In the early to mid 1970’s, if you looked in the glove compartment of my grandmother’s car, you would find one of these: an official Howard Johnson’s Road Map. Howard Johnson’s was the “Landmark For Hungry Americans” and my favorite motel chain.
My family traveled several times a year by car from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to Long Island, New York, and back. And always, if my grandmother was in charge of the trip (which was often), we stayed at a Howard Johnson’s and exclusively ate at Howard Johnson’s restaurants while on the road.
Howard Johnson’s was founded in the 1920’s, first as a soda fountain and ice cream counter in Mr. Johnson’s drug store. By the 1960’s, it was the largest restaurant chain in the US with 1,000 restaurants and 500 motor lodges in both the US and Canada.
To me, a Howard Johnson’s hotel felt like I was in Hawaii. That’s what I imagined Hawaii to look like, anyway, and from what I saw on Hawaii Five-O, I was pretty darn close. Or maybe it was an alien-like Tahitian Paradise on Star Trek, with blue and purple ladies with Bee Hives in sexy night gowns wandering about.
Some of the Ho Jo’s, as we affectionately called them, even had legit thatched roofs on the buildings near the pool area. And the farther north you went, they had INDOOR POOLS, with plants and stuff around them. Inside! Did you hear me? A tropical paradise indoors! Ho Jo’s was an exotic and magical place, for sure.
Ah, the colors alone – the signature orange and peacock blue – just called out to me while sitting in the back of a station wagon with my face pressed up against the window. “Come on,” it would whisper, “tell your parents to turn off the highway. There is so much fun going on in here! We’ve a pool and palm trees and colors and beds to jump on.” How could one resist? Ho Jo’s were unmistakeable. You could see those A-frame roofs from a mile away and the peacock blue towers, even farther.
And guys, come on, they had clam strips, fried clam strips, and over twenty flavors of ice cream. And they used the word “Snackatites.” Genius! It had to be Don Draper who wrote that line. “Snackatities!” I can’t stop saying it.
The best thing was the Ho Jo’s at the bottom of the hill where my paternal grandparents lived. And, get ready for this guys, one of my aunts was a waitress there! Oh yes, I was a freaking V.I.P. in that joint. Big stuff, I tell you. She was surely a rockstar to be working at Ho Jo’s, and OMG the uniform, when she put that puppy on, she was a true Johnson girl. I was so envious!
Ho Jo’s was a reliable choice for our parents. It was thought to always be clean, have good food, and was priced well. Quality was consistent, so no matter what location you were at, you could always rely on Ho Jo’s and the kids loved it. How could you go wrong?
Ho Jo’s also had a knack for having two very different atmospheres at once. Somehow, you could go to a Ho Jo’s and sit at the bar in a fancy dress and have cocktails, while at the same time a family is pulling in with their kids ready to hit the pool and have ice cream. The two somehow never mixed while existing in the same lobby or restaurant.
Every time we pulled into the parking lot of Ho Jo’s, I was bursting with excitement. I knew that four very important things were in my immediate future: French fries, ice cream, a pool with a slide, and the perfect beds to jump on.
I have so many great memories of being in the pool, yelling “Mom, Mom, look at this!” with my sister beside me shouting “Mommy, Mommy, watch this!” We had that kind of fun for hours. I am sure my mother looks back on this and thinks: “I didn’t really want to read that book, I wasn’t really that tired from driving for ten long hours. I was just so content to sit on my pool chair and listen to my kids yelling my name instead of relaxing.”
And the bed jumping! Oh, yes. And as we got older, my sister and I worked out that we could do somersaults from one bed to the other through the air. Again, I am sure my mother thinks to herself: “That was so charming. What little dolls they were. I didn’t mind screaming ‘Girls, stop! Someone is going to break her head. Don’t knock over the lamp! Who knocked over the lamp?'” It was hours of fun!
Look at that lush paneling and those light sconces, the gorgeous carpet colors, and the bed spread. Oh, those scratchy thin bed spreads. Who wouldn’t want to rest their weary heads here?
I definitely missed the heyday of Ho Jo’s. By the time that the early 1980’s came around, Ho Jo’s was in a rapid decline. My grandmother still held onto her tradition though, even as my mother balked at staying in the “outdated, crappy motels.” Holiday Inns were in our near future.
So, what killed the Ho Jo’s of my childhood? Well, I’m no hotel tycoon, but I tell ya, it was the damned Holidome. Look at the crap! Who can compete with indoor pools, hot tubs, shuffle board, and mini golf; and what’s worse, you don’t have to walk far to the bar because it’s RIGHT THERE! And the waiters bring you stuff to your pool chair, INSIDE! Even if you ask for five brown cows and your mom doesn’t know you’re ordering them and charging them to the room. Psha, they don’t care. They bring them to you and call you “Miss!”
Sure, sure, my sister and I would scream at the top of our lungs and bounce off the car windows until my mother agreed to choose the Holidome for the night. But that didn’t mean we didn’t love Ho Jo’s anymore. It was just a few times, I swear; we only cheated a few times, and it meant nothing. I mean, it was crazy fun and the brown cows were delicious, like I said, but we didn’t mean to leave you all alone Ho Jo’s; we didn’t mean to leave you with not enough customers for your fried clam strips. Oh my God! Am I responsible for taking down the entire Ho Jo’s empire? If I am, geez, I’m sorry, I was a kid. I had no idea! Kids don’t possess self control.
As awesome as the Holidome was, it still didn’t have that same feeling that you got from Ho Jo’s: the orange roof beckoning from the side of the highway, reminding you of the magic that awaited you. Ho Jo’s reminds me of a gentler time filled with warmth and possibilities, a time when I truly believed I could jump from one balcony to another and actually make it. Good thing I never tried.
So there you have it, my Love Story of Ho Jo’s.
xox – Sailor