire that would become a whole new genre of American capitalism. Anyway, the reason I bring this all up is because Dave Gold bought Johnie’s Coffee Shop. And after he died, his son Howard and his siblings took over the property, and it went through this wild transformation. Jonnie’s closed, and the building sat empty for 20 years.. And then it became a home for progressive activists and revolutionaries.
And in the midst of this transformation, Howard changed the name from Johnie’s to Bernie’s, as in Bernie Sanders.
On a sunny weekday morning Howard invited me over to his house to talk about the strange origin story of Bernie’s Coffee shop. He lives in a grand house in Studio City, a neighborhood of hillside forests and multi-million dollar homes hidden behind high walls and gates. After pressing the call button on an electric keypad, Howard’s gate opened slowly, revealing a steep driveway under a canopy of trees.
GOLD: Actually when you rang my bell I was in the shower. That’s why I’m dressed in shorts here and a t-shirt instead of a tuxedo, which I plan to wear to properly address the media.
DAVID: Howard and his siblings worked alongside their dad as he transformed his 99 Cents Store into an empire of over 300 stores that would eventually sell for over a billion dollars. No job was too small. They cleaned toilets and stocked shelves, and along the way the family purchased several properties in the city.
GOLD: I guess because we were there, we lived in the area when certain things became available in the market — we maybe knew about it first, and Johnie's restaurant was put up for sale -- not the restaurant itself but the property. The people that operated Johnie's still had a lease. I think the lease ran out and they didn't renew it, and that was sort of the end... and it's been kind of vacant ever since.
But with a building like Johnie's with an untouched vintage interior, it’s not long before film location scouts come knocking.
GOLD: People came by and asked — hey this is cool we'd love to film here? We sort of figured it out pretty quickly that we could post the sign with the phone number — anybody interested in filming, just call this number.
DAVID: A lot of movies and TV shows have been shot inside Jonnies, including Miracle Mile, and Gone in 60 Seconds. The building's life as a filming location might have gone on indefinitely — Howard and his family didn’t really give much thought to doing anything else with the property. But then one day Howard was sitting at his computer.
GOLD: I noticed somebody on Twitter who said — hey, boycott CNN protests going on right now. And I'd never been a huge fan of CNN, and I decided to go down and see what's going on. And there is a huge protest... there's a couple of thousand people there protesting CNN.
DAVID: As Howard stood there among the haters of CNN he noticed some Bernie Sanders supporters. This was around the time of the 2016 campaign. One of them was holding up a sign that derisively referred to CNN as the Clinton News Network, and at that moment Howard got an idea.
I knew that George Clooney was going to have an event for Hillary Clinton in a couple weeks at his house, and he lives up the street. And I know that they can't get to his house without passing my house. And I was just sort of thinking — hey you know maybe we can do a little protest as the motorcade goes by my house.
DAVID: Howard wanted more than just a protest, he wanted to come up with something fun that would get media attention.
GOLD: And I was driving my car near Mulholland and I heard the song. It was actually Rosemary Clooney’s version of “We're in the Money”
DAVID: For all you Hollywood trivia buffs playing along at home, Rosemary was George Clooney’s aunt.
[SONG PLAYS: “We’re in the Money”]
GOLD: It was playing on the radio, and somehow the idea just popped… of playing that song and throwing money at the caravan as it went by.
DAVID: On the way to the $33,000 a plate fundraising dinner at George Clooney’s, Clinton’s motorcade passed by the protesters who were holding signs that said Feel the Bern and Goldman Sachs Loves Hillary. As the song “We’re in the Money” blasted from a speaker.
“Bernie Sanders’ supporters shower Hillary Clinton in cold hard cash…”
“Over the weekend his supporters mocked Clinton by tossing wads of dollar bills at her motorcade…”
DAVID: After the motorcade passed, Howard invited everyone up to his house for a pool party, and he got to know a lot of the Bernie Sanders supporters. And one day Howard was having a conversation with his brother who said to him — you know we’ve got the Johnie's Coffee Shop property just sitting there empty... Maybe the Bernie people would want to use it?
GOLD: So I told them about it, and I didn't hear anything for like a month or two, and then somebody finally called me back... And I guess the rest is history.
DAVID: Since then the people who use the restaurant as a gathering place has expanded beyond just Bernie Sanders supporters. It includes groups like Extinction Rebellion, Me Too International, Black Lives Matter, Humanity First, and at least a dozen others
I asked Howard what his parents would think of what became of Johnie's property. He said his mom was all for it. She voted for Bernie, even did some phone banking from Bernie’s, but his father passed away before the transition.
GOLD: I think they would be ok with it. I think they would like the fact that it's being used for something that... more than just making money.
DAVID: Howard says his parents tried to instill in him and his siblings a sense of social justice.
GOLD: As a kid I was always politically active, not on my own — my parents dragged me to anti Vietnam War protests and I got involved in little things here and there. I worked for César Chávez in high school a little bit.
DAVID: Though Howard and his parents were politically active in their personal lives, he says he feels guilty that the company he and his family ran didn’t pay the bulk of its employees a living wage.
GOLD: Embarrassingly, I wish it would have been a better deal, although we did a lot of things that maybe in our mind cleared our conscience. When we became a public company we gave every single full-time employee stock options, and we had a pretty high percentage of full time employees. But you know in all honesty, I don't think the average worker did particularly well.
DAVID: Howard does not consider himself a socialist. He’s pro-capitalism, but he says capitalism has run amuck in America, and it needs to be reigned in. He voted for Bernie Sanders because he sees him as the most honest candidate.
[AMBIENT SOUND: Bernie’s Coffee Shop]
One Saturday afternoon at Bernie’s Coffee Shop, a bunch of kids were gathered there. They ranged in age from 11 to 16. They were brainstorming slogans to write on their posters, and listening to music on a bluetooth speaker. I asked some of the kids what they thought about the building. A 17 year-old named Z thought about it for a bit.
Z: The first time I came in here it had obviously been closed for a long time and I thought — this is kind of old and a little bit, you know, dumpy. But you come in, and then instead of the architecture being magical and blowing you away, it’s that whatever you are there for… the strength of the movement that blows you away. It makes everything else in the space worth it.
DAVID: About a dozen kids and a few parents were spread out around the restaurant. Some of them sat in the old orange and cream colored vinyl booths, others on the stools at the counter. They were making posters for an upcoming protest — a youth climate strike. Thousands of kids from all over the country were planning to skip school to raise awareness of climate change.
[CLIP: “The Big Lebowski” toe scene]
“I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don't wanna know about it, believe me.”
“Yeah, but Walter…”
In the exact spot where John Goodman delivered that famous rant in The Big Lebowski which was filmed here.
[CLIP: “The Big Lebowski” toe scene]
“.....a series of victimless crimes”
“What about the toe?!”
“Forget about the f***ing toe!”
DAVID: 13 year old Ethan Martinez was sitting at the counter tearing green fabric into strips.
[SOUND: ripping fabric]
ETHAN: I’m Ethan Martinez, I’m a youth climate striker from South Pasadena, I’m with my little sister...
SISTER: And I’m the sister!
DAVID: He was gonna use the fabric to make armbands, which he was hoping to give to his classmates. He was trying to convince as many of them as possible to join him on the march to City Hall, and he had all his arguments ready.
ETHAN: Scientists have shown that climate change can cause our generation’s future to be terrible — not something to look forward to... like it’s something that we really have to worry about, and the people in our government right now aren’t doing anything to fix it. So the reason why we are protesting is to get their attention so then they’ll do something to fix our future.
DAVID: A little further down the counter, three more activists were working on posters. They’d been talking to each other online for a while but this was the first time they had met in person.
ACTIVIST: At first I thought I was kind of alone because I was looking at all these climate strikes in Europe, and I was thinking — why aren’t people doing this here?
DAVID: It was moving to see this Googie being used as a community space where a group of teenagers were working so passionately for a cause they believe in. I also couldn't help but feel sad with that overwhelming sense of doom that creeps up whenever I think about climate change, and about these kids, marching into battle with their paper swords.
ACTIVIST: It’s really important when people come together for a similar cause, and it’s important to hear other people’s thoughts about stuff like this because if you don't open yourself up to other ideas, and other ways of living, then you’re never gonna go forward. It's our future at risk, not the old white men in government right now. But it’s gonna be our future... like the middle schoolers, the high schoolers and the young college students right now. Because we’re the ones that are going to have to fix the problem that could have been fixed a long time ago... so we need to fight now while we still can.
DAVID: At one point I glanced over at the boulders embedded into the wall of Bernies, and wondered how old they were — thousands, millions of years maybe. I looked out the big plate glass windows and stared at the Peterson Car Museum across the street, and my mind wandered. Thinking about how I was standing inside a building dreamed up by 1950’s futurists — a building owned by the inheritors of a 99 Cent Store empire, currently occupied by teenagers who are trying to save the planet from the mess that was created by cars, and cheap plastic like you find at a 99 Cents Store. And I felt like all of history had converged at this coffee shop where a shell shocked war veteran once offered to get his friend a toe... and I think this must be what it feels like to experience deep time.
As I stood there, lost in thought, a man and two women in their early 20s walked into the coffee shop with a look of confusion. One of the women had an expensive looking camera around her neck, and asked if they could do a photo shoot inside the diner. Jeremy, the guy in charge of the place said sure, so they made their way to one of the booths. The woman, in a short red leather skirt, chunky high heeled boots, and a tube top nestled herself between the legs of the guy and they posed seductively under a watercolor painting of Bernie Sanders and a Black Lives Matter poster.
Meanwhile an old man wandered in and asked if they were open. Jeremy politely explained that it wasn’t a restaurant anymore. Then the man asked if he could take a seat at the counter and Jeremy said sure, and the two of them sat there talking politics for an hour.
The kids barely seemed to notice the visitors. They were focused, hunched over their posters, paintbrushes in hand, laughing and talking excitedly about their plans to save the world.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed the design of the Crystal Cathedral to John Lautner. It was designed by Philip Johnson.