Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 18, 2011

Big Donut Update

In March of 2010, I wrote a piece about a distinctive feature of the Los Angeles landscape: a bit of what’s known as “programmatic” architecture. “Programmatic” refers to those restaurants and roadside attractions that use pop-culture elements as “architectonic” attractors to promote the business.  You know the famous ones: the Brown Derby restaurant, shaped like a giant bowler hat; the “Tail o’ the Pup” hot dog stand, shaped like a giant hot dog; those teepee-shaped motels and gift shops along Route 40 through the desert in Arizona. And so on.

Here in Los Angeles, successive waves of immigrants — Armenian, Vietnamese, Pakistani among others — have made their entry into the capitalist dream selling donuts. We have donut shops everywhere. We are replete with donuterias. No matter where you travel across the ten thousand square miles of metro L.A., you are never out of walking range from a donut shop. It’s a long tradition, and back in the heyday of programmatic architecture, this donut thang was iconized by Big Donuts — a chain of donut shops featuring 20-foot tall donuts on the roof. The most famous Big Donut is, beyond any doubt, “Randy’s Donuts,” because not only can you see it as you land at LAX, especially if you are on a Southwest flight coming in on Runway 4, but because it’s right by the San Diego Freeway, making it an easy pickup shot for news crews looking for an iconic Los Angeles scene.

CLICK HERE to read that original blog post about L.A. Big Donuts, with additional photos, because I’m going to reference them as I reveal the original Big Donut: now called Kindle’s. I’ll wait, while you catch up.

To explain how I happened upon this latest episode in my L.A. Donut Story, here are some facts you need to know about the geography of Los Angeles. Downtown LA sits at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. South of downtown is a broad, flat alluvial plain that extends for about 25 miles south, and maybe 40 miles inland from the ocean. That’s the vast expanse of lights you saw all those nights as the backdrop of the The Tonight Show. Draw a line heading due south from downtown: that’s the Harbor Freeway, because it ends at the Port of Los Angeles: the Harbor. Over to the west, closer to the beach, there’s another big freeway, the San Diego Freeway, also running north-south. As you go south from downtown on the Harbor Freeway, the streets crossing on the east-west axis are numbered: 1st (downtown), 2nd, 3rd, etc. This continues to an almost insane degree. I pass 232nd street several miles before I get to my house as I drive south every night.

100th Street is NOT called 100; it’s called Century Boulevard. Got it?

Okay. So on Sunday, the Counselor and I had finished our little 10K run in Chinatown, and were driving south on the Harbor Freeway to visit my brother, who was in town, and staying at a hotel on Century, which crosses the Harbor AND the San Diego, and ends near the beach at LAX. I exited at Century and headed west. I forgot which freeway I was on. I was on Century, sure enough but I was several miles east from where I thought I was. Lack of oxygen reaching the brain after the race, I guess. This was, in fact, a portion of Century I’d never seen in my 17 years in L.A.

BUT, because I’m a lucky guy, and because I always follow the advice Dad gave me when I was just a lad to always carry my digital camera with me, I came upon an iconic scene (click photo to enlarge):

If you did your homework and read that earlier post, you know that THIS is one of the 10 original Big Donut locations. This is, in fact, the Mother Ship: Big Donut #1, the original. Corner of Century and Normandie. Etymologists will note the dot between DO and NUT, though I don’t know what to do with that information.

When I wrote that original post, I tracked through several Web sites looking for background on the Big Donut locations, but it never occurred to me to check Wikipedia, which I now have done. CLICK HERE to read their entry. There, we learn that five of the original 10 locations survive. I’ve now documented 3: Kindle’s, Randy’s, and Donut King II. According to Wikipedia, #1 was built in 1950, so it was almost brand-new when I landed on planet earth, and Randy’s was not yet constructed. In the March article, I also reported on the location of Big Donut #4 in Culver City, thanks to guidance from local native Surf Boy. It’s now Johnnie’s Pastrami: the original building survives, but sans donut (a photo of Donut King II is in that original post). (The Counselor maintains that all Johnnie’s has is the hole, and I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s as funny as I think it is.)

Seven years of university education in researching incredibly recondite things about a variety of arcane knowledge may not be an obvious preparation for driving around one of the world’s largest cities taking pictures of giant donuts, but it’s interesting to me. Obviously, there are trips to Compton and Bellflower in our future, to capture the 2 remaining Big Donuts, before they go the way of the Brown Derby. Maybe we’ll combine our planned trip to see Watts Towers with a visit to the Compton location. And, Bellflower? Obvious! Also the locale of the oldest surviving McDonald’s. THOSE will be orgasmic exercises in urban pop architecture.

Keep those cameras handy!

© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017

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Responses

  1. A modern day
    Edward Ruscha.

    (pronounced Roo-shay)

    My first blog poem. Short and sweet. For the donut.

    Thanks for the history and the pics. Now for my breakfast.

    Like

  2. I vote “very funny” on the concept of only the hole is left at Johnnies.

    Good one Counselor.

    Like

  3. I thought the donut-hole joke very good too.
    I’m going to try this one out on my boy.

    It reminds me of instructions once seen for making a donut — you make the hole first, then surround it with dough.

    Like

  4. Glad to hear you are exploring the wonderful world of the Big Donut Drive-In chain, and kudos for finding that great shot of the Culver City location. I’m responsible for a fair amount of the information on the Wikipedia page, including tracking down all ten locations and their addresses. So I can tell you that you’ve made a little mistake: the Big Donut was located at 4101 Sepulveda, at Washington Blvd; Johnnie’s is at 4017 Sepulveda, up the block a little bit. Sadly, it’s not the same building.

    Oh, and in the first article you say that the donut sculpture is 30 feet tall, and here you say that it’s 20. Oddly enough, both are right! Most of the big donuts are 32 1/5 feet tall, but Bellflower and Reseda have/had a smaller version, not mounted on the roof but on a pole out front. Ron Weintraub, the owner of Randy’s, measured for the authors of a book on roadside architecture. I have not measured the Bellflower donut, but I suspect it’s around 20 feet tall.

    Have fun in your future donut adventures!

    Like

    • Now, now, what’s a few feet among friends? 20′ or 30′ donuts? Hey, there’s more than enoungh there for all of us! Chomp, chomp. Now for my coffee.

      Like


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