FORT WAYNE – In 1936, Bob Wian sold his car and used the $350 as a down payment on a 10-stool diner in Glendale, Calif., which he turned into a hamburger joint called Bob’s Pantry.
Shortly, thereafter, the story goes, two things happened.
Members of an orchestra stopped in and asked if Wian could come up with something different from the usual hamburger. What he created was a “double-deck cheeseburger” with two beef patties and a special sauce.
And a chubby 6-year-old boy named Richard Woodruff, a huge fan of the new burger, walked into the place one day, and Wian greeted him with, “Hello, big boy.” Inspiration struck, and thus was born the name of the new hamburger.
The rest, as they say, was history.
Bob’s Pantry became Bob’s Big Boy, and its signature dish became the basis of a franchise with scores of restaurants across the country under different names – Shoney’s, Frisch’s, Azar’s. A plaster statue of the chubby little boy, tray with double-decker held joyfully aloft, has graced the entrance to every one.
Including the Azar’s on Bluffton Road, serving up comfort food since 1964 and one of my indelible memories of Fort Wayne. Whenever I flew back to Fort Wayne, seeing Big Boy on the way from the airport let me know I was back home.
Come to think of it, that location meant every visitor who flew to Fort Wayne and went downtown could take a special memory of the statue away with them. New York might have had its Statue of Liberty, San Francisco its Golden Gate Bridge, Paris its Eiffel Tower, but Fort Wayne had its goofy icon of greasy, gastronomic delight.
Until, alas, last week.
The statue had disappeared periodically for short times – those high school pranks, you know – but this time it left for good. It was taken down and put into a waiting truck and hauled away.
In early April, all restaurants had to close because of the COVID-19 virus. Azar’s was one of the ones that didn’t make it back. Owner George Azar said in an interview something about “the ongoing impact on public psychology.” Some 30 percent of the restaurant’s sales were from breakfast and salad bars, which we are not likely to see again in this lifetime.
Where did the Big Boy go? That’s what people are asking on our neighborhood social media app. Speculation ranges from “into a warehouse” to “on Craig’s List” and “at another restaurant somewhere.”
I had my own notion for a time.
I hoped the city of Fort Wayne had acquired the icon and was holding it in a secure location somewhere, ready for emergency stand-in statue duty.
I think we all know that the days are numbered for the statue of Mad Anthony Wayne in downtown Fort Wayne. There have been plenty of complaints over the years about honoring someone who was, by today’s progressive standards, on the wrong side of history in the country’s war with indigenous populations.
Today, with the campaign against statues having moved from Confederate generals to include any imperfect person from the tainted past – that is to say, everyone – the time is right for those complaints to finally bear fruit.
But they can’t just leave a hole where the statue used to be. And what better replacement memorial for a bloodthirsty military thug than an innocent little boy, holding food up to the sky on a tray, as if to thank the universe for our sustenance. Surely, no one would find controversy there?
But I soon realized that my idea was badly flawed.
I did a little more research and discovered that Richard Woodruff, the inspiration for Big Boy, died in 1986 at the age of 54, from the effects “of a long illness.” His obit didn’t say what the illness was, but he weighed 300 pounds at the time, so we can probably guess. He would likely be objected to as a bad role model not only for judgmental vegetarians but picky health-conscious eaters as well.
So, scratch that, one more indigestible item on our modern menu of unpalatable ideas.
I just had a sudden vision of Mad Anthony and Big Boy together in the park. Mad is astride his prancing horse, sword held to his side, ready to be wielded. Big is holding the hamburger tray up to him, as if imploring. Will the general cleave the burger, so that it might be shared? Or will he smite the chubby boy as a troublesome indigenous icon?
The perfect question for our frazzled times because, frankly, it could go either way.